Reading Arne Garborg's Irony

By Sjavik, Jan | Scandinavian Studies, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Reading Arne Garborg's Irony


Sjavik, Jan, Scandinavian Studies


Bondestudentar, Trotte mond, Fred

One of the most important isometrics on the map of contemporary critical discourse is the line that separates those who honor authorial intention from those who do not. Traditionally, the author was thought of as a man (usually a man, anyway) speaking to other men, and understanding a literary work meant decoding the author's message, be that message placed consciously on the surface of the text or embedded in the sub-text through the workings of the author's sub-consciousness. With the advent of post-structuralist thought, however, the critical emphasis shifted from reaching what E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has termed valid interpretation to what the deconstructionists and some of their contemporaries referred to as the undecidability of meaning. Rather than showing what the literary text meant, the critic was now to demonstrate that it could not possibly have meant anything in particular at all.

This is a well-known story that need not be rehearsed in detail here. Whether one thinks of the one or the other party as occupying the high ground on the critical battlefield, however, there is no denying that the conflict between the two perspectives has had a profound influence on critical theory for over thirty years. This essay is not another salvo in the battle between the traditionalists and the post-modernists, however, but an exploration of some of the subsequent implications for the study of irony, and in particular irony as associated with three of Arne Garborg's novels, Bondestudentar (1883), Trotte mond (1891), and Fred (1892). In order to show that the dichotomy between intentionalism and anti-intentionalism replicates itself in the theory of irony, I will first briefly discuss some of the more significant contributions to that theory. That discussion will allow me to propose a perspective on irony that, while not original, is new to Garborg criticism. I will then briefly recount some highlights of the critical discussion of irony in Bondestudentar and Trotte mond showing how that discussion can be explicated from the perspective on irony that has been chosen. Finally, I will offer an interpretation of the irony in Fred that will demonstrate the relevance of that novel to the question of how interpretation should be carried out. In the end, I hope to show that a reading of Arne Garborg's irony promotes public and collaborative interpretation as a norm in literary studies.

IRONY AS A RHETORICAL DEVICE

In the introduction to his book The Critical Mythology of Irony, Joseph A. Dane asks the following question, which I find significant for this essay: "What particular advantages have there been for the philosopher, the poet, or the critic in invoking irony?" (2). I share Dane's assumption that the invocation of irony is always linked to specific interests, and I likewise agree with him that "irony is and always has been a critical weapon--one deployed in the struggle between the critic and his object" (6). Dane, whose intellectual roots are in the New Criticism (2), is blinded to the significance of the author by the threat of the intentional fallacy(1) and therefore defines the scene of criticism as the relationship between the critic and the text. It may be equally reasonable, however, to think of criticism as a dialectical movement involving the author and the reader as they struggle for control over the results of the interpretative labor.(2)

The New Critics also saw irony as, in the title of an essay by Cleanth Brooks, a "Principle of Structure." Since literary structure is either observed in or imposed on the text by the reader-critic, Brooks's notion of irony served the interests of the reader rather than those of the author. More recent discussions about how irony is to be best understood and defined shows that the concept of irony has continued to be honed as a weapon for establishing interpretative control of textual meaning. Those who regard irony primarily as a general attitude toward life also take a dim view of irony as a tool that an author can use to influence the response of his or her audience. …

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