Definition of Irony

Irony is a literary device in which contradictory statements or situations reveal a reality that is different from what appears to be true. There are many forms of irony featured in literature. The effectiveness of irony as a literary device depends on the reader’s expectations and understanding of the disparity between what “should” happen and what “actually” happens in a literary work. This can be in the form of an unforeseen outcome of an event, a character’s unanticipated behavior, or something incongruous that is said.

One of the most famous examples of irony in literature comes from The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. In this story, a newly married couple decides independently to sacrifice and sell what means most to themselves in order to purchase a Christmas gift for the other. Unfortunately, the gifts they receive from each other are intended for the very prized possessions they both sold. As a result, though their sacrifices symbolize the love they have for each other, the actual gifts they receive are all but useless.

Common Examples of Irony

Many common phrases and situations reflect irony. Irony often stems from an unanticipated response (verbal irony) or an unexpected outcome (situational irony). Here are some common examples of verbal and situational irony:

Verbal Irony

  • Telling a quiet group, “don’t speak all at once”
  • Coming home to a big mess and saying, “it’s great to be back”
  • Telling a rude customer to “have a nice day”
  • Walking into an empty theater and asking, “it’s too crowded”
  • Stating during a thunderstorm, “beautiful weather we’re having”
  • An authority figure stepping into the room saying, “don’t bother to stand or anything”
  • A comedian telling an unresponsive audience, “you all are a great crowd”
  • Describing someone who says foolish things as a “genius”
  • Delivering bad news by saying, “the good news is”
  • Entering a child’s messy room and saying “nice place you have here”

Situational Irony

  • A fire station that burns down
  • Winner of a spelling bee failing a spelling test
  • A t-shirt with a “Buy American” logo that is made in China
  • Marriage counselor divorcing the third wife
  • Sending a Christmas card to someone who is Jewish
  • Leaving a car wash at the beginning of a downpour
  • A dentist needing a root canal
  • Going on a blind date with someone who is visually impaired
  • A police station being burglarized
  • Purchasing a roll of stamps a day before the price to send a letter increases

Examples of Irony in Plot

Irony is extremely useful as a plot device. Readers or viewers of a plot that includes irony often call this effect a “twist.” Here are some examples of irony in well-known plots:

  • The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum): the characters already have what they are asking for from the wizard
  • Time Enough at Last (episode of “The Twilight Zone”): the main character, who yearns to be left alone to read, survives an apocalyptic explosion but breaks his reading glasses
  • Oedipus Rex (Sophocles): Oedipus is searching for a murderer who, it turns out, is himself
  • The Cask of Amontillado (Edgar Allan Poe): the character “Fortunato” meets with a very unfortunate fate
  • Hansel and Gretel (Grimm fairy tale): the witch, who intended to eat Hansel ad Gretel, is trapped by the children in her own oven

Real Life Examples of Irony

Think you haven’t heard of any examples of irony in real life? Here are some instances of irony that have taken place:

  • It is reported that Lady Nancy Astor once said to Winston Churchill that if he were her husband, she would poison his tea. In response, Churchill allegedly said, “Madam, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”
  • Sweden’s Icehotel, built of snow and ice, contains fire alarms.
  • Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is the official name for fear of long words
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is considered an anti-censorship novel, and it is one of the most consistently banned books in the United States.
  • A retired CEO of the Crayola company suffered from colorblindness.
  • Many people claimed and/or believed that the Titanic was an “unsinkable” ship.
  • There is a hangover remedy entitled “hair of the dog that bit you” that involves consuming more alcohol.
  • George H.W. Bush reportedly stated, “I have opinions of my own, strong opinions, but I don’t always agree with them.”

Difference Between Verbal Irony, Dramatic Irony, and Situational Irony

Though there are many forms of irony as a literary device, its three main forms are verbal, dramatic, and situational. Verbal irony sets forth a contrast between what is literally said and what is actually meant. In dramatic irony, the state of the action or what is happening as far as what the reader or viewer knows is the reverse of what the players or characters suppose it to be. Situational irony refers to circumstances that turn out to be the reverse of what is expected or considered appropriate.

Essentially, verbal and situational irony are each a violation of a reader’s expectations and conventional knowledge. When it comes to verbal irony, the reader may be expecting a character’s statement or response to be one thing though it turns out to be the opposite. For situational irony, the reader may anticipate an event’s outcome in one way though it turns out to happen in a completely different way.

Dramatic Irony is more of a vicarious violation of expectations or knowledge. In other words, the reader/audience is aware of pertinent information or circumstances of which the actual characters are not. Therefore, the reader is left in suspense or conflict until the situation or information is revealed to the characters involved. For example, a reader may be aware of a superhero’s true identity whereas other characters may not know that information. Dramatic irony allows a reader the advantage of knowing or understanding something that a particular character or group of characters does not.

Writing Irony

Overall, as a literary device, irony functions as a means of portraying a contrast or discrepancy between appearance and reality. This is effective for readers in that irony can create humor and suspense, as well as showcase character flaws or highlight central themes in a literary work.

