Definition of Irony

As a literary device, irony is a contrast or incongruity between expectations for a situation and what is reality. This can be a difference between the surface meaning of something that is said and the underlying meaning. It can also be a difference between what might be expected to happen and what actually occurs. The definition of irony can further be divided into three main types: verbal, dramatic, and situational. We describe these types in detail below.

The word “irony” comes from the Greek character Eiron, who was an underdog and used his wit to overcome a stronger character. The Greek word eironeía derived from this character and came to mean “dissimulation” or “purposely affected ignorance.” The word then entered Latin as ironia, and eventually became common as a figure of speech in English in the 16th century.

Irony is sometimes confused with events that are just unfortunate coincidences. For example, Alanis Morrissette’s song “Ironic” contains many events that are not ironic in any sense. She cites “rain on your wedding day” and “a traffic jam when you’re already late” as ironic situations, yet these are merely bad luck.

Types of Irony

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony takes place when the speaker says something in sharp contrast to his or her actual meaning. The speaker often makes a statement that seems very direct, yet indicates that the opposite is in fact true, or what the speaker really means. Looking at Alanis Morrissette’s “Ironic” again, the one true instance of irony comes when the man whose plane is going down says, “Well, isn’t this nice.” Clearly, the plane crash is anything but nice, and thus this utterance conveys the opposite of the man’s true feelings. Unlike dramatic and situational irony, verbal irony is always intentional on the part of the speaker.

Verbal irony can also consist of “ironic similes”, which are comparisons in which the two things are not alike at all. For example, “as soft as sandpaper” or “as warm as ice.” These similes mean that the thing in question is actually not soft or warm at all. The author Daniel Handler (who writes with the pen name Lemony Snicket) takes ironic similes to an extreme by qualifying them so they actually become real comparisons. For example: “Today was a very cold and bitter day, as cold and bitter as a cup of hot chocolate, if the cup of hot chocolate had vinegar added to it and were placed in a refrigerator for several hours.”

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience has more information than one or more characters in a work of literature. This literary device originated in Greek tragedy and often leads to tragic outcomes. For example, in Shakespeare’s Othello, the audience is aware that Othello’s best friend Iago is villainous and attempting to bring Othello down. The audience is also aware that Desdemona has been faithful, though Othello doesn’t know this. The audience can foresee the imminent disaster.

There are three stages of dramatic irony: installation, exploitation, and resolution. In the case of Othello, the installation is when Iago persuades Othello to suspect that Desdemona is having an affair with a man named Cassio. Iago then exploits the situation by planting Desdemona’s handkerchief, a gift from Othello, in Cassio’s room. The resolution is only after Othello has murdered Desdemona when her friend Emilia reveals Iago’s scheme.

Situational Irony

Situational irony consists of a situation in which the outcome is very different from what was expected. There are contradictions and contrasts present in cases of situational irony. For example, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the citizens of the Emerald City assume that Oz is great and all-powerful, yet the man behind the curtain is revealed to be an old man with no special powers.

Other types of irony:

  • Cosmic Irony: Cosmic irony, also known as “irony of fate”, is present in stories that contain gods who have different agendas than humans. These gods, or the Fates, may play with the lives of humans for their own amusement. The irony lies in contrast between what the humans expect and what actually happens. Though this is most common in Greek legends, it is also present in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles where the immortals play with Tess’s life.
  • Historical Irony: Historical irony relates to real events that happened that, when seen in retrospect, had vastly different outcomes than predicted at the time. For example, Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder when looking for a way to create immortality. The result of their discovery was the opposite of what they were looking for.
  • Socratic Irony: The philosopher Socrates would pretend to be ignorant about the topic under debate to draw out the nonsensical arguments of his opponent. This is particularly evident in the Platonic dialogues. This technique is an example of dramatic irony because Socrates pretended to have less information than he really did.

Difference between Irony and Sarcasm

Though there are many similarities between verbal irony and sarcasm, they are not equivalent. However, there are many dissenting opinions about how, exactly, they are different. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica simply explains that sarcasm is non-literary irony. Others have argued that while someone employing verbal irony says the opposite of what that person means, sarcasm is direct speech that is aggressive humor. For example, when Winston Churchill told Bessie Braddock that “I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly,” he was being sarcastic and not employing any irony.

Common Examples of Irony

  • Verbal irony: “What a pleasant day” (when it is raining heavily)
  • Situational irony: Referring to WWI as “the war to end all wars”
  • Situational irony: In 1925 when the New York Times declared that the crossword puzzle was a craze that was “dying out fast”
  • Dramatic irony: The movie “The Truman Show”, where only Truman doesn’t know that he’s being filmed at all times

Examples of Irony in Literature

Example #1

Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare

In this famous love story the audience can foresee the tragic ending long before Romeo and Juliet themselves know what’s going to happen. At the end of the play, Romeo finds Juliet and believes her to be dead though the audience knows she’s taken a sleeping potion. Romeo kills himself with this false knowledge. Juliet then wakes up and, finding Romeo truly dead, kills herself as well. This irony example is one of dramatic irony as the audience has more information than the characters.

Example #2

MARK ANTONY: But Brutus says he was ambitious; / And Brutus is an honourable man.

(Julius Caesar by Shakespeare)

In this quote from Julius Caesar, Mark Antony is seemingly praising Brutus after the assassination of Julius Caesar. However, this example of irony is one of verbal irony, since Mark Antony is in fact implying that Brutus is neither ambitious nor honorable.

Example #3

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

In this short story, a young, poor couple struggle with what to buy each other for Christmas. The woman cuts her hair and sells it to buy a watchband for her husband. Meanwhile, the husband sells his watch face to buy combs for his wife’s hair. This is an example of situational irony, since the outcome is the opposite of what both parties expect.

Example #4

“The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen

In this short story, and later in the Disney adaptation, a mermaid falls in love with a prince and saves him from drowning. Desperate to be with him, the mermaid makes a deal with a sea witch to trade her voice for human legs. Though the prince is charmed by the mermaid he doesn’t realize who she really is because she no longer has a voice. This is an example of dramatic irony where the audience has more information than the prince.

Test Your Knowledge of Irony

1. Choose the best irony definition:
A. An unfortunate coincidence in which the worst possible ending comes to pass.
B. A contrast between expectations for what is going to happen and what actually does happen.
C. A biting comment meant to be both humorous and true.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the best answer.[/spoiler]

2. Is the following an example of situational, dramatic, or verbal irony?

In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus kills his own father without realizing that the man is actually his father. This act brings on a plague and Oedipus swears that he will murder the man responsible, not knowing that he himself is responsible.

A. Dramatic irony
B. Situational irony
C. Verbal irony
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: This is an example of dramatic irony, since the audience has more information than Oedipus does. A is thus the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. American President John F. Kennedy’s final reported conversation was with a woman who announced, “Mr. President, you can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you.” JFK agreed, “That’s very obvious.” Why is this an example of irony?

A. The event was very tragic, and thus it was ironic.
B. JFK was aware that he was in danger, and thus employed verbal irony when he asserted that Dallas must love him, knowing this wasn’t the case.
C. In retrospect, this conversation was ironic because the outcome of the situation was completely at odds with what anyone would have expected to happen.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]