I. What is Sardonic?
Sardonic is an adjective describing dry, understated, and sort of mocking speech or writing—such as a clever remark that stings because it’s so accurate. While sardonic comments seem slightly hostile, they are supposed to be witty and humorous rather than deeply hurtful.
Sardonic lines are delivered with a completely straight face, as though it isn’t supposed to be funny and the speaker isn’t thinking about it. It is considered a ‘tone’ (e.g. “a sardonic comment”), and it can also describe a person who often uses that tone (e.g. “the sardonic doctor”).
II. Examples of Sardonicism
I did not attend the funeral, but I sent a letter saying I approved of it.(Mark Twain)
Ouch! Mark Twain was famous for his sardonic comments. Notice that this one is ‘dry,’ clever, funny, and mean–however not actually hurtful to anyone living!
“I always wanted to marry in the spring, just as the petunias bloom.”
“Just when the what?”
“Oh, dear. Is she hard of hearing?”
“No, no, no! I can hear you. I just wanted to make sure you could hear you.”
(Phoebe and Colleen, 30 Rock)
Colleen Donaghy is a good example of sardonicism on TV. She fits a popular trope (an often repeated element in art) — the snarky old mother. In this scene, she’s showing that she doesn’t approve of Jack’s new girlfriend, using a sardonic remark–witty and indirectly insulting.
III. The Importance of Sardonicism
Sardonicism works because it’s funny. That’s really its main purpose – to make the audience laugh. And audiences like sardonic characters. As a result, it can be a great element in any sort of fiction, whether written or performed.
Sardonic characters can be valuable in a variety of ways; they can bring different points of view to a story and/or serve as comic relief. Some characters are sardonic just to be funny, and humor can make all the difference in a work of fiction. Sardonicism is also often cynical—expressing a basically critical or pessimistic attitude towards life and human beings in general, such as the always sardonic Severus Snape of Harry Potter. This can show a character’s intelligence—and/or their emotional problems. Still other characters are sardonic due to arrogance, impatience, or contempt for others. So, sardonicism can be a valuable way to reveal a character’s psychology, and it is also entertaining.
IV. Examples of Sardonicism in Literature
“But all the lads have asked for the name of my tailor.”
“Doubtless with the aim of avoiding him, sir.”
P.G. Wodehouse wrote a series of books about a butler named Jeeves (it’s where the website AskJeeves got its name). Jeeves is famous for his quick wit and dry, straight-faced delivery, making him one of the best examples of sardonicism in literature. In this line, Jeeves is cleverly insulting his employer’s taste in clothing.
There’s a saying that all roads lead to Ankh-Morpork. And it’s wrong. All roads lead away from Ankh-Morpork, but sometimes people walk along them the wrong way. (Terry Pratchett, Discworld)
Usually it’s a character who delivers the sardonic lines in a book. But not always! In Terry Pratchett’s books, for example, the narrator often makes such comments about characters or settings using a sardonic tone.
V. Examples of Sardonicism in Popular Culture
A bolt of lightning in a huge copper conductor. I thought you lived in a school? (Magneto, X-Men)
Magneto is definitely a cynic; his view of humanity is so dark that he’s willing to wage war on it. Like many cynics, he’s very sardonic. In this line, he’s using sardonicism to question Cyclops’ intelligence.
“But what are you? . . . Do you mean you are a Son of Adam?”
Edmund stood still, saying nothing. He was too confused by this time to understand what the question meant.
“I see you are an idiot, whatever else you may be,” said the Queen.
(Queen Jadis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)
Queen Jadis is usually much too aggressive and villainous to be sardonic. But in this early line she shows a little flair for snarky one-liners.
We’re assassins. We assassinate people. Should I look it up for you?
(Malik, Assassin’s Creed)
Sardonic characters are everywhere in video games. Sometimes they’re mocking the player (as in this example). Other times it’s the player mocking someone else. You can even have a sardonic narrator, which is a particularly rich source of humor. This particular line is poking fun at the player-character’s intelligence, mocking him for not fully understanding what it means to be an assassin.
VI. Related Terms
While sardonicism refers to a tone, cynicism is an outlook on life. A cynical character is pessimistic and takes a negative view of humanity, usually questioning people’s motives and not trusting that anything is as it seems. Because of their suspicious worldview, cynical characters often use sardonicism–both to drive people away from them, and to make their negativity more enjoyable, through humor.
Although they sound similar, these words have slightly different meanings. Sarcasm is a specific kind of sardonicism, it also means saying the opposite of what you mean. Take this example from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog:
Wow, sarcasm. That’s original…
This is sarcasm, because the speaker means that it’s not original.
Sardonicism is a kind of wit, and maybe the most common kind. Wit is a very broad term, though, and covers all sorts of clever, quick, and funny comments. When someone is being witty, dry, and mocking at the same time, then they’re being sardonic.