Subtext and Irony

My dear wife Cathy recently posted a meme on Facebook that featured two cats. One cat has its ears flat, its eyes closed, its lips pulled back, and it’s easy to believe the cat is laughing. If you don’t believe that, there’s a caption to convince you: “Me laughing at my own joke.” Beside this cat is another cat who’s clearly not impressed. This cat is staring straight ahead, a somber look on its face as it totally ignores the first cat. Again, a caption lets us know what the meme intends. This caption reads, “My wife.” When Cathy posted this, she tagged me, and she said, “This happens frequently at our house.” So indeed the first cat is intended to be me, and the second cat is meant to be Cathy, who’s clearly not always impressed with my jokes.

“Well, I’m not,” she said when we talked about it. “You think things are hilarious that I don’t find funny at all. Why is that?”

I’ve been thinking about that question all day, and as with most things, I have to connect it to my life as a writer in order to have any clarity at all.

To be clear, I don’t think of myself as a funny writer, but I do think of myself as a funny person. Even though I don’t deliberately try to use humor in my work, sometimes it creeps in. In my story, “The Dead in Paradise,” a husband who feels he’s disappointed his wife, says to her, “You know, you could have done a lot better than me.” The wife says, “Nah, baby, I did the best I could.” To me, there’s something about subtext that makes this humorous. The husband has just put himself in a place of vulnerability, admitting that he’s not been the husband he thinks his wife deserves, and she responds with a subtle slap in the face. She did the best she could, she says, but what she doesn’t say directly is, of course, he’s disappointed her. In fact, he’s never been a good husband. He’s always come up short. She’s always had to settle. There’s also an unintentional self-accusation in what she says. She did the best she could. By saying this, she diminishes herself at the same time that she slyly agrees that the husband could be a better man. As Jessamyn West says, “A taste for irony has kept more hearts from breaking than a sense of humor, for it takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.”

This indirect approach to comedy often comes to play in dialogue, and it reminds us that what’s unsaid beneath what is said, often carries a powerful truth in a witty or ironic way. As George Saunders says, “Irony is just honesty with the volume cranked up.” Subtext can let a reader in on a joke that the listener, and sometimes even the speaker, isn’t aware of. A resonance results from the juxtaposition of the thing said with the thing kept silent. I spend my days thinking about how to show in what I write the masks people wear and the truer people they are behind those masks. Verbal subtext and irony is but one way I try to strip those masks away. Because I spend my time doing this, maybe I’m more receptive to verbal humor, particularly the kind that unintentionally reveals more than one aspect of a character or a situation.

In case you’re curious, Cathy doesn’t find humor in the exchange between the husband and wife in “The Dead in Paradise.” “If the wife said something more direct,” she says. “Something more obviously insulting to the husband. “Oh, you mean like the cat meme,” I say. The comment I posted on that meme? “I am not amused.” At least Cathy thought that was funny.


  1. Carol Hacck on February 1, 2021 at 11:42 am

    POV. Incredibly interesting. I am writing a novel. Another writer just read the first hundred pages. She called it raw. Uhmm. I had thought I lightened my characters a bit.

    Anyway, thanks for being my muse from a far.

    • Lee Martin on February 2, 2021 at 12:23 pm

      Thanks, Carol. Keep doing the good work!

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