A Gricean and relevance-theoretic approach to irony in J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye"

Term Paper, 2016

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Phillip Grider (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Concepts & theories in pragmatics
2.1 Gricean pragmatic theory
2.2 Relevance Theory

3. Figures of speech: Irony and sarcasm
3.1 Definitions of irony and sarcasm
3.2 Irony and related tropes in Gricean pragmatic theory
3.3 Relevance-theoretic understanding of irony

4. Irony and sarcasm in The Catcher in the Rye
4.1 According to Grice
4.2 According to relevance theory

5. Synopsis

6. References

1. Introduction

Irony and, closely related, sarcasm, are figures of speech or tropes used in day to day communication but also often in literary communication, meaning, for one, within the discourse between characters of a novel, but also from author to reader. Although this figure of speech is so frequently used, it can be difficult to recognize as being what it is, as irony can be subtle in nature and thus hard to detect or very direct and easily deci- pherable.

As the field within linguistics that aims at explaining how what is meant by what is said can be produced and understood adequately, pragmatics, naturally, offers many the- ories on figures of speech, such as irony. Two of these concepts are the basis of this pa- per, namely Paul Grice’s pragmatic theory and D. Wilson & D. Sperber’s relevance the- ory.

First the paper outlines, briefly, the concept behind each of the aforementioned theories, then continues in giving a definition of what irony and sarcasm even are in the first place, to then show what the Gricean and relevance-theoretic approaches to irony and the production as well as comprehension thereof consist of, respectively.

These approaches are then applied to three examples of utterances from J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye in an attempt to find an answer to the question whether one of the applied theories offers a more elaborate and widely utilizable concept as to what makes an utterance ironical and understandable as such.

2. Concepts & theories in pragmatics

This chapter first takes a look at Grice‘s pragmatic theory, to, following that, discuss the relevance-theoretic approach to pragmatics, which, while utilizing parts of Gricean the- ory, mainly opposes it in its concept of communication and utterance interpretation.

2.1 Gricean pragmatic theory

Paul Grice is known among pragmatic linguists most prominently for having coined the so-called Cooperative Principle (CP). The assumption rooted within this CP is that “ut- terances automatically raise certain expectations, and these […] guide the addressee to- wards what the speaker intends” (Huang 2014: 289). The CP is defined as follows:

“Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the ac - cepted purpose of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” (Grice 1991: 26).

This CP acts as the “superordinate” (Mey 1994: 65) principle, which, in turn, consists of four “sub-principles” (ibid.), categorized as: “Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Manner” (Grice 1991: 26)1. The basis of the CP is the notion that discourse is a “cooperative effort” (ibid.), meaning that, in conversation, both speakers will make remarks that are connected - loosely, in the very least - to what their successor said.

This is where implicature also comes into play, as certain things may be implicated by a speaker in making utterances seemingly out of context, leaving the addressee to infer what was meant by what was said (cf. ibid.). In the context of his CP, Grice refers to the aforementioned implicature as “conversational implicature” (ibid.), wherein different implicatures function in accordance with the CP (cf. ibid.).

In conversation, e.g., sometimes a speaker will make a seemingly unrelated remark, appearing, at first, as non-co-operative. This, however, is contrary to the assumption made about communication, according to Grice, that both participants tend to assume that their counterpart is always being co-operative, i.e. true to the maxims on a “deeper (non-superficial) level” (Levinson 1983: 102). In other words, “what is said is supposed to provide the input to deriving what is conversationally implicated” (Huang 2014: 274). So if any one speaker apparently violates or flouts one of the maxims, i.e. ‘fails’ to comply to the prescription made by it, this is merely a marker of present implicatures within an utterance. Flouting the maxims and the implicatures that accordingly arise play a major role in creating figures of speech, such as irony, as is proven further down.

2.2 Relevance Theory

The relevance-theoretic approach is “based on […] Grice’s [aforementioned] claim[ ] [...], that utterances automatically create expectations which guide the hearer toward the speaker’s meaning” (Wilson & Sperber 2004: 608). However, while on similar terms re- garding that very claim, relevance theory (RT) makes differing assumptions concerning the need for a ‘Cooperative Principle’, ruling this out completely, and thus, con- trastively, states that “the expectations of relevance raised by an utterance are precise […] and predictable enough, to guide the hearer towards the speaker’s meaning” (ibid.). That said, RT further removes the attention from the processes that go into creating im- plicatures and sets it towards the ones that create explicit content (cf. ibid., Huang 2014: 275). Thus stated, Wilson and Sperber created the concept of explicatures, to be seen as parallel or oppositional, even, to Gricean, further up elaborated, implicatures (cf. ibid.).

