The Piece of String Irony

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson, we will look at how dramatic irony is used in literature. We will particularly look at how dramatic irony is used in Guy de Maupassant's short story 'The Piece of String.'

Dramatic Irony

Irony is a part of our life. When we say 'thanks' sarcastically to someone for taking up two parking spots, we are using irony. If someone were to choke on an apple piece requiring medical attention after saying, 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away,' this is ironic. Irony is also used in literature. One form of irony used in literature that can't really be found in life is dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the rest of the characters don't know. This typically leads to conflict in the story.

Guy de Maupassant uses dramatic irony in his short story 'A Piece of String.' In this story, Maitre Hauchecorne is falsely accused of stealing another man's wallet. He tries to declare his innocence until his dying breathe. It is ironic to us, as the reader, because we know that the reason he was accused was because he was actually seen picking up a piece of string and not the wallet. He had looked guilty picking up the piece of string because he felt silly stopping to pick up a simple piece of string when his enemy saw him picking it up.

A Silly Piece of String

When Hauchecorne first stops to pick up the piece of string, we know that he is stopping because he is of a thrifty mind. It is painful for him to stoop down because he is getting old, but he still stops and picks up the string. He had stopped because he was 'economical as are all true Normans' and 'reflected that everything was worth picking up which could be of any use.' At this moment we cannot fathom anything that could be wrong with him stopping to pick up a piece of string.

Then he notices his enemy (due to 'a quarrel about a halter'), Malandain, was staring at him. He suddenly felt silly for stopping to pick up something as worthless as a piece of string. So he carefully disguises the fact that he has only stopped for a piece of string, carefully putting the string in his pocket so that no one can see. He 'then pretended to be still looking for something on the ground' in order to make Malandain think that he was stooping to find something else. He gets up and goes about his day normally. Not thinking any more about the issue. But then he is accused of stealing the wallet. He is quite confused why anyone would think he stole the wallet, but then he hears that Malandain saw Hauchcorne sneakily picking something up from the ground and putting it in his pocket.

Already, we feel the irony of the situations. Hauchecorne was only being sneaky about it because he felt silly for stopping for something as simple as a piece of string. It wasn't something fancy like a wallet, instead it was something silly. But who is going to believe that he would look guilty picking up a piece of string, when it could be a wallet he would be looking guilty about?

This irony continues when further proof is brought forward. He was then seen continuing to look about the ground as though trying to find any money that may have fallen from the wallet. We, as the audience, know that this was simply to further hide his embarrassment at picking up a silly piece of string, but to everyone else it makes him look guilty.

Declaring His Innocence

Hauchecorne continues to declare his innocence. But no one believes him. The story has gone to everyone in the area, and everyone has decided that he is guilty. He desperately tries to declare his innocence but everyone just laughs at him. It is such a silly story. Why would anyone believe him?

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