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Situational Irony (Meaning & Examples)

What is situational irony?

Last updated on December 3rd, 2023 at 04:08 am

Situational irony exemplified in real-life.
Situational irony in real-life.

What is situational irony?

A fire station burns down. Someone on social media complains about social media. A restaurant runs out of food.

What do the scenarios above have in common? Whether you’re familiar with popular literary devices or not, hopefully you can spot that each includes irony. Specifically, each of those examples show a situation or scenario that is least expected, given the context in which it’s occurring.

When what transpires is the opposite or differs sharply from what we’d expect to occur in a situation or narrative, this describes situational irony. Situational irony is a literary device where a marked contrast between what’s expected to take place vs. what, in fact, takes place (i..e, reality). It’s a literary curveball, so to speak.

Get it, it's ironic. Flat tire by Michael Ochs.
Get it? It’s situationally ironic. Flat tire by Michael Ochs.

Types of situational irony

There are four types of situational irony: cosmic irony, poetic irony, structural irony, and historical irony:

Cosmic irony

Also called irony of fate or circumstance, is when a higher power, (e.g., a god, magic or fate), intervenes resulting in ironic situations.

An example of cosmic irony occurs in the film Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino we see a classic instance of cosmic irony. When the two characters, Jules and Vincent, are shot at multiple times without getting hit, Jules assumes that, “God stopped the bullets”, claiming it was a “divine intervention”.

Poetic irony

Also called poetic justice, is when “virtue is rewarded and misdeeds are punished”. To put it another way: poetic irony or justice is when the characters in the story get what they deserve. Disney movies are big on this type of irony, as is seen in the classic Disney film, The Little Mermaid. In the film, the evil sea-witch, Ursula, is killed as punishment for trying to appoint herself as ruler of the sea.

Structural irony

Structural irony occurs when the narrator of a story has faulty perceptions of reality, or is delusional, ultimately influencing how the story is told/the audience’s understanding of the events.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway, a titular character who becomes friends with Jay Gatsby and observes the events surrounding Gatsby’s pursuit of wealth and love. The structural irony arises from the fact that Nick, the narrator, is an unreliable narrator. He tells the story from his point of view, but the reader gradually becomes aware of Nick’s biases and limited perspective.

Historical irony

Historical irony is when hindsight provides an ironic perspective on an action or stance made in the past. An example of this is when Chinese emperors sought to find an “elixir of mortality” which would make them immortal. As it happened, some of the emperors that drank this elixir would then die from its poisonous effects, since some contained mercury or arsenic.

Situational irony vs other types of irony

The other main types of irony include verbal irony and dramatic irony. The difference between verbal irony and situational irony is that verbal irony is based on the literal words of what someone says vs. the intended meaning. Figures of speech like sarcasm, understatement or overstatement are all types of verbal irony. An example would be to say “the weather today is fantastic!“, when it’s actually gloomy and rainy outside. Chances are, the remark means the complete opposite of what is literally being said.

Situational irony is similar to dramatic irony, but the difference is that with situational irony, the reader learns of the events unfolding alongside the characters within the story themselves. With dramatic irony, the audience knows about key elements of the plot before the characters themselves do.

Common examples of situational irony

  1. The Fire Station Blaze: A fire station burning down is a paradigmatic example of situational irony, where the opposite of what you’d expect to happen, happens. The irony lies in the fact that the very institution responsible for extinguishing fires becomes a victim of one.
  1. The Health Nut’s Dilemma: A fitness guru who advocates for a strict, organic diet falling seriously ill due to contaminated health foods. This scenario not only presents a health-conscious individual facing an ironic health crisis but also challenges our assumptions about the correlation between lifestyle choices and well-being.
  1. A police officer getting a speeding ticket: A police officer attending receives a speeding ticket on the way home.
  1. The Noisy Librarian: A librarian who constantly shushes noisy patrons ends up disrupting the silence with an embarrassing, inadvertent loud noise.

Read about other literary devices!

  1. Wikipedia contributors. “Chinese alchemical elixir poisoning.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 Sep. 2023. Web. 19 Nov. 2023.