Utterances carry within themselves encoded messages (“explicit assumptions” (cf. ibid.)) that are to be pragmatically inferred, or, in other words, “explicate[d]” (ibid.). In doing so, the full content is ‘extracted’, so to speak (cf. ibid.), and so, interpreted or comprehended by the addressee.

The main assumption within RT is, is that in producing an utterance to begin with, a speaker is communicating to her addressee that what the utterance carries within itself is of relevance to her, or otherwise she would not have made it in the first place, as is claimed within the communicative principle of relevance 2 . Assuming this relevance causes the addressee to, according to the cognitive principle of relevance 3, and under the claim that relevance is “a balance struck between cognitive effects (i.e. reward) and pro- cessing effort (i.e. cost)” (Huang 2014: 269), explicate the meaning of the utterance by way of the relevance-theoretic comprehension procedure 4. In accordance with this, it is important to note the notion that the first interpretation made by the addressee is the most relevant one (cf. Clark 2013: 120).

The explication process described may be seen as analogous to the inferral of conver- sational implicatures by Grice’s account, if one wishes to do so as a means of comparing and mirroring both theories, however with the fact kept in mind that the procedures dif- fer greatly and, of course, RT, in difference to the CP and its maxims, has the aforementioned two principles of relevance as the framework of utterance comprehension/inter-pretation.

3. Figures of speech: Irony and sarcasm

This chapter briefly looks at the general definition of irony and sarcasm, followed by an account of how Gricean and relevance-theoretic pragmatics, outlined above, respectively, conceive these figures of speech.

3.1 Definitions of irony and sarcasm

Irony comes from ancient Greek comedy, in which the “ eiron [, meaning] ‘dissembler’” (Abrams 1999: 134) was a character “who […] spoke in understatement and deliber- ately pretended to be less intelligent than he was, […]” (ibid. 135). Today, it is still used as a way of producing certain rhetorical effects (cf. ibid.), however, it is generally ver- bal irony, which is classified as one of the original tropes (cf. ibid.), that is spoken of when referring to irony. This is defined as “a statement in which the meaning that a speaker implies differs sharply from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed” (ibid.). Furthermore, it usually “involves the explicit expression of one attitude or evaluation, but with indications in the overall speech-situation that the speaker intends a very differ- ent, and often opposite, attitude or evaluation” (ibid.). What needs to be said in this con- text, however, is also, that in modern day use, especially in literature, “the meaning may be subtly qualified rather than simply reversed” (ibid.). Linguist Ken-Ichi Seto argues that “[i]rony is a way of expressing implicit criticism by means of echoing and/or se- mantic reversal” (Seto 1997: 252). These observations are of greater importance when pragmalinguistically analyzing literary excerpts for irony later on.

Sarcasm may, in everyday use, be conceived as being “an equivalent for all forms of irony” (Abrams 1999: 136), however differs from the latter in being “crude and taunt- ing” (ibid.) in nature. Even etymologically, they differ in meaning: Where eiron means ‘dissembler’ (see above), sarcasm has its origins in the Greek verb sarkazein, meaning ‘to tear flesh’ (cf. ibid.), further underlining the latter’s more negative connotations. As a side note, what is unique about verbal irony as opposed to other tropes, such as, say, metaphors, is that “there is no metalinguistic reference to show that what [is said] is intended to be ironic” (Seto 1997: 252), which makes in-transparency one more main feature of irony (cf. ibid.). This means that part of “the charm of irony” (ibid.) is to leave the addressee somewhat riddled with whether an utterance was intended to be ironical or not (cf. ibid.).

3.2 Irony and related tropes in Gricean pragmatic theory

In Gricean pragmatic theory, the term ‘irony’ describes the “classical or traditional view” (Clark 2013: 283) of saying the opposite of what is meant (see chapter 3). In Grice’s understanding, in creating irony, “a speaker blatantly violates [or flouts] the first maxim of quality” (ibid.), causing an implicature to arise from this violation, more specifically, and of course, one related to the utterance, which, in this case, would be the opposite of what was said (cf. ibid.).5 In some cases, it is obvious to the hearer that what is uttered cannot be the case, so the maxim in question is flouted openly (cf. ibid.), and thus, since the addressee assumes, as mentioned in chapter 2.1, that the maxims are be- ing observed, meaning ‘adhered to’, on one level or the other, a related implicature, which contains the true statement the communicator wishes to convey, will arise and be clear to the audience (cf. ibid., 284). Without this “underlying assumption of co-opera- tion” (Levinson 1983: 109), irony, e.g., could not be recognized and no inferences could be made, making communication, in turn, unsuccessful (cf. ibid.).6

3.3 Relevance-theoretic understanding of irony

Relevance theory, in light of lacking the maxims of the Gricean Cooperative Principle, takes a very different approach to what makes an utterance ironic or not.

