Situational Irony

Definition of Situational Irony

Irony refers to an instance in which one thing appears to be true, but is actually the opposite. This type of contradiction appears often in literature and in many forms. Situational irony, as a literary device, is a form of irony in which something takes place that is different or the opposite of what is expected to happen. When writers create an ironic situation in a literary work, it allows the reader to understand the difference between appearance and reality within the confines of the literature. This experience often leads the reader to a better understanding of the work’s central theme or purpose.

For example, in Dorothy Parker’s poem “Love Song,” the first stanza features situational irony:

My own dear love, he is strong and bold
      And he cares not what comes after.
His words ring sweet as a chime of gold,
      And his eyes are lit with laughter.
He is jubilant as a flag unfurled—
      Oh, a girl, she’d not forget him.
My own dear love, he is all my world,—
      And I wish I’d never met him.

Parker utilizes situational irony as a literary device to set up an incongruity between what the reader expects to happen in the poem and what actually does happen. In this case, the poem’s title and the poet’s words of praise and adulation set the reader up to expect that the poem is an expression of the poet’s deep and steadfast love. Instead, the final line of the first stanza presents a situation that is entirely the opposite of what is expected; the poet states that she wishes she had never met the man that she claims as her “own dear love.”

Parker’s effective use of situational irony in her poem enhances its value as entertainment and amusement for the reader. Its incongruity also underscores the theme that love songs and romantic poems are not necessarily realistic or entirely truthful in their portrayal of passion or devotion. Parker utilizes situational irony to convey to the reader that both love and poetry can be contradictory and are not always as they appear.

Common Examples of Situational Irony

Situational irony can happen outside the world of literature as well, as contradictory, unexpected events and unforeseen circumstances take place in everyday life. Here are some common examples of situational irony:

  • a dentist with severe tooth decay
  • a car mechanic that can’t change a tire
  • searching everywhere for your phone when it’s in your hand
  • a librarian with a book overdue
  • a fire station burning down
  • offering to pay for a date and realizing your wallet is at home
  • a skyscraper architect who is afraid of heights
  • arriving at work at the wrong time because you forgot about Daylight Savings Time
  • getting to the grocery store and realizing your shopping list is at home
  • following your GPS directions to a dead end
  • driving through a rain shower right after washing your car
  • sending a deeply apologetic text to a wrong number
  • an ice cream truck driving through neighborhoods during a blizzard
  • a driving instructor running a red light
  • preparing to bake a cake and forgetting to turn on the oven

Famous Examples of Movies and Television Shows with Situational Irony

Movie and television plots often rely on situational irony to create a surprising and unexpected twist at the end or communicate a message to the audience. These effects enhance the audience’s enjoyment of these media forms and present topics and themes for thought both during and after the watching experience. Here are some famous examples of movies and television shows with situational irony:

Movies

  • The Wizard of Oz
  • The Sixth Sense
  • Groundhog Day
  • Shrek
  • Parasite
  • Get Out
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Fight Club
  • The Prestige
  • Gone Girl

Television Shows

  • Breaking Bad
  • The Odd Couple
  • Schitt’s Creek
  • Three’s Company
  • The Good Place
  • Barry
  • The Americans
  • South Park
  • The Sopranos
  • Six Feet Under

Examples of Situational Irony in Literature

As a literary device, situational irony, when done properly, is effective in all forms of literature. However, it is especially impactful in literary works of short fiction. In a compressed work of short fiction, a writer’s revelation of situational irony can enhance the theme, meaning, and lasting impression for the reader. In addition, this form of irony, in which the situation ends up to be different from what it appears or what the reader expects is true, allows a writer to create characters and plots that reflect more life-like, surprising, and complex stories.

Here are some examples of situational irony in literary works of short fiction:

Example 1: The Story of an Hour (Kate Chopin)

There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself.
There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and
women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind
intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief
moment of illumination.

In Chopin’s short story, the main character Louise is portrayed as a fragile woman who is afflicted with a “heart condition.” When it’s reported that Louise’s husband has suddenly died, her family and friends are worried that the news and her expected grief will destroy her health and well-being. This passage of the story reveals that, rather than feeling stricken with grief at the news of her husband’s death, Louise actually views the situation with a sense of freedom and re-birth. Her loved ones assume that she is in a state of shock and bereavement, though her true feelings contradict that assumption.

Chopin invites the reader to understand this situational irony by allowing them to be privy to Louise’s honest thoughts and opinions regarding the death of her husband and her newfound freedom as a widow. This enables the reader to have an unexpected and seemingly incongruous “moment of illumination” in the same manner as Louise.

Example 2: The Necklace (Guy de Maupassant)

Her hair badly dressed, her skirts awry, her hands red, she spoke in a loud tone, and washed the floors in large pails of water. But sometimes, when her husband was at the office, she would seat herself before the window and think of that evening party of former times, of that ball where she was so beautiful and so flattered.

In de Maupassant’s short story, the main character, Mathilde Loisel, feels unhappy with her socioeconomic status and her husband’s position in society. When the Loisels are invited to a ball, Mathilde borrows what she believes to be a diamond necklace from her friend. By the end of the ball, the necklace is lost, and Mathilde and her husband spend a decade working to pay the debt of replacing the friend’s necklace. This lowers their economic and social position even further, which represents situational irony in the story.

However, Mathilde’s situation becomes even more ironic as she encounters her friend a decade later and learns that the lost necklace they worked to replace with real diamonds was actually a fake. This reversal of fortune demonstrates further situational irony in the story. In the passage above, de Maupassant reveals to the reader that Mathilde’s story is an ironic inverse of Cinderella. Instead of a good-natured scullery maid attending a ball and becoming a princess, Mathilde’s prideful nature has driven her from being the belle of the ball to an embittered washer woman.

Example 3: The Gift of the Magi (O. Henry)

Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

This short story by O. Henry is considered one of the best examples of situational irony in literature. It has been re-told and adapted as an example of giving and sacrifice, especially during the Christmas season. In the story, a young married couple with little money decide to sell what is most precious to themselves in order to purchase something valuable for the other. Della, the wife, sells her long beautiful hair to buy her husband Jim a watch chain. In turn, Jim sells his watch chain to buy Della combs for her hair. Since neither of them any longer possess the items for which their gifts are intended, in the end the gifts are essentially worthless. This creates situational irony in terms of the gift exchange and also the level of their sacrifice for each other.

Though most readers find this story and ironic situation to be heartwarming and symbolic of the true love and sacrifice in gift giving, O. Henry may have intended a different message or interpretation among his audience. In the passage above, the narrator insists several times that the two main characters are the “wisest.” This repeated emphasis of their “wisdom” may be O. Henry’s attempt to convey the opposite and instead demonstrate the couple’s foolishness. Not only have they sold their most precious “belongings,” but the gifts they receive from each other are useless. The fact that readers may find this admirable or endearing, the opposite of the writer’s intention, is also an example of situational irony.