Last updated on December 3rd, 2023 at 04:32 am
What is irony?
Is it rain on your wedding day, a black fly in your Chardonnay? Or did Alanis misunderstand the assignment? What is irony, exactly?
As a literary device and real-life phenomenon, irony is notoriously difficult to precisely define. We know it when we see it, or even experience it ourselves, but when pushed to say what irony really is, most have trouble articulating an exact definition of the term. This article explains what irony is, and what it is not. We’ll also get into the main types of irony, and give examples for each.
The meaning of irony
A natural starting point when looking to understand any term is to consult the dictionary for a definition. In this case, looking to the dictionary for an answer may leave us even more confused than before. Nevertheless, at a broad level, irony is understood as,
The use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning (Merriam-Webster, irony).
[Also] an incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result. (Merriam-Webster, irony).
To put it another way: irony is what occurs when what we expect to happen is the opposite of what really happens. It’s the clash between expectation vs. reality. We see examples of this in real life all the time, along with in literature and media.
Let’s say, as an example, that your cat is sick. You decide to take your cat to the vet, and on the way there you accidentally run over a cat while driving. This would be an instance of irony: while you’re spending effort to take care of your own cat, you accidentally kill another one.
Types of irony
The three main types of irony are:
When someone says something that differs sharply (or is the literal opposite) of what they mean, it’s possible they are using verbal irony. For example, if the weather is nice and someone says, “what great weather we’re having“, they probably mean this sincerely. On the other hand, if the weather is rainy, cloudy, and gloomy, and someone makes that same comment about the weather being great, it’s unlikely they’re being sincere. Unless you’re Drew Barrymore in the rain, in that case you probably do mean it.
The contrast between what the person is saying and what they actually mean is what constitutes verbal irony. If you’re wondering whether verbal irony is the same as sarcasm, then that’s a fair question. Indeed, the two are similar, but sarcasm tends to go a step further and has a derisive tone that typically pokes fun or mocks someone.
Situational Irony, also known as irony of fate or circumstance, is what most people have in mind when they imagine what irony is; i.e., the contrast between what’s expected to happen and what in fact happens. A paradigmatic example of situational irony is a fire station burning down from a fire while the firefighters are out responding to another fire. This example comes up a lot to illustrate situational irony when you search “what is situational irony?“
Another example of situational irony can be seen with people that post on social media talking about how social media is such a waste of time. Situational irony is commonly used in storytelling and literature to add tension or an element of surprise. A classic example of situational irony exists in the narrative of O. Henry’s short story, The Gift of the Magi.
In The Gift of the Magi, a poor young couple sacrifices their most prized possessions to be able to afford each other the perfect Christmas gifts. The wife sells her luscious locks of hair to a wigmaker so she can buy her husband a gold chain for his pocket-watch. Unbeknownst to her, the husband sells his gold pocket-watch so that he can buy his wife a gold comb to brush her hair with. At the end of the story, when both husband and wife reveal the gifts they had gotten each other, the situational irony emerges in the gifts being now useless.
Dramatic Irony describes when the audience (readers, whichever), knows something about the events about to take place in the story which the characters themselves do not. This gap in the knowledge of events (of what’s about to happen) between the you and the characters themselves can evoke actual feelings of dread and anticipation, from the second-person perspective.
Look up ‘dramatic irony’ online, and 9/10 you’ll get Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Aside from the play being a classic itself, it gives a wonderfully concise and straightforward display of dramatic irony. The irony of a desperate young lover killing themselves because they’re under the impression that the person they love is dead (obviously, unbeknownst to them, they are not dead). Let’s just say that when it comes to the majority of ironic situations, I’d rather be a spectator.
Reasons we use irony in writing and literature
Irony adds depth and complexity to storytelling and communication. It challenges our assumptions, engages our critical thinking, and (when used effectively) can evoke a breadth of emotions, from humour to utter dread and anticipation. Here are a few key reasons why irony is the superlative literary device (in our humblest of opinions).
Examples of irony in literature and life:
- Romeo and Juliet: The tragic ending of the play, where both Romeo and Juliet die because of miscommunication and misunderstanding, is a classic example of dramatic irony.
- O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”: In this short story, a couple sacrifices their most prized possessions to buy gifts for each other, only to discover the irony that their gifts are now useless. This is a classic example of situational irony.
- The Boy Who Cried Wolf: The fable illustrates situational irony when the boy, who falsely cries wolf for fun, later finds himself in real danger, and no one believes him (a lesson to learn, don’t be the boy who cried wolf, also a popular idiom and phrase).
Irony is a literary and rhetorical device that involves a discrepancy between what is expected and what takes place. It’s used to convey deeper layers of meaning, humour, tragedy and/or commentary on a situation.
The main types of irony are verbal, situational, dramatic, and situational irony, offer a range of possibilities for enriching storytelling and dialogue. Whether it’s in classic literature or our everyday conversations, irony is an essential element of language and narrative that adds depth, complexity, and fascination to the way we express ourselves and understand the world.
- Merriam-Webster, irony. Accessed on Nov 5, 2023.