What is irony? Well, it’s like rain on your wedding day. It’s a free ride, when you’ve already paid. ’90s radio is helpful here.
Okay; but what is irony? It can often be easier to point to specific ironies than to find a definition of irony itself that hits home.
Irony involves contradiction of our perceived reality.
At root, irony involves contradiction of our perceived reality. This powerful literary device is often misunderstood or misused, but when wielded correctly, it can reveal deeper truths by highlighting the many strange contradictions and juxtapositions woven through life.
This article examines the different types of irony in literature, including dramatic irony, situational irony, verbal irony, and others. Along the way, we look at different irony examples in literature, and end on tips for using this device in your own writing.
But first, let’s further clarify what this tricky writing technique means, by defining irony in literature.
Irony Definition: What is Irony in Literature?
Irony is a moment in which the opposite of what’s expected actually occurs, a contrast between “what seems to be” and “what is.”
Irony is, in other words, a contrast between “what seems to be” and “what is.”
For example, let’s say you’re having an awful day. You got stuck in traffic, your head hurt, it was storming all afternoon, the deli messed up your lunch order, and your son’s school called to say he got in a fight. Finally, you get home and check your email, and see a message from the dream job you just interviewed for. You’re expecting the worst, because it’s been such a crappy day, and—you got the job.
As a literary technique, this device primarily accomplishes two goals. First, it allows you to juxtapose contradictory ideas in your writing. By diverging from what the reader or character expects, an ironic plot or dialogue exchange allows opposing ideas to sit side-by-side, creating a fertile space for interpretation and creative inquiry.
Second, irony examples in literature emulate real life. We’ve all had days like the one described above, where everything seems awful and suddenly the best news reaches us (or vice versa). The real world follows no logical trajectory, and we find ourselves surrounded by competing ideas and realities. Irony makes talking about these contradictions possible.
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Irony vs. Sarcasm
Because both irony and sarcasm come across as wry statements about certain situations, people often confuse the two terms. However, sarcasm has a much narrower use.
Sarcasm only occurs in dialogue: you can speak something with sarcasm, but an event cannot be sarcastic. Additionally, sarcasm is usually intended to be mean or point at the folly of a certain person. By speaking wryly or ironically about another person’s faults, an individual’s use of sarcasm will often be insulting or derogatory, even if both parties understand that the sarcasm is simple banter. (Sarcasm comes from the Greek for “cutting flesh.”)
For example, let’s say someone you know just came to a very obvious or delayed realization. You might say to them “nice thinking, Einstein,” obviously implying that their intelligence is on the other side of the bell curve.
So, the difference between irony vs. sarcasm is that sarcasm is a verbal insult that points towards someone’s flaws ironically, whereas irony encompasses contradictory ideas, statements, and events. As such, sarcasm is sometimes a form of irony, but only partially falls under a much broader umbrella.
Different Types of Irony in Literature
There are, primarily, three different types of irony in literature: dramatic, situational, and verbal irony. Each form has its own usage in literature, and there are also many sub-types of irony that fall under each of these categories.
For now, let’s define each type and look at specific irony examples in literature.
Dramatic Irony Definition
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the story’s characters do not. As such, fictional characters make erroneous decisions and face certain avoidable consequences. If only they had known what the audience knows!
Dramatic irony definition: when the audience knows something that the story’s characters do not, resulting in poor decision making or ironic consequences.
You will most likely find dramatic irony examples in plays, screenplays, and other forms of theater. Shakespeare employs this device often, as do playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, and the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Nonetheless, fiction writers also employ dramatic irony, particularly when the story involves multiple narrative points of view.
Dramatic Irony Examples in Literature
Shakespeare was truly a master of dramatic irony, as he employed the device to entertain, captivate, and frustrate his audience.
In Romeo & Juliet, Juliet is apparently dead, having taken a strong sleeping potion, and is laid in the Capulet crypt. The message was supposed to be conveyed to Romeo that, upon her waking, the two would run off together. But, this message never arrives, so when Romeo hears of Juliet’s death and goes to her tomb to mourn, he kills himself with poison. The audience knows that Juliet is just asleep, making Romeo’s death a particularly tragic example of dramatic irony.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket is also laden with dramatic irony examples. In The Reptile Room, the narrator addresses this directly:
Of course, this is a series written towards children, so the direct translation of what dramatic irony means might seem a bit juvenile for adult fiction writers. Nonetheless, this excerpt defines the precise feeling that dramatic irony can bestow upon the reader, illustrating it through the contrast of Uncle Monty’s dialogue against the impending doom the Baudelaires face.
(Note: this is not an example of verbal irony, because Uncle Monty’s dialogue is not intentionally contradicting what he means. More on this later in the article.)
Situational Irony Definition
Also known as irony of fate, of events, or of circumstance, situational irony describes plot events with unexpected or contradictory outcomes.
Situational irony definition: plot events with unexpected or contradictory outcomes.
Let’s say, for example, your local fire department burns down. Or the new moisturizer you bought actually wrinkles your skin. Or, heaven forbid, you finish working on your manuscript, click “save” for the final time, and your laptop completely shuts down. All of these possibilities point towards the unpredictability of the future—as do the below situational irony examples in literature.
Situational Irony Examples in Literature
Situational irony happens when a certain event or reaction is expected, and an entirely contradictory one occurs.
For example, in the story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, two young lovers have no money to spare, but are trying to find each other the perfect Christmas gift. The girl, Della, has beautiful hair, which she cuts and sells to buy Jim a fob chain for his watch. Jim, in turn, sells his watch to buy Della some combs for her hair. As a result, each lover’s gift turns out to be useless, since each has sold their most prized possession to show their love to each other.
