The Alluring Problem

No one who has followed D. J. Enright’s impressive but somewhat atypical career will expect from his book The Alluring Problem: An Essay on Irony a definitive taxonomy of ironic types or a systematic inquiry into the history of irony through the ages. Enright has once again distinguished himself from his scholarly colleagues by eschewing pseudoscientific methodology, focusing rather on the practical sort of criticism for which he has become well-known: a criticism designed almost as much to delight the reader as to inform.

The Alluring Problem is not only an essay in the common understanding of the word (that is, a small work of prose on a particular topic, with an analytic or interpretive goal) but also an essay in the older and narrower sense of the word (that is, an effort to perform or accomplish something that is both difficult and uncertain). The Alluring Problem is an effort, first of all, to remain unfettered by fashionable, and usually overly simplistic, literary theories. It is additionally an attempt to avoid the creation of preconceived categorical systems, which are frequently satisfying in their illusion of comprehensiveness but which inevitably suffer rather pathetically when measured against the individual examples of irony which they are presuming to illuminate. Finally, it is a tentative beginning step toward a rich, abundant, and necessarily complex understanding of irony as it actually occurs in literature and life.

Many fellow theorists of irony are gently chided by Enright for being pedantic, humorless, and, most unforgivably, unintelligible. For example, Lilian Furst’s Fictions of Romantic Irony (1984) is rather ruthlessly, and humorously, quoted as a salient example of the impenetrable prose produced by many literary critics. Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony (1841) also receives special attention for its obscurity and ambiguity, even though it is later credited for recognizing Socrates as one of the first great practitioners of irony. Is it not essentially ironical, Kierkegaard wonders, for Socrates to wander about the town asking provocative questions, appearing to look for answers, while all the time teaching in the guise of trying to learn? Is it not ironical, the reader wonders, for Enright to state quite clearly, in the face of so many critical failures, that he is not even going to attempt to give the reader a formal definition of irony, while at the same time he succeeds in giving a much enhanced, though informal, understanding of it?

Enright’s method is one of indirection. He supplies the reader with literally hundreds of examples of irony from a broad range of sources: from Socrates to Umberto Eco, from Great Britain to China, from world literature to his own personal and often-idiosyncratic experience. Inductively, the reader begins to formulate a very specific idea of what irony is, and also what it is not.

In some ways, The Alluring Problem is a retrospective of Enright’s entire literary career with irony as a focal issue. For example, Enright’s early poetry and his four “travel” novels written between 1955 and 1965 were rarely reviewed without specific mention of their intelligence, irony, and wit. It may, in fact, be his special insight as a creative writer with a decidedly ironical tone that has made him so wary of oversimplifying the subject of irony in his role as a critic.

Echoes of Enright’s unpretentious book Shakespeare and the Students (1970), which gives neophyte readers help with some of Shakespeare’s lesser plays as well as with the critical and popular favorites, are clear in the chapter entitled “Shakespearian.” Enright returns again to Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594-1595), Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1601), Julius Caesar (1599), Macbeth (1606), and The Winter’s Tale (1610), this time seeking out and displaying numerous...

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Library Journal. CXII, March 1, 1987, p. 76.

The Literary Review. February, 1987, p. 41.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 17, 1986, p. 1151.