Irony & The Crucible: Dramatic, Verbal & Situational

‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller uses situational, dramatic and verbal irony to express absurdity and make a point. In this lesson, we’ll define those terms and go over some examples.

Definition of Irony

Have you ever experienced laughter through tears? During a very tense moment, something incongruous with the situation can create a much needed time-out from the heavy feelings associated with a dramatic or sad event. Authors use irony, which, in the literary context, is the unexpected, to provide emotional release, make a point, and add to characterizations.

‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller is a dramatic play about the Salem witch trials. Miller uses several types of irony to express the degree of absurdity that is present when people are punished for false allegations due to irrational fears.

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The Ten Commandments

Situational irony happens when an unexpected action occurs that is in direct contrast to what one would expect to happen. John Proctor’s affair with his former employee, Abigail Williams, prompts Abigail to falsely accuse John’s wife, Elizabeth, of demonic possession. When John is asked to recite the Ten Commandments to prove his Christianity, he lists nine of them, and then repeats one. His wife, Elizabeth, prompts him, ‘Adultery, John.’ Ironically, John forgets the commandment that he has broken. This example of irony provides comic relief and insight into the fallacies of John’s character.

Elizabeth’s Testimony

Dramatic irony occurs when the reader or audience is aware of information, but the character is not. In this situation, the character mistakenly says or does something that is opposite of what they should. An example of dramatic irony happens when Elizabeth is brought forth to testify.

Unaware that John has already confessed his affair with Abigail to the courts, Elizabeth does not know what to say when Judge Danforth asks why she fired Abigail Williams. Wanting to protect her husband from charges of lechery, she responds, ‘She – dissatisfied me. And my husband.’ Had she told the truth, she could have cleared her name. Irony in this scenario shows the degree of loyalty that Elizabeth has for her husband who has betrayed her.

John’s Confession

Verbal irony is when the character purposely says something that is the contradictory of the truth. Sarcasm is one form of verbal irony. When John is forced into a false confession that he has been visited by a demon, he sarcastically responds, ‘A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face!’ Referring to the court officials as doing the devil’s work, John uses verbal irony to express his frustration.

Lesson Summary

In ‘The Crucible’, Arthur Miller uses situational, dramatic, and verbal irony, which, in the literary context, is the unexpected, to add comic relief, suspense, and intensity to some of the most dramatic scenes.

  • Situational irony involves an action that is opposite of what would be expected, such as when John is unable to remember that not committing adultery is one of the commandments when that is the sin he committed that caused all of the problems for his family.
  • Dramatic irony happens when the audience knows information that the character doesn’t. The lack of information causes the character to say or do something that is inconsistent with what is happening around them. When Elizabeth dooms herself in court by lying to protect John after John has already made a confession, it is an example of dramatic irony.
  • Verbal irony is when the character knowingly says something that is not true for effect. Sarcasm is a type of verbal irony. When John is forced to say he has seen the devil, he uses sarcasm to say that the devil exists among the court officials who are not seeking truth.

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