The narrator summarizes this beautiful moment of situational irony thus:
Of course, ironic situations occur all the time in real life, so there are many situational irony examples in nonfiction. This excerpt comes from the essay “My Mother’s Eyes” by Henriette Lazaridis:
Certainly, the speaker would not expect to see herself resembled in her mother’s gaunt, dying face, but that’s exactly what happens. This moment of situational irony encourages the reader to examine the relationship between death, family, and heritage.
Verbal Irony Definition
Verbal irony refers to the use of dialogue where one thing is spoken, but a contrasting meaning is intended. The key word here is intentional: verbal irony is not merely lying or speaking a faux pas, it’s an intentional use of contrasting language to describe something in particular.
Verbal irony definition: An instance of dialogue where one thing is spoken, but a contrasting meaning is intended.
We do this all the time in conversational English. For example, you might walk into a storm and say “wonderful weather we’re having!” Or, if someone is wearing a jacket you love, you might say “that’s hideous!”
We’ve already contrasted irony vs. sarcasm, so as you may have inferred, verbal irony can sometimes be a form of sarcasm. (For example, telling someone with an ugly shirt “nice shirt!”) That said, verbal irony is not always sarcasm, so remember that sarcasm is intentionally used to insult someone’s folly.
Verbal Irony Examples in Literature
Because verbal irony is always spoken, you will almost always see this device utilized in dialogue. (The only time it isn’t used in dialogue is when a narrator, usually first person, speaks to the audience ironically.)
In George Bernard Shaws’ Pygmalian, Professor Higgins’ housekeeper has just told the professor not to swear. To this he replies:
You and I might not think “what the devil” counts as swearing, but it’s certainly ironic for Professor Higgins to invoke the devil after claiming he never swears.
Many more verbal irony examples come to us, again, from Shakespeare. In Othello, the character Iago—a complex antagonist who feigns loyalty to Othello but seeks his demise—proclaims “My lord, you know I love you.” The audience knows that Iago hates Othello, but Othello himself does not know this, making this bit of dialogue particularly ironic.
In a different Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar, Caesar describes Brutus (his later-betrayer) as an “honorable man.” At this point, the audience knows that Brutus plans to join the conspiracy to kill Caesar.
With verbal irony, sometimes the dialogue is understood as ironic by the other characters, and sometimes only by the audience. Either way, an attentive reader will recognize when a character means the opposite of what they say, or when their intentions simply do not align with their speech.
The below Venn diagram compares and contracts the different types of irony in literature.
You may have heard of some other types of irony, such as socratic, historical, or cosmic irony. These forms are technically subcategories of the above 3, but it is useful to make these distinctions, especially as they relate to particular genres of literature.
Cosmic irony refers to an instance where a character’s outcome in the story is outside of their control. For example, in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the titular Tess is a mostly-innocent protagonist to whom one thing after another goes wrong. Despite her innocence, a malevolent series of misfortunes forces her to murder someone, resulting in her imprisonment and execution. The narrator then writes that “Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.” In other words, Tess is the plaything of fate, and the justice bestowed upon her is extremely ironic, given she is the victim of poor circumstance. This is a subcategory of situational irony (although the narrator’s use of the word Justice is, indeed, verbal irony).
Historical irony describes a situation that, in hindsight, was deeply ironic. There are countless examples of this in the real world. For example, gunpowder was invented by Chinese alchemists searching for the elixir of life—if anything, they created an elixir of death. Or, the introduction of the Kudzu vine in the United States was intended to prevent soil erosion, particularly after the dust bowl in the 1930s. Kudzu became an invasive species, choking plants of resources instead of preserving the ecosystem. This form of situational irony occurs countless times in history, showing up whenever a person’s or government’s decision backfires tremendously.
Socratic irony involves the use of verbal irony as part of the Socratic method. The teacher will either pretend to be dumb, or pretend that the student is wise, to draw out the flaws in a student’s argument. While you don’t see this often in literature, it’s a possible rhetorical strategy for teachers, lawyers, and even comedians.
Tips and Ideas for Your Own Writing
The discrepancy between “what seems to be” and “what is” can prove particularly useful for writers. Irony helps writers delay the reveal of crucial information, challenge the reader’s worldview, and juxtapose contradictory ideas and themes. As such, this literary device can pull together your stories and plays, so long as you wield it effectively and with discretion.
Here are some possibilities for your writing:
- Building tension. When the audience knows something that the characters don’t, we can only watch in horror as those characters make ill-informed decisions.
- Playing with fate. Why do bad things happen to good people? A commentary on fate—or, at the very least, the seeming randomness of the universe—often goes hand-in-hand with irony.
- Stringing the plot. If every character made perfect decisions, there would be no plot. Irony helps throw characters into challenging, even preventable situations, forcing the story to reckon with that character’s imperfections.
- Challenging the reader. What does it mean for society when a fire department burns down, a lung doctor smokes cigarettes,, or a government causes chaos by trying to instill democracy? These themes are aided and expounded by the use of irony in literature.
- Entertaining exchanges. Whether the narrator speaks wryly to the audience, or two characters have witty banter, verbal irony certainly makes a text more entertaining.
- Juxtaposition. What does it mean to love the person you hate? Can justice be served to the most unjust of human beings? The juxtaposition of contradictory themes allows us to examine the world with nuance, discretion, and creativity.
- Making fiction true-to-life. We all find ourselves from time to time in the midst of ironic situations. Including irony in your stories isn’t just a clever literary device, it’s an attempt at making your stories as believable as possible.
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