It’s essential that writers bear in mind that their audience must have an understanding of the discrepancy between appearance and reality in their work. Otherwise, the sense of irony is lost and ineffective. Therefore, it’s best to be aware of the reader or viewer’s expectations of reality in order to create an entirely different and unexpected outcome.

Here are some ways that writers benefit from incorporating irony into their work:

Plot Device

Irony in various forms is a powerful plot device. Unexpected events or character behaviors can create suspense for readers, heighten the humor in a literary work, or leave a larger impression on an audience. As a plot device, irony allows readers to re-evaluate their knowledge, expectations, and understanding. Therefore, writers can call attention to themes in their work while simultaneously catching their readers off-guard.

Method of Reveal

As a literary device, irony does not only reveals unexpected events or plot twists. It serves to showcase disparity in the behavior of characters, making them far more complex and realistic. Irony can also reveal preconceptions on the part of an audience by challenging their assumptions and expectations. In this sense, it is an effective device for writers.

Difference Between Irony and Sarcasm

Although irony encapsulates several things including situations, expressions, and actions, sarcasm only involves the use of language that is in the shape of comments. Whereas irony could be non-insulting for people, sarcasm essentially means ridiculing somebody or even insulting somebody. Therefore, it is fair to state that although sarcasm could be a part of an element of irony, the irony is a broad term, encompassing several items or ingredients of other devices in it.

Use of Irony in Sentences

  1. A traffic cop gets suspended for not paying his parking tickets.
  2. “Father of Traffic Safety” William Eno invented the stop sign, crosswalk, traffic circle, one-way street, and taxi stand—but never learned how to drive.
  3. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone but refused to keep one in his study. He feared it would distract him from his work.
  4. Alan has been a marriage counselor for 10 years and he’s just filing for divorce.
  5. Oh, fantastic! Now I cannot attend the party I had been waiting for 3 months.

Examples of Irony in Literature

Irony is a very effective literary device as it adds to the significance of well-known literary works. Here are some examples of irony:

Example 1: The Necklace (Guy de Maupassant)

“You say that you bought a necklace of diamonds to replace mine?”
“Yes. You never noticed it, then! They were very like.”
And she smiled with a joy which was proud and naïve at once.
Mme. Forestier, strongly moved, took her two hands.
“Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste. It was worth at most five hundred francs!”

In his short story, de Maupassant utilizes situational irony to reveal an unexpected outcome for the main character Mathilde who borrowed what she believed to be a diamond necklace from her friend Mme. Forestier to wear to a ball. Due to vanity and carelessness, Mathilde loses the necklace. Rather than confess this loss to her friend, Mathilde and her husband replace the necklace with another and thereby incur a debt that takes them ten years of labor to repay.

In a chance meeting, Mathilde learns from her friend that the original necklace was fake. This outcome is ironic in the sense that Mathilde has become the opposite of the woman she wished to be and Mme. Forestier is in possession of a real diamond necklace rather than a false one. This ending may cause the reader to reflect on the story’s central themes, including pride, authenticity, and the price of vanity.

Example 2: Not Waving but Drowning (Stevie Smith)

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
This stanza reflects Smith’s many uses of dramatic irony in her poem. The reader is aware that the “dead” man is actually still alive, though “nobody” hears him. In addition, the reader has the understanding and knowledge that the man in the poem was not waving as those who saw him believed him to be. Instead, the man was signaling for help because he was drowning.
The dramatic irony in this poem is significant on many levels. The reader is fully informed as to the situation of the dead man, yet is powerless to influence the people around him to understand the situation. Therefore, this irony reflects the poem’s portrayal of the consequences of miscommunication and misunderstanding among people.

Example 3: A Modest Proposal (Jonathan Swift)

A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

Swift makes use of verbal irony in his essay in which he advocates eating children as a means of solving the issue of famine and poverty. Of course, Swift does not literally mean what he is saying. Instead, his verbal irony is used to showcase the dire situation faced by those who are impoverished and their limited resources or solutions. In addition, this irony is meant as a call to action among those who are not suffering from hunger and poverty to act in a charitable way towards those less fortunate.

Example 4: 1984 by George Orwell

War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.

There are several types of irony involved in the novel, 1984, by George Orwell. The very first example is the slogan given at the beginning of the novel. This slogan is “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.” Almost every abstract idea is given beside or parallels to the idea that is contrary to it. These oxymoronic statements show the irony latent in them that although Oceania is at war, yet it is stressing the need for peace and the same is the case with others that although all are slaves of the state, they are calling it freedom. This is verbal irony.

Another example is that of situational irony. It is in the relationship of Winston and Julia that he secretly cherishes to have sexual advances toward her but outwardly hates her. When Julia finds that the place where it must be shunned, Junior Anti-Sex League, is the best place for such actions to do in hiding, it becomes a situational irony.

Synonyms of Irony

Some of the most known synonyms of irony are sarcasm, sardonicism, bitterness, cynicism, mockery, ridicule, derision, scorn, sneering, wryness, or backhandedness.