Repetition as a Mechanism to Express Irony in Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier

The literary device which makes itself most known in Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, is irony. Irony, in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms is defined as: “A contradiction or incongruity between appearance or expectation and reality.” From the name of the protagonist, Not Sidney Poitier, to the parodied-plot, Everett’s novel is entirely ironic. However, repetition plays a large role in how Everett dictates the presentation of his ironies in his supporting characters. Everett uses a variety of repetition styles to achieve this, such as: diacope, alliteration, assonance, and homoioteleuton. Everett uses repetition as an important tool to express irony through his supporting characters in I Am Not Sidney Poitier. 

Diacope is defined as: the repetition of a word with one or more intervening words in between. Everett chooses to use this form of repetition most often, as it is established on the first page of the novel. Everett writes: “I am the ill-starred fruit of a hysterical pregnancy, and surprisingly, odd though I might be, I am not hysterical myself.” The term “hysterical pregnancy” is synonymous with “false pregnancy,” which refers to pregnancy-related symptoms in a woman, without an actual pregnancy. With that being said, the repetition of the word “hysterical” emphasizes the juxtaposition between the lunacy of Not Sidney’s mother’s pregnancy, and Not Sidney’s surprising sanity. In fact, our protagonist grows up to be relatively sensible. Furthermore, Everett writes: “My mother, famously eager to have a child, and likewise famously odd, offbeat, curious to all who met her and famously very much without a partner.” The repetition of the word “famously” emphasizes the curious circumstances under which Not Sidney was conceived. However, Not Sidney conceived and birthed all the same, rather famously. Diacopic repetition is used to discuss the literal birth of Not Sidney, when Everett details his mother’s pain: “Her screams filled the streets like screams.” In the simile, “screams” is repeated to emphasize the exact sound emitted by Not Sidney’s mother. The diction implies that there is no other word to describe the screams, which communicates to the reader that the pregnancy was tremendously taxing. The “simile,” created via the repetition of the word “screams,” is not technically a simile. It is, in essence, an ironic-simile that only exists because of the diacope created by Percival Everett. The opening portion of the novel is riddled with diacopes that illuminate the absurdity of Not Sidney’s conception and birth. Everett’s repetition facilitates the presentation of specific ironies, such as, Not Sidney’s mother becoming pregnant without “famously” having a partner. In summary, the irony of Not Sidney Poitier’s birth is expressed via the implementation of diacopic repetition. 

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines alliteration as: “The repetition of sounds in a sequence of words. Alliteration generally refers to repeated consonant sounds.” With this in mind, alliteration is a relatively common literary device that can even be written by accident. Percival Everett does not write his alliterations by accident however. Not Sidney, upon his mother’s death, moved in with millionaire Ted Turner. There he received tutoring from an outspoken leftist who despised Ted Turner despite her employment. Moreover, despite the fact that Ted Turner knew Betty’s name, and mentioned to Not Sidney that he liked her, Betty still scornfully refers to him as a: “pestilential, poisonous, pernicious, parasite.” The alliteration demonstrates not only the disdain with which Betty regards Ted Turner, but the irony of the situation as a whole. Although Betty is an educator, she refuses to acknowledge the evidence that Ted Turner is not the menace she thought he was. Furthermore, in the alliteration, she refers to Ted Turner as a “parasite,” meanwhile she is the one who is receiving a wage from Ted Turner. The contrast between Betty’s misplaced disdain in Ted Turner, and her dependence on the same man for a livelihood, demonstrates the irony in her defaming her employer. That irony is given fortitude by the alliteration, which draws attention to the gusto with which Betty disapproves of Ted Turner. Meanwhile assonances, which according to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms are: “the repetition of identical or similar vowel sounds” are used in a similar way. For example, Ted Turner says to Not Sidney: “And I want to apologize again about this abstruse arrangement. Boy that’s a lot of a’s in one sentence.” The assonance provides a mechanism to allow Percival Everett to break the fourth wall between his readers and the plot, which of course is an example of dramatic irony. Whether it is the repetition of consonant sounds, or vowel sounds, alliterations and assonances function as a sculptor to Ted Turner’s character. Moreover, they help to characterize Betty as well, as her and Ted Turner create a paradoxical dynamic. 

Homoioteleuton, is defined as repeating similar ending sounds at the ends of words or phrases. Everett uses homoioteleuton often, which allows his sentences to flow quickly and with apparent sonic symmetry. For example, when detailing his exploits in martial arts, Not Sidney states: “He did so, thusly, which was synonymous with roughly or violently, as he always did, thusly.” The clause flows smoothly with the repetition of the ly sound, and is sonically symmetrical as it begins and ends with the word “thusly.” Another example, spoken by Betty, reads: “…I have tried so untiringly, diligently, and untiringly to teach you.” Again there is a repetition of the ly sound, but this quote’s significance relies more on it being further characterization for Betty. Not Sidney conveys that her teachings mainly consisted of: “She taught me about Marx and Lenin and Castro and the ills of American democracy.” While it is important for a teacher to prompt a student to ponder questions about their government, according to Not Sidney, Betty’s teachings are wholly biased. If one is teaching “untiringly” and “diligently” then one would expect more than just romanticized opinions. Therefore, the homoioteleuton allows the reader to witness the divide between Betty’s actual teaching ability and her perceived teaching ability. She may hold herself in high regard, but her pupils certainly do not. Previously, an alliteration was used to emphasize the juxtaposition between her negative perception of Ted Turner and his actual positive personality. Currently, a homoioteleuton is being used to emphasize the juxtaposition between her bursting ego, and her tangible abilities as a teacher. In both instances Betty proves that she is incapable of seeing the truth, which is ironic because she is the one teaching Not Sidney about “truth.”

Everett’s novel is centered on the irony of trying to make a name for oneself; a name that’s different from the one given at birth. In the process of detailing Not Sidney’s introspective journey, Everett created other characters that, like Not Sidney, live and breath irony. Betty for example, is a teacher without a clue as to which side is up and which side is down. Meanwhile, Ted Turner is a millionaire CEO who knows his staff and who fostered a small boy. Furthermore, Not Sidney’s mother, is a mother seemingly without a partner. Her pregnancy occurred despite the omission of many key factors such as a husband, or natural gestation period. Such supporting characters are just as ironic as the protagonist, and their irony is constantly expressed through repetition patterns. Diacope, alliteration, assonance and homoioteleuton draw attention to specific lines of importance. Moreover they had emphasis to existing metaphors or juxtapositions. They can also create entire similes as does the diacope: “Her screams filled the streets like screams.” Overall, these repetition patterns play a significant role in developing the ironies that make supporting characters such as Betty and Ted Turner, justifiably as important to the main narrative as Not Sidney Poitier.

References:

  1. Figures of Speech: Repetition, http://changingminds.org/techniques/language/figures_speech/figures_repetition.htm.
  2. Figures of Repetition
  3. http://rhetoric.byu.edu/Figures/Groupings/of Repetition.htm.

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