The irony is an important element in Frank O’Conner’s story “First Confession.” In this story, one can actually hear the soft tap-tap of irony as it drives its careful wedge between a young boy’s pronouncements and the conclusions readers are meant to draw (Raney 86). The story is in the first person, in the voice of Jackie. The main protagonist is Jackie, a seven-year-old boy who fears and hates his grandmother.
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He also lives with his sister Nora who constantly torments and teases him. He hates his grandmother so much that he refuses to even eat dinner prepared by her. This was when the time came for his first confession and communion. The old lady who prepares him for this ritual, Ryan, in the name of nurturing spirituality, speaks about hell, the tortures of hell, and the evil that would befall if one fails to make a good confession. She does this in a dramatic way, so much so, Jackie becomes scared: “a shocking impression on me.” The story has all three types of irony: verbal, dramatic, and situational.
Being taught to examine our consciences is supposed to be a positive experience in spirituality. But Jackie says, “the worst of all was when she showed us how to examine our consciences” (O’Connor 1). It is ironic that spirituality that was meant to evoke positive feelings in a person evoked only fear and disgust in the mind of young Jackie. It is dramatic irony in this instance. Jackie feared that he had broken every moral code.
As he was only a child, he questioned Ryan whether honoring one’s father and mother included grandmother. When she answered in the affirmative, Jackie became sure that he was a terrible boy and a sinner who had broken all commandments all because of his old grandmother. “I was scared to death of confession” (O’Connor 1). This is situational irony. Confessions are meant to bring peace to the sinner’s mind. Jackie is terrified of confession.
Jackie had to go to the chapel for Communion on Sunday morning with Nora. She was cruel and scared him all the way to the chapel giving him frightening pictures of confession and reminding him of all his ‘sins’: “Do you remember the time you kicked Gran on the shin?” (Mercier and Greene 517). With this fear, Jackie had to enter the chapel. He felt trapped: “couldn’t escape even if I wanted to” – an example of dramatic irony. He feared that he might not be able to reveal all his sins, and hence he might burn to death like the man in the story Ryan had said.
Explicit verbal irony is there in the paragraph when he describes Nora walking down the aisle: “God, the hypocrisy of women! Her eyes were lowered, her hands were joined on her stomach, and she walked up the aisle to the side-altar as if she was treading on eggshells. I remembered the devilish malice with which she had tormented me all the way from home, and I wondered if all religious people were like that” (Mercier and Greene 518). Here the irony is in the behavior of Nora and expressed through the tool of sarcasm. Though she acted like a devout Christian, she was ruthless when it came to tormenting her brother.
Jackie sees the priest coming out of the middlebox, pushing the biretta back from his forehead as “something terrible.” This dramatic irony is because of the fact that fears had been created in his mind by Ryan and Nora regarding confession. When Nora smacks him, Jackie utters this clearly ironic sentence: “This reminded me that I was so stunned I had even forgotten to cry, so that people might think I wasn’t hurt at all, when, as a matter of fact, I was probably crippled for life” (Mercier and Greene 519). While it was just a smack he got, the pain of humiliation probably made him feel crippled for life, and he also felt that he had to cry to let others know he was hurt. This is such an ironic thing because all people who witnessed it knew he was hurt but not crippled and would have been sorry for him whether he cried or not.
With the dialogue between Jackie and the father, verbal irony begins. ‘Oh,’ he said in a respectful tone, a big, hefty fellow like you must have terrible sins. Is this your first?’ Jackie was just a small boy of seven years, and it’s unlikely that he would have terrible sins. Father makes him think that he has a lifetime of crimes to tell and that he can have his time in the end. This made Jackie feel ‘joyous.’ He reasoned that when a fellow confesses for the first time in seven years, he will have more to tell than people that went every week. This is sweet irony held within the situation.
Jackie confesses that he had it all arranged to kill his grandmother. Father seems interested when he accuses his grandmother of crimes like taking porter, walking in bare feet, and giving pennies only for Nora and beating him. Father encourages him with ironical words: ‘Oh, my!’ ‘She’s a bad case all right, Jackie” (Mercier and Greene 523). He plays along with him and empathizes with Jackie, who also confesses that he tried to kill Nora with a bread knife. This swishing the bread knife at Nora was something he did in self-defense. Now, the situation is making him dramatize it and make it sound like a planned criminal act.
The priest who is supposed to benevolent and kind says: “Someone will go for her with a bread-knife one day, and he won’t miss her” (Mercier and Greene 523) – referring to Nora. This irony is verbal because he does not really mean it. He even says that he has seen dozens of people being hanged and that they all died roaring. He then includes that some of them had killed their grandmothers and regretted it. The irony is here used to dramatize the situation to the young boy Jackie. Situational irony happens when Nora finds herself at a disadvantage in the end. Jackie is given mild penance and Bulls’ eyes to suck. So she concludes that “’Tis no advantage to anybody trying to be good. I might just as well be a sinner like you” (Mercier and Greene 523).
Mercier, Vivian and Greene, H. David (1952). 1000 Years of Irish Prose. Devin-Adair Publishers. New York.
O’Connor, Frank (1951). First Confession. Traveller’s Samples. New York.
Raney, David (2003). Whose Authority? Learning and Active Resistance. College Teaching. Volume: 51. Issue: 3.