In RT, the phenomenon of an utterance being ironic is described by Wilson and Sperber within their work Irony and the use-mention distinction (1981), wherein, to briefly sum- marize, they make a difference between use and mention, the former being a referral to a word (cf. Wilson, Sperber 1992: 57) and the latter being a mode of “self-referential use of words or other linguistic expressions” (ibid.). Building upon this understanding of ‘use’ and ‘mention’, they proposed the claim that irony is produced in utterance via something they call echoic mention. Echoic mentions however can be “used to express a very wide range of attitudes” (ibid., 59), and verbal irony, so is the notion, involves the expression of one of disapproval (cf. ibid., 60/cf. Hamamoto 1997: 259). In order for an utterance to be ironic, i.e. expressing disapproval or contempt, an utterer must dissociate herself from what is being echoed, be it an attitude someone else has expressed, or even a social/cultural norm that is known to all (cf. Wilson, Sperber 1992: 60). Utterances, however, can always be understood in two ways, so it is up to the hearer to make the ad- equate interpretation and thus recognize (or not) the dissociative instance (cf. ibid, 62).

The other type of echoic utterance responsible for creating irony according to RT is what Wilson and Sperber call echoic interpretation (cf. ibid.), by means of which the speaker interprets an utterance and the underlying attitude of it by way of exagge-rat- ingly reiterating the opinions and views expressed (cf. ibid., 64).

To sum up, irony as produced in echoic mention and interpretation is created in echoing expressions, norms, assumptions and dissociating oneself from or exaggerating them, thus creating a contemptuous or mocking tone, which is at the basis of sarcasm, and, of course, irony, as stated above (see ‘Definitions of irony and sarcasm’).

4. Irony and sarcasm in The Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye tells the story of an adolescent named Holden Caulfield, who, after being expelled from a prestigious bording school, spends his last night in the dorms and then roams the streets of New York City in avoidance of going home. His conversations, comments and observations, as well as those of his con- temporaries, are rich with irony and arrogant sarcasm, which is why they serve as the basis of the following analysis.


1 “Quantity[:][...] 1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange) 2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required. [...] Quality[:][...] supermaxim - ‘try to make your contribution one that is true’ - [submaxims:] 1. Do not say what you believe to be false. 2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence. [...] Relation[:][...] ‘Be relevant.’ […] Manner[:][...]‘Be perspicuous.’ - and various maxims such as: 1. Avoid obscurity of expression. 2. Avoid ambiguity. 3. Be brief […] 4. Be orderly.” (Grice 1975: 26 - 27)

2 “Every ostensive stimulus (e.g. every utterance) conveys a presumption of its own optimal rele - vance.” (Huang 2014: 273)

3 “Human cognition tends to be geared to the maximization of relevance.” (Huang 2014: 269)

4 “a. Follow a path of least effort in constructing an interpretation of the utterance […] b. Stop when your expectations of relevance are satisfied.” (Huang 2014: 273)

5 “(said of John who has betrayed the speaker) He’s a fine friend. What is said: John is a fine friend. What is implicated: John is not a fine friend” (Clark 2013: 283, Grice 1989: 120)

6 What is important to note, additionally, is that the Gricean account of ironical utterances does not cover those that are clearly understood as being ironic, even though they are not blatantly false but literally true, as is the case with most ironical understatement (cf. Clark 2013: 285). Nor can Grice account for ironic utterances that do not state the opposite of what is proposed, or those that do not even seem to have an opposite (cf. ibid.). Relevance theory does, on the other hand account for these instances, as it does not rely on communicators expressing a literal truth, obliging to maxims, etc., but much more that it is recognizable how any utterance was intended to be understood, i.e. percieved as relevant (cf. ibid., 285/286), which becomes more clear in chapter 4.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


A Gricean and relevance-theoretic approach to irony in J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye"
University of Duisburg-Essen
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Grice, Wilson, Sperber, Irony, Cooperative Principle, Relevance Theory
Quote paper
Phillip Grider (Author), 2016, A Gricean and relevance-theoretic approach to irony in J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/437804


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: A Gricean and relevance-theoretic approach to irony in J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free