What Is the Irony in 'Teenage Wasteland'?

Anne Tyler's short story "Teenage Wasteland" is a bleak account of a troubled young man and his family's futile attempts to help him to achieve success. This story is ironic in the sense that nothing works out as intended, and roles are often reversed in a manner that distorts the truth.

Irony in Reversals

In "Teenage Wasteland," many roles are reversed. Donny's parents take on the helpless role of children, listening like chastised kids from the principal's couch at Danny's school and abdicating their authority to Cal, the tutor. Cal, on the other hand, plays the role of a teenager himself, lending further irony in that he represents a teenage wasteland in which the boundaries have extended well into adulthood. Donny's parents achieve the opposite from what they had hoped for, ultimately not only losing Donny but their relationship with their daughter Daisy as well.

Calling the Kettle Black

The immature adult tutor Cal tells Donny's parents that they are like "wardens," comparing their household to a prison while the truth is that they are much too permissive. He recommends that they give Donny more "rope"; however, all this strategy does is provide him with enough leverage to hang himself instead of the structure he needs. When Donny is expelled from school, Cal says that he is "emotionally disturbed," but it is Cal himself who is emotionally underdeveloped. These manipulations not only provide irony but also paint a picture of a master manipulator.

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