The Fatal Secret: A Critical Concept & a Literary Device
In narrative fiction, irony can occur on several levels. Perhaps the most meaningful mode of irony in any story is dramatic irony, which is what the “fatal secret” is all about.
Irony is always concerned with the occurrence of multiple meanings at any given time. This can be as simple as sarcasm, where a person says one thing but means another. Or, in the case of dramatic irony, it can run deeper and create real narrative tension.
Dramatic irony happens when one character “on stage” is aware of some information that other characters are not privy to. This means, necessarily, that the audience also knows what the privileged character knows.
Why is this dramatic?
Well, imagine a situation where a character has killed a man and buried that man beneath the floorboards of his apartment. The police show up and interrogate the killer. The reader knows the killer’s secret and every moment that the police spend pacing back and forth across the floorboards of the apartment, the tension builds – not just for the killer but for the reader too. At any time the secret could be discovered.
The anticipation of that discovery is dramatic in large part because the double meaning in that moment – when the reader and the killer know where the body is while the policemen stand asking questions, just inches from the evidence they seek – that gives the story irony.
In the plays of Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller and others, this kind of dramatic secret has been given center stage and allowed to propel the greater part of the conflict of a story. And while it necessarily leads to revelations about the truth of certain characters, the secret is not merely a means of exposition. The secret knowledge at the root of the dramatic irony for Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Miller’s All My Sons actually defines the conflict and, thus, the meaning of the play.
In each of these plays, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the secret knowledge shared by both audience and protagonist (and a few other characters perhaps) can be seen as the foundation of the whole plot. The secret, in other words, is the object around which the narrative spins.
Consider Hamlet. In this revenge play, a young man (Hamlet) is informed by the ghost of his father that his uncle is a murderer. (Hamlet’s uncle killed Hamlet’s dad.) This secret is revealed early in the play and it is used to great effect to generate tension over the course of the narrative.
We, the audience, know that Hamlet knows what his uncle did. Every time the uncle comes on stage, we wonder if the secret is going to come out. It’s a bit intense. More than that though, it is the point of the play.
Hamlet is largely concerned with the issue of fidelity. To whom should young Hamlet be true? To his mother, married to the murdering uncle? Or to his father, dead now and beyond help? The trouble of honor comes into play as well when Hamlet has to wonder which is the nobler path – to avenge his father and therefore correct a grievous wrong or to be merciful and let his mother’s husband live (which means his mother also gets to keep living as a queen – but mostly just that she gets to keep living, period).
The nature of the secret young Hamlet holds is not just an object of tension; it is also the pivot of the greater themes of the play. Revealing his knowledge will lead Hamlet directly into the jaws of his dilemma. He will have to choose between mother and father. Choosing his mother’s side means that he gets to live. Choosing his father’s side means that he will die.
“To be or not to be?”
The secret truly is a “’fatal secret” for Hamlet. For Ibsen and Miller, the secret is equally weighty and equally indicative of the larger themes of the narrative. But this plot device is not limited to the theatre. Television shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter, and The Sopranos have used dramatic irony very effectively, creating intense drama from the same “secret” recipe.