but I could be wrong, so just be cool
Like anyone whose early life was shaped by Alanis Morisette's "Ironic", I have a tiny panic attack every time I catch myself saying the word "ironic" without googling it and confirming with a smarter friend first. Because apparently everyone and no one knows what it means. Don't deny it, we're friends here. But it's okay, because I think what I'm about to call irony is actually irony definitely maybe..
I’ve been working my way through Donald Barthelme’s Snow White, and this Snow White is a bit more, let’s say, worldly, than the Disney version. She is living in, as far as I understand it at the halfway point, a polyamorous relationship with seven men, just coming to realize that her princes are no longer satisfying and that maybe she needs a new one. Jury’s still out on whether her choices end up being wise ones borne out of a deep self-knowledge and sober perspective on her relationships thus far, but my guess is that they are not.
It reminds me of John Connolly’s Snow White in his novel The Book Of Lost Things. In that context, Snow White is a gluttonous overlord, battening upon her seven socialist dwarf servants with a masterfully-wielded talent for emotional and physical abuse. She’s another monster to defeat on the hero’s quest, albeit a sad and hilarious one.
Authors make an intentional choice with every word they put in their works (which, high school students, is why your comments that “the author probably wasn’t even thinking of that when they wrote it” are probably always bull hockey), so why did they choose to use Snow White in these stories? They do this because they are taking advantage of irony to heighten the drama and impact of the plot, and to sharpen the reader's awareness of the themes.
Barthelme and Connolly have taken a beloved character, known for her innocence and childlike appeal to our senses of hope and beauty, and twists her into a darker perversion (meaning in this context a corruption or distortion of the original) of herself. If Snow White here were replaced with a character none of us have heard of, we as readers would find them minimally memorable in the work. The impact is all thanks to irony.
I usually think of irony as a plot device: something in the plot happens that is the opposite or different from what was expected to happen in the plot. That is certainly useful, and gives us the “twist” in a story. The kind of irony we see used by Barthelme and Connolly, however, differs in that its not an irony set up within the story itself. Instead, the author is taking advantage of expectations he or she knows the reader will have about these characters, because those expectations are built into our culture. Let's call this "cultural irony", while recognizing that there's probably already an accepted term for it that I haven't learned yet.
The author knows that when Snow White shows up, the readers are going to think of the Disney version, of a gentle breakable flower of a woman who sings to animals, brightens the lives of everyone around her, and is an embodiment of all that is good and 1930’s-era-womanly. She lacks agency and is naive and trusting, and is an object acted upon by others stronger than her. All this and more is packed into the subconscious expectations a modern reader will have when they read the words “Snow White”. Our authors know that there will be a powerful consequence to undermining those expectations.
So rather than introduce a black-haired nobody as the polyamorous bored woman, Barthelme names her Snow White, and now the distance between this woman and our expectations doubles. Every time we read her thoughts on the sub-par but earnest lovemaking of one of the seven brothers, we think of Disney’s Snow White, whose very name invokes chastity, having these thoughts while she serves dinner to Dopey, and regardless your thoughts on the morality involved, you cannot help but feel the cut push deeper.
When Connolly writes of seven dwarves complaining about the rights of the people and resisting oppression, you must contrast this with your expectations of seven whistling dwarves heigh-ho-ing their way into the mines. When the dwarves come home to an obese foul-mouthed Snow White, you must compare this to your expectation of an iconically-sweet and impossibly-thin Snow White leaning down to sing with an angelic bunny.
You are being manipulated. The author knows what you expect, and knows that they can piggyback on your expectation so that when they pervert it, the cultural irony will punch you harder than any plot irony could.
If you’re a writer, you should be using this, too. Whether you’re subverting the reader’s childhood memories or subverting their expectation of how to use a spoon, you can use these expectations to maximize the impact and force of your writing.
As an exercise, choose a character you felt strongly about as a child. Perhaps it’s Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby from the Water Babies, or Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia (it does feel sacrilegious to bring him into this, but that only makes it a better choice), or Spiderman (and it strikes me now that comic-book writers take advantage of cultural irony almost every time they reboot a franchise). Write a short three- to five-item list of the major character traits of this character, and then write a matching list that twists each trait (i.e., put that thing down, flip it, and reverse it). Put this twisted character back into its original story and write a few paragraphs of your new perversion. Enjoy the feelings of evil and power and give in to them for a little bit. Share a bit in the comments.
I would note that you can do the same exercise the opposite way around: take a villain and make them a hero. It’s still cultural irony, but you won’t have the satisfying feeling of unfettered evil as you manipulate your beloved characters, though I’ll admit, that could be satisfying only to myself and a few others. But I think I see it in you.
Books Mentioned in this post: