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Irony is the weapon of a satirist and Addison is essentially a satirist, though a humorous one. Humour is basic to the satire of Addison and the essence of this humour is irony. Now, irony may be defined as a way of treating a trivial thing with mock-gravity or by using words in a such a manner as to convey the opposite of what is said. Irony can be dangerous weapon in the hands of a satirist. Swift could make deadly use of it ; Jane Austen could use it mercilessly, and Pope, maliciously. The essence of irony is the contrast it produces in one's apprehension between the 'appearance' as presented through the words and the 'reality' as conveyed through those very words. Addison's irony is 'gentle' because it is general and 'urbane'. The very nature of Addison's irony lies in his treatment of the subject. He seems to admire or condone or sympathise with the subject and manages, all the while, to convey to the reader the absurdity or ridiculous nature of the subject. He ridicules "some fashion of taste by the perfectly grave and simple description of the object.
irony of Addison

A single essay of Addison shows his capacity for the use of this irony. Comic irony finds remarkable expression in the essays Female Orators. The essays is a sustained piece of irony--indeed it is a string of ironical observations. Each paragraph has an ironical remark which causes a 'shock of surprise'. And the essence of the irony lies in the fact that Addison's remarks are couched in the most grave and serious tone, and yet the implied meaning could not more clear.

The very first paragraph sets the tone. Addison remarks that the universities should set aside the chair for rhetoric women as they are better qualified than men for this particular field of learning. In the second paragraph, we are told that women are better than men in the art of rhetoric as they are able to talk for hours upon nothing whereas men can perhaps talk for hours only upon some subject. How seriously Addison goes on to tell us about the woman who talked for hours and in all the figures of rhetoric upon the edging of a petticoat,or the breaking of china cup ! The irony is pungent. Addison seems to admire, but there can be no mistaking the real intention. He intends to point out the useless and trivial things that a woman talks about but he talks about this drawback in women as if it were a great accomplishment and therein lies the ironical effect.Next the author tells us that women would make better lawyers to argue in court. The remark seems innocuous enough ; in fact seems a compliment. Then comes the sting in the remark that compares the women's capacity at legal argument with the rhetorical ability of the 'ladies of the British Fishery.' The very phrase 'ladies of the British fishery' is a piece of supreme irony. What a grandiloquent term for the fish wives, the shrewd and abusive women who sell fish and bargained and argued in the worst possible language!Addison then goes on to the different types of 'female orators'. Once again the tone is one of factual gravity. He merely seems to be classifying the 'rhetorician' in a most scientific manner and talking about each one's methods and abilities. But the intention of ridicule is clear. In a tone of admiration he talks of the rhetorical skills of some who are able to tell over the same story under different circumstances and in a large variety of phrases. He showers praises on the copiousness of expression and fluency of invention of the 'censorious' class of female orators, but the ironical intention is clear when he tells us that these 'talents' are employed for enlarging upon "every slip in the behaviour of another". He gives an illustration. He talks of the old lady who once made an unhappy marriage the subject of a month's conversation and after she had exhausted all aspects of the subject, went and cultivated the friendship of the unhappy bride and told her that people were talking ever so unreasonably about the marriage. This is irony on two levels. Firstly, it is ironical that the woman should have made the unhappy marriage the subject of a whole month's conversation. Secondly, it is highly ironical that she should go and make friends with the wife and tell her that other people were talking about the marriage in an unreasonable manner ! The old lady was not only loquacious ; she was also hypocritical !No one could miss the delectable irony of Mrs. Fiddle-Faddle who could talk for hours upon the wit of her little boy who had  not yet learnt to speak ! and here comes the ironical sting. This is most amusing even while the irony is pungent. The irony is again clear and pointed in the description of the coquettes who hate and love in the same breath so as to increase the field of conversation. She talks, sighs, laughs, all irrelevantly and merely to give her an opportunity to move her limbs and make gestures. Irony is the mode of attack here where the affectations and incongruous behaviour of this class of female orators are made fun of. But we also realise the essential quality of this irony here--Addison makes us laugh at the absurdities but he never rants and rails or arouses disgust as Swift could have done, were he talking upon the same subject.

The essay reaches the climax of fun and ironical pungency when Addison comes to the possible reasons for this loquacity in women. He analyses in a scientific manner the causes of this garrulity. Perhaps, he says women speak whatever they think, thus proving the Cartesian dictum that the soul is always thinking. But then, he goes on in the most serious vein as if he were arguing out a grave case, women often do not speak what they in reality think--they often pretend and dissemble. Thus the Cartesian dictum can not explain the garrulity. The irony cannot be missed--he has a dig at women for lying and dissembling. He comes to the suggestion that perhaps there are some special juices in the tongue of female which make her extra talkative; may be there are some extra pliable fibres in the tongue, or some special muscle which makes it dart up and down at incredible speed. Or perhaps there is a special channel connecting brain, heart and the tongue of the female. This analysis is done in the serious tone of a scientific inquiry and this is what heightens the ironic effect.

The climax of the essay comes in the comic use of a tragic passage in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Addison quotes the passage from Ovid in which we are told that when a female's tongue was cut off it lay quivering on the ground, murmuring with a faint imperfect sound. The essentially tragic passage is used in an ironic context by Addison to prove the point that the females have an irreparable capacity to talk.

The essay shows Addison's mastery over a delicate and flexible irony. Irony is sustained all through the essay upto the last paragraph where, however, the sting of satire is removed with the confession that the author was speaking with a pure moral purpose restoring the female tongue to that natural sweetness which is its rightful quality. We see that his irony was used for his purpose of social and moral reform. We also see that his irony, though pungent and trenchant, never hurts any particular individual woman ; it is a general irony. This is irony used humorously--we are always conscious of the funny aspect--never is the irony bitter. It is typically Addisonian because it is irony which is general and humorous.


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