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Common Core Standards: ELA

Grades 11-12

Reading RL.11-12.6

Analyze a case in which grasping point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

Breakin’ it Down:

Oh great; it’s our favorite standard ever.
This can be a dangerous standard not to master. If students don’t catch on to sarcasm or can’t read between the lines, they risk missing or misinterpreting an important message in the text.

At this level, pinpointing the irony or sarcasm is all about paying attention to contextual clues. Students should be able to identify an author’s tone early on in the reading and red-flag the statements, descriptions, or sentiments that don’t seem to fit.

The standard lays out the most important literary terms that students need to know to master this one. This literary terms webpage gives a great explanation of the difference between satire, sarcasm, understatement and verbal irony under the ‘irony’ listing: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/lit_term.html

You can also check out Shmoop’s new literature glossary: http://www.shmoop.com/literature-glossary/

Example

The Daily Grind: Teaching the Standard

NOVICE/ INTERMEDIATE: Figurative vs. Literal Language

This is a standard students should have been working with since middle school, but it never hurts to make sure they can distinguish between literal and figurative language in higher-level texts. At this point, students should be getting comfortable with analyzing extended metaphors, hyperbole, and other elements of figurative language.

Now they need to be able to identify when the author is making statements that they don’t mean in order to be funny or critical. Ask students to look for the following:

  • Conflicts or mismatches in characterization 
    • Example: The king walks around bumping into walls and talking to his hand, yet his servants walking behind him call him “Oh Greatest and Wisest King.”
  • Events or descriptions that don’t quite add up
    • Example: The narrator claims that he loves the mayor’s plan to build a new movie theater, but he keeps throwing in comments that don’t show support for the plan: I can’t wait to see the fantastic line of four customers that show up on opening night. I hope the mayor remembers to extend the sidewalk so there won’t be a traffic jam!

ALL-STAR: Texts made completely of untruths: Satires and Spoofs

Most students are probably already familiar with the art of satire, thanks to Saturday Night Live. Now it’s time to make them laugh their socks off while they’re reading.

An astute reader will be able to tackle works in which the entire time the author does not mean what is said or is poking fun at the topic at hand. For older texts, students will need a lot of cultural and historical background knowledge to understand the humor or criticism of an archaic topic.

Recommended text: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Quiz Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

  1. Which of the following quotes from comedian Groucho Marx contains verbal irony? [quotes courtesy of http://www.marx-brothers.org/info/quotes.htm]

    Correct Answer:

    I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (A). The verbal irony here is when he says he finds television educating. Clearly he does not think it is educational at all if he leaves the room every time it comes on. Instead, he gets his education by running away from the television and finding a book. He actually means what he says in answer (B) that not all his jokes are good. There is nothing in this quote to suggest that he actually means the opposite of what he is saying. Answer (C) is supposed to be taken literally, which is why it’s funny to the audience. We’d love to see a 4-year-old outsmart an older man. So if it’s literal, it can’t be verbal irony. In (D) it’s funny to imagine a guy tearing apart a college to save a football team, but unfortunately it’s not verbal irony. He actually means what he says in this quote.


  2. Read the dialogue below and then answer the question that follows:

    MADEM: Must I tell you a hundredth time to fetch the wood?
    ALTOR: Why always the rush? We both know the wood will only grow in piles near the hearth.
    MADEM: Even now, your words further delay the task.
    ALTOR: ___________

    Which of the following lines, if added to the end of the dialogue, would create sarcasm?

    Correct Answer:

    ALTOR: How ever do you maintain such a patient demeanor, my lady?

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (B). If this was the last line, it would definitely start a fight! Clearly, he doesn’t think she has patience at all as he has already called her rushed and she’s yelling at him for wasting time. This would be a great sarcastic comeback for Altor. If (A) was the final line, it would imply that he is giving up the fight and going to get more wood. This would definitely not be a sarcastic remark. Option (C) would not create sarcasm because he is honestly trying to give Madem reasons why they don’t need any more wood. This guy is seriously tired of being sent to get logs. In (D), he is honestly suggesting that there is no need for more wood because it is growing in piles already. There’s nothing sarcastic here.


  3. War Is Kind
    Stephen Crane (1899)

    [http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/crane/warkind.htm]

    Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind,
    Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
    And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
    Do not weep.
    War is kind.

    Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
    Little souls who thirst for fight,
    These men were born to drill and die.
    The unexplained glory flies above them.
    Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom--
    A field where a thousand corpses lie.

    Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
    Because your father tumbles in the yellow trenches,
    Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
    Do not weep.
    War is kind.

    Swift blazing flag of the regiment,
    Eagle with crest of red and gold,
    These men were born to drill and die.
    Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
    Make plain to them the excellence of killing
    And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

    Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
    On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
    Do not weep.
    War is kind!

