Definition of Sarcasm
Sarcasm generally takes the form of an ironic remark, somewhat rooted in humor, that is intended to mock or satirize something. When a speaker is being sarcastic, they are saying something different than what they actually mean. As a literary device, sarcasm can convey a writer and/or character’s true feelings of frustration, anger, and even derision, though veiled by the presence of humor and wording that is inconsistent with what is intended. However, since sarcastic statements, as they are worded, contradict the speaker’s intent and true meaning, it can be difficult for writers to effectively utilize this literary device without proper context or tone.
For example, in his novel Turtles All the Way Down, John Green includes this sarcastic remark: “Yes, well, in that respect and many others, American high schools do rather resemble prisons.” The speaker means this figuratively, not literally, and is mocking characteristics of American high schools that appear similar to prisons. This may include the use of metal detectors, student detention as a means of punishment, mandatory attendance, crowded classrooms, and even poor infrastructure. Green’s use of sarcasm as a literary device allows for humorous mocking of figurative similarities between American high schools and prisons.
Common Examples of Sarcasm
People utilize sarcasm in everyday speech as well as writing. The purpose of sarcastic comments is often to express feelings of frustration, anger, or distaste through stating one idea but meaning another, as well as moderating the statement with humor. Here are some common examples of sarcasm that you might hear in everyday speech:
- Zombies eat brains. You’re safe.
- Ugliness can be fixed, stupidity is forever.
- You are depriving some village of their idiot.
- Did somebody write “stupid” on my forehead?
- I’m sorry–did the middle of my sentence interrupt the beginning of yours?
- Ok, Boomer.
- ask me if I care.
- I’m not insulting you. I’m just describing you.
- Aim at nothing–you’ll hit it every time.
- I’d agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.
Examples of Witty Sarcasm
Many writers are known for their blend of sarcasm and wit. Here are some examples of witty sarcasm:
- I require only three things in a man: he must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid. (Dorothy Parker)
- It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt. (Mark Twain)
- Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence. (Oscar Wilde)
- Propaganda is amazing. People can be led to believe anything. (Alice Walker)
- Because tanning and steroids are only a problem if you plan to live a long time. Because the only difference between a suicide and a martyrdom really is the amount of press coverage. (Chuck Palahniuk)
- True love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. (William Goldman)
- Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher. (Flannery O’Connor)
- Stop worrying about growing old. And think about growing up. (Philip Roth)
- There are times when parenthood seems nothing more than feeding the hand that bites you. (Peter De Vries)
- Benevolent, philanthropic man! It was painful to him even to keep a third cousin to himself. (Jane Austen)
Famous Examples of Sarcastic Movie Lines
Sarcasm is often effectively used as a cinematic device in the form of “comebacks” or “one-liners” to create memorable and dramatic moments. Here are some famous examples of sarcasm in movie lines:
- When I was your age, television was called books. (The Princess Bride)
- I once thought I had mono for an entire year. It turned out I was just really bored. (Wayne’s World)
- Give me a scotch. I’m starving. (Iron Man)
- So, I was sitting in my cubicle today and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So, that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life. (Office Space)
- One day you’re gonna be nice to me. We may both be dead and buried, but you’re gonna be nice – at least civil. (Do the Right Thing)
- The nicest thing I can say about her is all her tattoos are spelled correctly. (Steel Magnolias)
- Aunt Clara had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually 4 years old, but also a girl. (A Christmas Story)
- I want to die a natural death at the age of 102—like the city of Detroit. (Deadpool)
- I have great insight. I’d use it on myself only I don’t have any problems. (Music and Lyrics)
- These pajamas are fancier than any of my real clothes. (Crazy Rich Asians)
Difference Between Sarcasm and Verbal Irony
Though it can appear difficult to determine the difference between verbal irony and sarcasm, they can be distinguished from each other. Both are literary devices that are based in reader or audience expectations. Verbal irony takes place when a speaker says the opposite of what they mean, which violates expectations on some level. Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony in that it takes place as well when a speaker says something different than what they mean.
However, the intention of sarcasm is different than verbal irony. Sarcasm indicates a deliberate intention to mock, satirize, or otherwise poke fun at something. Verbal irony often generates subtle, gentle humor. The outcome of sarcasm is closer to explicit criticism, direct antagonism, and occasionally intentional verbal hurt or shame.
Sarcasm is an effective literary device in that it can reveal a great deal about a speaker and/or writer and how they feel about other people, ideas, social conventions, and more. For a reader, sarcasm can be a source of humor and provide memorable insight into both a speaker’s thoughts and feelings as well as the reader’s own thoughts and feelings.
When writing sarcasm, it’s important to remember that it can be difficult for a reader to identify through just the written words. It’s often challenging to convey sarcasm to readers without a clear tone or context, and especially without the clarity of audible tone and verbal and/or physical cues.
It’s also important for writers to have a clear goal when utilizing sarcasm as a literary device. Sarcastic statements can appear overly hurtful, critical, or aggressive to a reader if they appear to be inappropriate to the circumstances. Therefore, the intention of sarcasm should fit within the context of the situation in order to resonate effectively with readers.
Examples of Sarcasm in Literature
Sarcasm can be an effective device when used in literature as a means of expressing underlying pain, anger, or frustration on behalf of a character or the writer themselves. Here are some examples of sarcasm and how it can enhance the meaning of a literary work:
Example 1: The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don’t know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, ‘Sleep tight, ya morons!’
In this passage, Salinger utilizes sarcasm to express the main character Holden’s feelings of frustration, loneliness, and isolation as he is leaving preparatory school. Of course, the fact that Holden yells “sleep tight” indicates that he does not wish his fellow students good sleep, but rather the opposite. In addition, Holden refers to his peers as morons, which is a sarcastic way of indicating that he feels isolated and apart from them. Though the line is humorous to most readers, Holden’s remark reveals through sarcasm how much pain he is in and his inability to express it without the intention of verbally hurting others as well.
Example 2: Resume’ (Dorothy Parker)
Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.
In her poem Parker uses sarcasm as a means of mocking suicide and satirizing typical methods one might use to commit it. The poet’s tone is incongruously flippant considering the seriousness of the subject, which effectively indicates sarcasm to the reader in both tone and context. In using sarcasm as a literary device, readers are called to question what the poet truly means by listing this resume’ of ways someone can kill themselves. For example, the poet may be literally listing methods to commit suicide, but figuratively saying that they are ineffective or not worth the resulting pain. Parker’s use of sarcasm also calls into question the poem’s last line and whether it is meant to be ironic and satirical or whether it is meant exactly as it’s worded.
Example 3: A Rose for Emily (William Faulkner)
So the next day we all said, “She will kill herself”; and we said it would be the best thing.
In Faulkner’s short story, the narrator represents the collective townspeople who are fascinated and repelled by Miss Emily Grierson–a symbolic “relic” of the traditional Antebellum South. In this instance, the townspeople assume that Emily has been left by her lover and is a “fallen” woman without redemption. However, the collective narrator is being sarcastic about Emily killing herself being the “best thing” in her interest. What the narrator truly means is that Emily’s death would be the best thing for the town, since she is a reminder of and monument to their collective past. The townspeople are mocking Emily’s traditional and antiquated values, which leads them to make a sarcastic remark about the value of her life.