Definition of Sardonic

Sardonic, in simple terms, is when someone shows disdain or skepticism in a humorous way. This word has roots in the French term “sardonique,” which can be traced back to Latin and Greek origins. The underlying idea in all these languages is that it’s about being disdainfully humorous or mocking. The first recorded usage of this term goes as far back as Homer’s Odyssey, where “sardanios” implied being hated. In the realm of literature, sardonic humor is about being cynically humorous and mocking with scorn. It’s a form of wit where you make others laugh by cleverly presenting the truth, but it’s not meant to be malicious. Instead, it’s a way to use humor to express skepticism or disdain in a clever and amusing manner.

Examples of Sardonic in Literature

Example #1

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expence than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.

This excerpt is from Jonathan Swift’s well-known essay. When Swift labels it as a “scheme,” it takes on a tone of scornful humor, as he expresses his disapproval of practices like abortions and other methods to limit the number of children. Despite his sarcastic proposal to the audience, he skillfully conceals his real intentions behind a mockingly serious facade. This reflects a sardonic attitude toward the issue – a way of using humor to satirically highlight what he finds objectionable.

Example #2

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about—things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool —that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’”

This excerpt is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” The tone undergoes a shift from seriousness to mockery as the speaker discusses Tom and God. Then, the speaker mentions the upcoming arrival of a baby girl and, with a touch of irony, joyfully announces that it’s a girl and that he’s happy. The tone here is intriguing, as it appears that the speaker is welcoming the girl into the world with an unwelcoming or insincere attitude.

Example #3

A Raisin in The Sun by Loraine Hansberry

That’s it. There you are. Man say to his woman: I got me a dream. His woman say: Eat your eggs. (Sadly, but gaining in power) Man say: I got to take hold of this here world, baby! And a woman will say: Eat your eggs and go to work. (Passionately now) Man say: I got to
change my life, I’m choking to death, baby! And his woman say —(In utter anguish as he brings his ɹsts down on his thighs)—Your eggs is getting cold!

In this passage from Loraine Hansberry’s captivating play, “A Raisin in The Sun,” Ruth Younger engages in a conversation with Walter Lee Younger, blending both serious and mocking tones. While they discuss significant matters like love, dreams, and their realization, Ruth injects a seemingly trivial issue of eggs, remarking in the end, “Your eggs are getting cold.” Her intent is to point out that if Walter can’t focus on the immediate matter at hand, how can he handle more substantial issues. This clever use of humor in the conversation conveys a classic example of a sardonic tone, highlighting the underlying sarcasm and criticism in the dialogue.

Example #4

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Don’t talk to me. You lucky. You got three left. Three pulling at your skirts and just one raising hell from the other side. Be thankful, why don’t you? I had eight. Every one of them gone away from me. Four taken, four chased, and all, I expect, worrying somebody’s house into evil.” Baby Suggs rubbed her eyebrows. “My firstborn. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that’s all I remember.”

This dialogue unfolds between Baby Suggs and the sole man who has shared the post-slavery period with her. They discuss her children, particularly Beloved, her daughter. The way they address this weighty subject reveals a merging of both trivial and serious tones, crafting a sardonic tone in the conversation.

Example #5

The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery

I jumped to my feet, completely thunderstruck. I blinked my eyes hard. I looked carefully all around me. And I saw a most extraordinary small person, who stood there examining me with great seriousness. Here you may see the best portrait that, later, I was able to make of him. But my drawing is certainly very much less charming than its model.

This passage is from Saint-Exupery’s novel, “The Little Prince.” In it, the first-person narrator describes his meeting with the little prince, using a tone that appears very serious. However, there’s a subtle undercurrent of mockery, creating a sardonic prose style. This juxtaposition of seriousness with a hint of sarcasm illustrates how sardonic prose can blend contempt and humor, revealing different facets of human nature.

Functions of Sardonic

Sardonic tones serve a vital function across various literary genres, be it plays, stories, poems, novels, or modern writing. They inject humor into the narrative, eliciting laughter from readers. This humor has the power to ease the weight of situations, lightening the mood and reducing conflict and tension. However, it does so in an unsettling manner, where the gravity of a matter can become lost in a fog of skepticism or triviality. Sardonic tones offer a unique perspective, highlighting how humor can be a double-edged sword, capable of both entertaining and undermining the seriousness of the subject at hand.

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