Some Proposals to Cope with Forms of Irony Typically Found in Literary Texts from a Relevance-Theoretical Perspective



The study of irony has always been a field of interest for diverse disciplines. Whereas irony had been traditionally explained as a contrast between what was said and what was meant, more recent, pragmatically-oriented studies have adopted a wider perspective, by considering aspects like the speaker’s attitude, intention or context. Among these approaches, relevance theory has proposed an ostensive-inferential approach to communication, whereby the addressee seeks to infer the speaker’s intention. Such an approach seems to be appropriate for the study of irony, and in fact, irony has been a hotly-debated issue within the relevance-theoretical framework (Sperber and Wilson 1981, 1978), even before the model as such (Sperber and Wilson 1986/95) was explicitly fleshed out. Moreover, the proposals made reach very recent times (for instance, Wilson, 2006). In one of the contributions by Sperber and Wilson (1998), they claimed that irony was not a natural kind, and enhanced the echoic nature of verbal irony. A distinction between ostensive and non-ostensive forms of irony was put forward. Precisely, among the latter, Sperber and Wilson gave as instances forms such as dramatic irony, or irony of fate. Such types of irony may be frequently found in literary texts. As a matter of fact, they abound in the corpus selected for our study, Celestina (Fernando de Rojas, 1499/1502). This Spanish work was soon translated into English (Mabbe, 1631). The present paper sets out to provide a relevance-theoretical account of these forms of irony as manifested in the work. The discussion will be structured as follows: after the introduction of the theoretical background, we shall explain the tenets that can be applied in the forms of irony traced and under study in the corpus, and will provide with examples to illustrate our claims. Finally, the conclusions reached will be presented. The theory established a dichotomy between ostensive and non-ostensive forms of irony (Sperber & Wilson, 1998). Precisely, among the latter, these authors referred to forms such as tragic irony or irony of fate and dramatic irony. These and other related forms of irony abound in the corpus selected for our study: Celestina, an important literary Spanish work of the Late Middle Ages written by Fernando de Rojas (1499). All in all, therefore, the purpose of the present work is to analyse the forms of irony which have regarded as non-ostensive or non-echoic, taking into consideration that they seem to occur in literary works, as Rojas' work suggests. As a central hypothesis, we shall argue that the distinction between echoic and non-echoic irony should be best approached in terms of degree, as a continuum. Moreover, the corpus reveals that these forms of irony are most likely found in communicative acts which entail complex relationships between the different participants, so that not all the characters involved may have access to the context envisaged by the speaker, on the one hand, and on the other hand, characters’ actions may be mediated by the presence of an internal author that is only perceived by the external readership. Therefore, as a consequence of the differences in choice and accessibility, we shall find different levels of communication between addressers and addressees. These levels may contribute to the explanation of the forms of irony referred to above. Key words: Relevance-Theoretical Approach; Echoic Irony; Ostensive Irony; Forms Of Irony Found in Literary Texts; Celestina

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