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The use of Irony in Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge

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How important is the use of irony in Thomas Hardy's poetry and in his
novel The Mayor of Casterbridge?

Hardy's use of irony is clear throughout his work; The Mayor of
Casterbridge1 (referred to from this point on as Casterbridge) clearly
features many ironic twists in the plot, both obvious ones such as
Henchard discovering Elizabeth-Jane's true parentage at such an
inappropriate time, and more subtle uses of irony as when Mrs.
Goodenough only betrays Henchard's past because Susan and
Elizabeth-Jane remind her of it. Irony is also a clear feature in
Hardy's poetry, especially prominent in the poem Hap2, where Hardy
speaks of a 'vengeful god', laughing at him. Hap and Casterbridge were
written twenty years apart demonstrating how irony was a constant
feature of Hardy's work and not used in a brief experimental phase.
Key to the debate on ironies importance in Hardy's work is to ask
whether it is a motivational force behind his writing or is it used
more as a tool for expressing Hardy's views on fate and mankind?

It must be noted though that the use of irony in Hardy's work is often
most prominent when representing his views on the cruelty of fate, and
also for highlighting flaws in his characters' personalities. Trevor
Johnson has described Hardy as believing "Life… was a walk on a
razor-edge, love and happiness were accordingly infinitely precarious
yet infinitely worthwhile"3. There is irony in that to lead a secure
life, free from danger, one also has to live without happiness;
Hardy's The Darkling Thrush can be interpreted in a way reflecting
this belief. The "full-hearted evensong of joy" is something Hardy
cannot appreciate, being "unaware" of the "hope" the thrush sings of.
The poem seems to i...

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...sterbridge but in all his novels.
Irony is not used for its own sake; it is combined with a sense of the
supremacy of fate to give life's irony meaning. Hardy seems to believe
that there is no freedom from fate but in fact freedom within fate and
irony occurs through this.

Freedom, Hardy seems to be saying, is not opposed to nature nor
independent of it. Freedom is within nature.15

Fate is natural and irony is a part of fate; without irony then the
fate in Hardy's novels and poetry would be left empty of meaning and
also of interest. Irony and fate are tangled together in a complex web
where they mutually rely on each other and would disintegrate without
the other for support. Irony's importance is no greater and no less
than the importance of fate in Hardy's novels and it is irony and fate
together that make Hardy's work compelling to read and study.

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