Situational Irony

Definition of Situational Irony

Situational irony occurs when something happens that is very different than what was expected. Every type of irony involves some contrast between what seems to be the case on a surface level and what is really happening. In cases of situational irony, there is often a twist that plays with the expectations of the audience and/or characters. A famous example of situational irony is from the movie The Sixth Sense, in which a child named Cole who can “see dead people” finally identifies the main character played by Bruce Willis to, in fact, be dead.

The word irony comes from the Greek word εἰρωνεία (eirōneía), which means “dissimulation” or “feigned ignorance.” Many historians and literary theorists created different terms to recognize the different forms of irony that occur in literature and in real life. The definition of situational irony is more contemporary, but is very common in literature and reality.

Difference Between Situational Irony, Dramatic Irony, and Verbal Irony

There are many different types of irony, but the main three are usually identified as situational, dramatic, and verbal irony. Here are the key features of each form of irony:

  • Situational Irony: A situation in which the outcome is very different than what was expected.
  • Dramatic Irony: Part of a piece of literature in which the reader or audience member has more information than the character(s) and there is thus incongruity between what the characters expect and what the audience knows to be true.
  • Verbal Irony: Verbal irony occurs when a speaker means or feels something very different from what he or she says. Verbal irony often involves sarcasm, though this is not a necessity. The main difference between verbal irony and the other two chief forms of irony is that verbal irony must be intentional on the part of the speaker. Situational irony and dramatic irony, meanwhile, don’t necessitate the involvement of a character obscuring the truth of a situation.

Common Examples of Situational Irony

There are many historical examples of situational irony, as in the following cases:

  • Chinese alchemists who were trying to create something that would create immortality instead created gunpowder.
  • Nonnative toads were released in Australia to control a beetle that was a pest to farmers, but became a much worse pest and didn’t even get rid of the beetle problem.
  • In an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, bullets bounced off Reagan’s bullet-proof car and hit Reagan, wounding him.

Other examples of situational irony in real life could involve the following scenarios:

  • Banning a book about banned books (this happened with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451)
  • Posting on Facebook about what a waste of time social media is
  • A police station that gets robbed
  • A fire station that burns down
  • An animal rights crusader who carriers a leather purse

Significance of Situational Irony in Literature

Though the definition of situational irony is relatively modern, the concept of situational irony dates back millennia. There are situational irony examples in Ancient Greek drama, such as in Oedipus Rex, and examples of fable, like the tortoise being able to beat the hare in a footrace. Situational irony can be humorous, tragic, or didactic in the way that it subverts expectations. There are always sharp contradictions in examples of situational irony, and unexpected twists. Thus, while they appear in all different genre of literature, situational irony is especially prevalent in mysteries and thrillers.

Examples of Situational Irony in Literature

Example #1

For he removed from her garment the golden
brooches which she was wearing; he lifted them
and struck the sockets of his own eyes,
shouting that they would not see either the evils
he had suffered or the evils he had done,
now only in darkness could they see those whom
they must not see, in darkness could they mistake
those whom they wanted to recognize.

(Oedipus the King by Sophocles)

There are numerous examples of situational irony in Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus the King. In the above excerpt, Oedipus has found out that the man he murdered was his own father. He blinds himself in atonement for this sin, which ironically leads to greater wisdom of what is truly significant in his life. When Oedipus learns who he is father really was and that he has killed him, he abdicates his crown. This is also an example of situational irony because it is through his paternal inheritance that Oedipus is a worthy ruler. Before learning the identity of his father, Oedipus could be considered a “tyrant” or “false king.”

Example #2

ROMEO: One fairer than my love? The all-seeing sun
Ne’er saw her match since first the world begun.

(Act 1, Scene 2)

ROMEO: Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

(Act 1, Scene 5)

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet also contains many examples of situational irony. In Act 1, Romeo is in love with Rosaline and only wants to go to a ball to see her. It is at this ball that Romeo sees and falls in love instead with Juliet. It is unexpected that he should renounce his love for Rosaline so quickly, because at first he says that there is no match to Rosaline and just three scenes later he announces that he has not loved until the moment he sees Juliet and that he has never seen true beauty before her.

Example #3

And here I have told you the story of two children who were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days: Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones. They are the magi.

(“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry)

In O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” two young lovers gift up their most important possession in order to buy the other a Christmas gift. Della cuts off and sells her hair to buy Jim a watch band, and Jim sells his watch to buy combs for Della’s hair. Both can’t believe that the other would part with their most important possession for the other. O. Henry uses this as a lesson to his readers that they are the true magi.

Example #4

DANFORTH, reaches out and holds her face, then: Look at me! To your own knowledge, has John Proctor ever committed the crime of lechery? (In a crisis of indecision she cannot speak.) Answer my question! Is your husband a lecher!
ELIZABETH, faintly: No, sir.
DANFORTH: Remove her!
PROCTOR: Elizabeth, tell the truth!
DANFORTH: She has spoken. Remove her!
PROCTOR, crying out: Elizabeth, I have confessed it!
ELIZABETH: Oh, God! (The door closes behind her.)

(The Crucible by Arthur Miller)

John Proctor’s wife Elizabeth is famous for her honesty. Thus, in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, Proctor expects her to tell the truth. He has already confessed to his adultery, but to protect him Elizabeth lies for the first time, condemning him to death.

Test Your Knowledge of Situational Irony

1. Which of the following statements is the best situational irony definition?
A. A statement that a character makes that is in odds with the way she feels.
B. A situation in which the audience knows something the characters in the play do not.
C. A result that is very different from what was expected.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. A is the definition of verbal irony, while B is the definition of dramatic irony.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following scenarios is an example of situational irony?
A. A marriage counselor who files for divorce
B. Winning the lottery after playing it for years
C. Ten thousands spoons when all you need is a knife
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. B is not situational irony, as the odds of winning the lottery go up after playing it for years (if only minimally). Neither is Alanis Morissette’s complaint about having spoons when you need a knife, as she gives no evidence about why it should be unexpected to have so many spoons.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following statements is not an example of situational irony in Sophocles’s play Oedipus the King?
A. Oedipus blinds himself, which takes away his ability to see, but leads to deeper wisdom.
B. Oedipus kills his father.
C. When Oedipus finds out he has killed his father he renounces his crown. Before he learned who his real father was, Oedipus seemed to have gotten power illegitimately, but the truth of his paternity means that he is, in fact, fit to rule.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. It is not unexpected that Oedipus kills his father; indeed, it is an example of self fulfilling prophecy.[/spoiler]