Karel Čapek

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What is the irony in Karel Čapek's "The Fortune Teller"?

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The irony in "The Fortune Teller" by Karel Čapek is the plot twist at the end. A perfect example of situational irony, the story’s conclusion is the opposite of what the characters (and reader) expect will happen. A fortune teller’s prediction for a young woman is supposedly debunked when the fortune teller is exposed as a con artist. Much to everyone’s surprise, however, the prediction unexpectedly and ultimately comes true.

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The ending of “The Fortune Teller” is a fine example of situational irony—when an event occurs that is opposite of what is expected to happen. Suspicious about the comings and goings at Miss Edith Myers’ home, Inspector McCleary assumes that she is the madam of a brothel or even worse, a German spy. He tells his wife that he wants to “find out what’s going on.” So Mrs. McCleary visits Miss Myers to investigate.

Pretending to be a nervous, single lady younger than her true age, Mrs. McCleary asks Miss Myers to predict her future. After shuffling and cutting a deck of cards, Miss Myers reads them and tells Mrs. McCleary,

Within a year you’ll be married to a fabulously wealthy young man, a millionaire, a businessman—because he travels a lot—but before that you’ll have to overcome difficult obstacles: an elderly gentleman will try to prevent your marriage. So you’ll have to be obstinate. And after you’ve got married you’ll move far away from here, overseas most likely.

After Mrs. McCleary returns home, she reveals this prophecy to Inspector McCleary. He scoffs at its impossibility; after all, Mrs. McCleary is already married to him. He suspects that Miss Myers is posing as a fortune teller for nefarious purposes:

Her name isn’t Myers: it’s Meierhof and she’s from Lübeck. A damn German! … What shall we do about her? I don’t doubt for a moment she’s getting stuff out of people that’s none of her business … I know! I’ll report her to the high-ups.

Summoned before a judge, Miss Myers is forced to admit that she is not a genuine medium. When the judge accuses her of taking money for fake readings and asks her why she pretends to be a fortune teller, she confesses,

People don’t complain … The thing is, I tell them things they like to hear. And the pleasure they get from that is surely worth a few shillings. And sometimes I even get it right.

The judge shows Miss Myers how ridiculous her prediction about Mrs. McCleary is. Mrs. McCleary asks Miss Myers why she spoke about an elderly gentleman and journey abroad. Miss Myers confesses that she added those details simply to justify charging her fee:

For something more to say … For a guinea you have to say more than just a couple of things.

Since Mrs. Myers is exposed as a fake, everything that she predicts is supposedly false. All of the characters do not expect Mrs. McCleary to marry a rich man and move far away, yet that is exactly what happens.

At the end of the story a year later, Inspector McCleary sheepishly tells the judge that he and Mrs. McCleary divorced:

A young dandy took a shine to her. Some sort of millionaire businessman from Melbourne … Of course, I tried to talk sense into her, but … They left for Australia last week.

So everything that Mrs. Myers predicted does indeed come true. The former Mrs. McCleary leaves Inspector McCleary to marry a wealthy young man. She moves abroad far away. And the elderly man who is the obstacle is Inspector McCleary himself.

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