    This tone of this poem can be described as…

    Correct Answer:

    Sarcastic

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (A). You should have noticed something didn’t line up when he said war was kind, but described only disgusting or disturbing images of war. Clearly there is a mismatch between what he says in the first few lines and what he actually believes about war. Apathetic means the author has no real emotional reaction to the topic, but the words he uses are highly emotional, like alone, little souls, a thousand corpses, and slaughter. When someone is intrigued they are slightly interested in the topic being discussed. This word is not strong enough to describe his attitude towards war. Reverence implies deep respect for something. If you look at his descriptions of the atrocities that are caused by war, he does not respect the war at all. Thus, when he says war is kind, he is actually being sarcastic.


  4. Read the following passages from Gulliver’s Travels and then answer the questions.

     THE PUBLISHER TO THE READER.                                                                                   [As given in the original edition.]

    The author of these Travels, Mr. Lemuel Gulliver, is my ancient and intimate friend. […] He left the custody of the following papers in my hands, with the liberty to dispose of them as I should think fit.

    This volume would have been at least twice as large, if I had not made bold to strike out innumerable passages relating to the winds and tides, as well as to the variations and bearings in the several voyages, together with the minute descriptions of the management of the ship in storms, in the style of sailors; likewise the account of longitudes and latitudes; wherein I have reason to apprehend, that Mr. Gulliver may be a little dissatisfied. But I was resolved to fit the work as much as possible to the general capacity of readers. However, if my own ignorance in sea affairs shall have led me to commit some mistakes, I alone am answerable for them.

    A LETTER FROM CAPTAIN GULLIVER TO HIS COUSIN SYMPSON.                           WRITTEN IN THE YEAR 1727.

    I do, in the next place, complain of my own great want of judgment, in being prevailed upon by the entreaties and false reasoning of you and some others, very much against my own opinion, to suffer my travels to be published.  

    Pray bring to your mind how often I desired you to consider, when you insisted on the motive of public good, that the _Yahoos_ were a species of animals utterly incapable of amendment by precept or example: and so it has proved; for, instead of seeing a full stop put to all abuses and corruptions, at least in this little island, as I had reason to expect; behold, after above six months warning, I cannot learn that my book has produced one single effect according to my intentions.  

    I desired you would let me know, by a letter, when party and faction were extinguished; judges learned and upright; pleaders honest and modest, with some tincture of common sense, and Smithfield blazing with pyramids of law books; the young nobility’s education entirely changed; the physicians banished; the female _Yahoos_ abounding in virtue, honour, truth, and good sense; courts and levees of great ministers thoroughly weeded and swept; wit, merit, and learning rewarded; all disgracers of the press in prose and verse condemned to eat nothing but their own cotton, and quench their thirst with their own ink.  

    These, and a thousand other reformations, I firmly counted upon by your encouragement; as indeed they were plainly deducible from the precepts delivered in my book.  And it must be owned, that seven months were a sufficient time to correct every vice and folly to which _Yahoos_ are subject, if their natures had been capable of the least disposition to virtue or wisdom. Yet, so far have you been from answering my expectation in any of your letters.

    Which line from the text contains an understatement?

    Correct Answer:

    “I have reason to apprehend, that Mr. Gulliver may be a little dissatisfied.”

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (B). The editor clearly changed so much of Mr. Gulliver’s book that he is incredibly angry. We see his anger and annoyance in his response to his editor. When the author says he might be ‘a little dissatisfied’, this clearly doesn’t come close to expressing what Mr. Gulliver feels. Therefore, it is an understatement. When Gulliver claims in (A) that he hoped for thousands of changes, this is actually an exaggeration or hyperbole. You are looking for a statement that does not even come close to expressing the severity or emotion of the speaker. Option (C) is not meant as an understatement. Gulliver is in fact complaining that no changes have happened since the publication of his book. Option (D) is definitely not an understatement. In fact, the editor is trying to take full responsibility for any mistakes in the book.


  5. Which statement early in the text indicates that the final paragraphs where Captain Gulliver expresses frustration with the lack of change are highly sarcastic?

    Correct Answer:

    “The _Yahoos_ were a species of animals utterly incapable of amendment by precept or example: and so it has proved.”

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (A). The final paragraphs are full of complaints that nothing and no one in society has changed since he published his books, but we know from this quote that he doesn’t think people can change at all, making the final paragraphs sarcastic. Options (B) and (C) really have nothing to do with the ideas in the final paragraphs about society changing. Also, both quotes were said by a different narrator, the publisher. Option (D) is also sarcastic, just like the final paragraphs. He is condescendingly pointing out that nothing in society has changed, but we know from an earlier statement that he doesn’t really expect anything to change in the first place.