What is the Definition of Irony?
First, let’s define irony.
Dictionary.com includes six separate definitions of “irony,” but today we’ll just be looking at these three:
“The use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning”
“A technique indicating an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.”
“An outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.”
As can be seen in these three definitions, there is at least one crucial element that binds all examples of irony together: oppositeness or contrariness. A subversion of expectations does not necessarily make something irony—i.e., an unexpected ending to a play, a plot twist that comes out of left field—are not necessarily ironic.
Now let’s look at the three specific forms of irony a bit more closely:
Verbal Irony occurs when a character (or narrator) says one thing but means another. One important aspect to consider here is that verbal irony, unlike dramatic or situational irony, requires the intention of the speaker. For this form of irony to be understood, then, the reader or viewer must be aware of the speaker’s intended meaning. Note that this is the only form of irony in which the character or narrator consciously creates the irony on his or her own. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Jonathan Swift writes the following in A Modest Proposal:
“I rather recommend buying the children alive and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.”
Swift, of course, is not literally arguing for children to be eaten. Readers know this because they are (hopefully) aware that the book is a work of satire. In this case, then, Swift is using verbal irony. His intended meaning is opposite or contrary to what is literally stated.
A subclass of verbal irony comes in the form of the ironic simile. Standard similes are figures of speech comparing two indistinct things. For example, saying that someone’s “skin is as dry as bone” or “her hair was as dark as night” are examples of similes. Ironic similes use this same form, but do so in a contrary manner. Common examples include:
As clear as mud.
As soft as concrete.
As quick as molasses.
Verbal irony is often confused with sarcasm. There is much varied debate on distinguishing between the two categories, but we will discuss that in a moment.
The next type of irony is Dramatic Irony. Dramatic irony happens in a narrative—whether that be a play, novel, film, or some other form—when an event occurs that is understood by the audience but is unknown to one or more of the characters. Dramatic irony, then, depends on the audience knowing more than the characters about events occurring in the work. This type of irony often functions as a form of foreshadowing; since we know more than the characters, we can make educated guesses about the potential outcome. In other words, we can predict the inevitable conclusion with our knowledge, knowledge that would undoubtedly change the actions of characters if they had it as well. The meaning of the characters’ actions, then, is interpreted differently by the audience due to the audience’s extra knowledge regarding events in the story. This knowledge also creates tension and suspense for the readers or watchers.
For example, near the end of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Juliet drinks a sleeping potion that makes her appear to be dead. As readers or viewers of the play, we are aware that Juliet is alive. However, the characters in the play believe she is dead. This leads the lovelorn Romeo to drink actual poison in a moment of despair. Upon awakening, Juliet stabs herself upon finding her dead lover. This is an example of dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony is quite common in film. For example, when we see an oblivious character in a horror film flee into a closet where we know the killer is located, then we are witnessing an example of dramatic irony. We, the audience, know, but the character doesn’t. Similarly, Disney films often use dramatic irony—we know that the witch’s apple is poisoned, but Snow White does not. We also know that the Beast in Beauty and the Beast is a prince, but this fact is not known by Belle until the end.
Now we’ve reached the final type of irony we’ll be looking at: Situational Irony. Situational irony denotes a reversal of expectations. In other words, one outcome is expected, but something completely different results. Unlike dramatic irony, situational irony does not depend on the audience having extra knowledge that the characters do not have. In fact, we are just as oblivious as the characters in terms of what we know. Instead, our expectations are reversed resulting in often tragic or humorous effect.
The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum’s novel and the film of the same name, contains an example of situational irony. During the film, Dorothy and her band of companions in need of solutions to their perceived problems set out on a mission to find the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard’s wisdom, Dorothy believes, is the only means for her to get back to Kansas, for the Cowardly Lion to become courageous, and so on. However, we learn that the Wizard is powerless, a man behind a curtain pretending to be wise and all-powerful. Each character discovers that they have the solutions to their own problems and do not require the help of the Wizard—i.e., the Cowardly Lion was, in fact, brave all along, he just didn’t know it. Here, our expectations and the expectations of the characters are contradicted; the wizard was not the answer to all of the problems. Again, this is situational irony, but it would be an example of dramatic irony if we knew from an earlier point in the story that the Wizard was a fraud and that each character already had the solutions to his or her problems.
As you look for irony in different media, it’s important to note that sarcasm is not included. Sarcasm is often labeled as “ironic” in everyday speech. However, though related to the idea of irony, it is not technically irony. Like I said before, there is much debate surrounding the irony/sarcasm division. Let’s take a closer look:
Sarcasm is similar to irony in that it expresses the opposite of the speaker’s intended meaning, which means it is often confused with verbal irony. Here are some characteristics that distinguish sarcasm from irony:
Sarcasm is often easily distinguished from verbal irony because it is a result of the speaker’s annoyance. For example, a teenager being asked to clean his room might say “I’d love to!” Of course, the teenager wouldn’t love to, and is therefore expressing the exact opposite of his feelings. In this case, the teenager is being direct, aggressive, and mocking. It is a product of his irritation. Compare this with the earlier examples of verbal irony: Swift’s ironic argument in favor of cooking children and Antony’s ironic praise of Brutus. These two examples of verbal irony are used to humorous effect (Swift) or to heighten the dramatic aspects of the situation (Shakespeare). In this way, they serve a function as literary devices. Expressing annoyance, however, does not.
At the end of the day, the distinction between verbal irony and sarcasm can be subtle. Different scholars, dictionaries, and resources will have varied definitions regarding what counts as irony and what should more appropriately be called sarcasm.
Distinguishing between the three main forms of irony used in literature can be a difficult task. In particular, be mindful when separating “proper” irony from sarcasm. Effective use of irony is a literary device that can add a lot—be tension, humor, or an element of surprise among other things—to a literary text.
Here is a quick review question to test your knowledge:
Which is an example of dramatic irony?
- A man stuck in a long line exclaims, “Oh, perfect!”
- A writer satirically praises the benefits of global warming.
- A character is thought to be a murderer by other characters, but audience members know this is not the case.
- Characters and readers are both surprised by an unexpected turn of events.
The correct answer is C. Choice A is an example of sarcasm because of the annoyance of the speaker. Choice B is an example of verbal irony, and Choice D is an example of situational irony.
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!