Discover, once and for all, what irony is and is not. Explore three types of irony: verbal, situational and dramatic, and learn about some famous and everyday examples.
What Is Irony?
The 1995 pop song by singer Alanis Morissette, ‘Ironic,’ presents a number of bad-luck situations, from ‘rain on your wedding day’ to finding an ideal mate and learning he or she is already married.
The problem, though, is that not one of the situations described in the song is actually ironic.The concept of irony and what makes a situation ‘ironic’ is something many people struggle with, mostly because overuse of the term can make its definition unclear. Often confusing irony with bad luck or coincidence, popular culture and media are quick to label things as ironic when sometimes they just aren’t.Irony is a literary device that relies on the difference between expectation and outcome.While no one wants it to rain on their wedding day, a rain-free wedding is not a guarantee for any bride and groom. Bad luck, but not ironic.
Same with meeting the ‘man of your dreams’ and finding he’s already married. Tough break, but it’s been my experience that you can’t reasonably expect every dream man you encounter to be available to commit to you forever.In those examples, there is no actual discrepancy between expectation and outcome. You can, however, reasonably expect a song about ironic situations to contain ironic situations. That all the situations described in ‘Ironic’ are not ironic is, in fact, ironic.Now that we have a handle on what irony is not, let’s explore three different types of irony: verbal, dramatic and situational.
Verbal Irony and Examples
Verbal irony is the use of language to express the opposite sentiment than what is expected.
The most recognizable form of verbal irony is sarcasm, where the speaker says the opposite of what they mean, often for comedic effect.Sometimes my dad will serve himself dessert and tell the rest of the family that it is ‘disgusting’ while simultaneously shoveling it in his mouth. He uses sarcasm, saying it is disgusting when he’s clearly enjoying it, to get us to laugh.There are times, though, when verbal irony is less about laughter and more about underscoring how we feel by saying the opposite of what is true.
We often say the opposite of how we feel to show disappointment: ‘It’s okay; I didn’t want to win a million dollars anyway.’In many of her novels, but especially in ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ Jane Austen uses irony to critique the institution of marriage. The novel begins: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’The irony is that most of the men in the novel are not actively in ‘want of a wife.’ Bingley seems to like Elizabeth’s sister, Jane, but then drops her rather quickly.
George Wickham is a cad, totally afraid of commitment, and Darcy thinks too highly of himself to think any woman is worthy of him.
Situational irony is when the exact opposite of what you expect to happen happens. Situational irony, like verbal irony, is powered by the incongruity between the expectation and the actual outcome.Cartoons often use situational irony to get laughs, from a cat chasing a dog (instead of a dog chasing a cat) to a talking cartoon baby with a British accent who is smarter and more devious than any of the adult characters.Situational irony can be used to create tragedy, too. As readers, we expect a wife to feel grief when she learns her husband has died in an accident.
In ‘The Story of an Hour’ by Kate Chopin, Louise Mallard feels relief instead of sorrow when she is told her husband has been killed in a train accident. While her husband treated her well, Louise felt confined by marriage, and his death makes her feel free instead of sad. This is the opposite of what we would expect – situational irony.
Dramatic irony is when a playwright or a novelist creates an ironic situation that only the viewer or reader knows about. Dramatic irony is said to be a type of situational irony that the characters aren’t in on yet, which can create tension – the killer hiding somewhere we only know about – or humor – a comedy based upon mistaken identity.’The Story of an Hour’ contains both situational and dramatic irony.
When Louisa learns her husband, Brently, is dead, she feels relief instead of sadness (situational irony). But we the reader know her husband is not dead, and she will have to face him soon (dramatic irony).In another literary example, O. Henry’s story ‘The Gift of the Magi,’ a husband and wife each sacrifice their most prized possession to buy the other a secret Christmas gift.Delia sells her beautiful hair for a watch chain for her husband, while her husband, Jim, sells his watch to buy his wife a hair comb. The dramatic irony is that only the reader knows they have made their gifts to one another irrelevant, and the story is known for the selflessness of the characters.
Similarly, William Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ relies heavily on dramatic irony. Only the audience knows what all the characters are doing and thinking. We see the tragedy unfolding, as messages do not make it to their destinations, and characters miss one another by minutes. Romeo does not know of Juliet’s plan to stage her death so they can be together. He thinks she’s dead and – spoiler alert! – kills himself. But the audience knows the irony: Juliet faked her death so she could run away with Romeo, but news of her death kept them from being together.
Irony is a literary device that uses the difference between expectation and result as a way to make people laugh, cry and think. Verbal irony is the use of the opposite thought or feeling to create humor or show disappointment. Situational irony is when people expect one thing to happen and then the opposite occurs, like a song about irony containing no examples of irony. Finally, dramatic irony is when only the audience or reader knows about the ironic situation taking place in a play or story, resulting in tension or humor.
When the lesson is over, you should be able to:
- Understand the concept of irony
- Give an example of verbal irony
- Recognize the use of situational irony
- Explain what dramatic irony is