Little Did He Know: Dramatic Irony in Stranger than Fiction

Little Did He Know: Dramatic Irony in Stranger Than Fiction | Lindsay Aarons
Little Did He Know: Dramatic Irony in Stranger Than Fiction | Lindsay Aarons

*Spoiler Alert: Do not read the following if you don’t wish to know what happens at the end of the film.*

Stranger than Fiction (2006), directed by Marc Forster, deliberately explores the relationship between author and narrator, character and plot, focusing explicitly on dramatic irony. As Professor Hilbert, the film’s voice of literary theory, explains to Harold Crick, “‘Little did he know’ means that there’s something that he doesn’t know, which means that there’s something that you don’t know. Did you know that?” This gap in knowledge–otherwise known as dramatic irony–paves the way for the plot as Harold Crick goes in search of that which he doesn’t know and understand.
There is a difference between ignorance, however, and dramatic irony, as dramatic irony requires knowledge on the part of the audience. So while Crick’s primary concern–whether his story is a tragedy or a comedy–belies ignorance on his part, the audience is never quite sure how his tale will end. We know, for example, that the author of the novel, Karen Eiffel, intends to kill him, but we do not know the manner of his death–nor even, if that death would constitute a tragedy. As Professor Hilbert points out when Harold demands who would choose death and pancakes over life, “Harold, if you pause to think, you’d realize that that answer is inextricably contingent upon the type of life being led… and, of course, the quality of the pancakes.” Would the real tragedy, then, be the death of Harold Crick or the type of life he led before realizing his death might be imminent?
It is left to the audience to answer this question, but there is much that Crick does not know that the audience is very well aware of–for example, who is the narrator/author of his story, what her intentions towards him are, and why his watch (which features heavily in the plot as a character) seems to go off at inappropriate times. Because Crick is well aware of his ignorance, however, the plot is driven by his search for the answers to these questions.

Perhaps that which stands as most symbolic for this dramatic irony is the apple which Harold Crick puts in his mouth as he runs to catch the morning bus. It blocks both his face from the world and the world from his face, resulting in Harold’s partial disconnect from his surroundings. The scene is incredibly reminiscent of Rene Magritte’s Son of Man (pictured right). Of Son of Man, Magritte said,

At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.

Throughout the film, this relationship between the visible and the hidden is developed as Harold becomes further enmeshed in his efforts to discover that which he doesn’t know

The ignorance that is most fascinating, however, is not Harold Crick’s; it is Karen Eiffel’s, the author/narrator of Death and Taxes. While she believes she is creating her own characters and her own world, in reality, she is merely channeling part of it into prose, while she herself is entirely unaware that the character of Harold Crick actually exists. The film weaves a tangled mess of he-knows-she-knows: the audience knows that Crick knows about the narrator, and the audience also knows that the narrator does not know that Crick knows about the narrator. This simultaneously bestows god-like qualities upon Eiffel (by giving her the power to control a man’s life) while making her unaware of the very power she possesses.

The question that inevitably rises, then, is whether Karen Eiffel did know of Harold’s awareness of the omniscent third-person narrator. It is this awareness of the narrator that drives much of Harold’s actions–he seeks out Professor Hilbert’s help, he keeps a journal of the comic and tragic aspects of his life, and he even tracks down Eiffel, herself. Was this written in Death and Taxes, or was Crick acting independently of the plot of the novel? For example, when Professor Hilbert says, “Harold, you don’t control your fate,” Harold replies, “I know,” indicating that he is a pawn in the hands of the narrator. But did Eiffel, who theoretically does control his fate, allow him to contact Professor Hilbert in the first place, or was it purely Harold’s own doing? When Crick mentions Hilbert by name upon their meeting, she seems startled that he knows of the professor, leading the audience to believe that, though there is an omniscient third-person narrator, the narrator who seems to know all is different from the author, who is merely the channel for the story (as any English 101 student can tell you). While this may seem rather obvious and redundant, however, it implies that Crick does possess free will and does control his own fate–to a degree.

This leads us to the final irony of the film–Crick chooses to step in front of a bus to save a child in order to preserve the artistic integrity of Eiffel’s novel, while it is she who decides to allow him to live through the experience, destroying the very integrity that Crick sacrificed himself to save. Would Harold have agreed to be, as Ana Pascal points out, “severely injured,” just so Eiffel could write an “okay” novel? Couldn’t she have written an okay novel that didn’t end in Crick’s eventual hospitilization and encasement in plaster? In addition, even though Crick is alive, there were others who were negatively affected by the accident–in the montage at the end, the little boy who Crick saved is seen appearing guilt-stricked and mouthing, “It’s my fault,” while the bus driver, who had been looking for employment throughout the film, is seen to be embraced by two co-workers, with the implication being that she has been fired. If Eiffel does, indeed, have god-like qualities, it is clear that she is no god, for even when she is aware of her powers, she does not do them justice, punishing innocents merely so Harold Crick can be hit by a bus and survive the experience.

While the film is deliberately ambiguous about the nature of life–is Crick living a tragedy or a comedy?–it definitively argues that ignorance plays a major role in motivating characters, if only be denying them a vital piece of the puzzle. As Hilbert puts so succinctly, “Dramatic irony. It’ll fuck you every time.” It is only by making the most of what we do know–and actively searching for what we do not–that we can successfully navigate the path of life laid before us by our omniscient third-person narrator.

For an interesting article on irony, check out “The Final Irony” from The Guardian:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2003/jun/28/weekend7.weekend2