Richard’s experiences as a hospital orderly illustrate three different forms of irony. First, narrative irony, which, as the name suggests, occurs when the mood created at one point in a narrative quickly shifts. Immediately preceding the story of his work in the hospital, Richard stands in line at the relief station, watching the black men and women talk with each other and swooning with visions of the unity of all oppressed people worldwide. From this optimistic mood, Wright immediately brings us into the hospital basement, where Brand and Cooke appear as absolute jewels of pettiness and buffoonery. Richard’s vision of hope is thus ironically replaced by an immediate experience of utter hopelessness.
Second, situational irony refers to circumstances that seem the opposite of what one would expect. In these chapters, situational irony arises from the racial segregation of employees in the hospital. Richard has moved to the North because of the promise that Chicago would be free from racism. Yet he finds racism anyway—though perhaps not in as overt a form—most ironically in a hospital, a scientific institution ostensibly devoted to the public good.
Third, dramatic irony occurs when we as readers know something that a character does not. At the hospital, Richard, predictably, is interested in the research. Yet when he tries to learn about it, a doctor says to him, “If you know too much, boy, your brains might explode.” These words are quite ironic, for there is a decent chance that Richard actually knows more than this snobby doctor: not about medicine, but about literature, sociology, history, politics, and other disciplines. Readers of Black Boy know Richard’s ambitious self-education and his future as a prominent writer and intellectual. The doctor does not, which makes his words comically misguided and ironic.
Though Richard embraces Communism as a means to organize and express his hope for the unity of oppressed peoples, we immediately see hints that Communism will not be the ultimate answer he has been looking for. Richard is discouraged when the Communist cartoons horrify his mother, as he notes that it is difficult to lead the masses when addressing them in a manner that they cannot understand. Moreover, the petty bickering within the Party disheartens him, leading him to bemoan the fact that if the John Reed Club cannot unite itself, it will never be able to unite the masses. The episode with Comrade Young is perhaps the most obvious indication that Communism will not meet Richard’s hopeful expectations. Young’s sudden appearance and seizure of power is quite funny, but it makes Richard wonder: “what kind of club did we run that a lunatic could step into it and help run it?” He is right to ask, because this incident, more than any other, serves to undermine the integrity of the movement in which he has so much faith.