Irony usually conveys a difference between how things seem to be and the reality. As a literary technique it is used when a certain outcome is revealed, but is not what readers were expecting or hoping for. Irony can be difficult to define; it's often subjective and depends on the audience's expectations.
Take the song "Ironic" by Alanis Morissette. There were many heated debates when it came out over whether the situations described in the song are actually ironic or just unfortunate incidents. And over the years there were more debates about whether the song really is ironic because it's called "Ironic" but nothing in the song is ironic. Confusing? Yes, that's irony.
While it is possible for one person to find something ironc that another person does not, there are several defined categories for irony that apply in life and in literature.
Categories of Irony
There are many ways to play with irony. This is great because it brings added layers and texture to a story. Irony is predominantly defined within three main categories: dramatic irony, situational irony, and verbal irony. Let's have some fun with each.
Dramatic irony is used when the audience knows more about what's going on than the characters. This creates suspense, or humor, as the audience waits to see if the characters will come to understand what's really happening. Dramatic irony heightens the audience's anticipation, hopes, or fears, but it can also be used for comedic effect.
Have you ever read a novel or watched a play or movie where the narrator was omniscient (knew what every character was thinking and feeling)? These are great setups for dramatic irony.
- A novel's heroine visits her favorite café every day from 11am to 1pm to work on her manuscript. Her brother's best friend knows this and is trying to find a way to ask her out on a date.The day he gets up the courage to go to the café she's not there. Where is she? The reader knows she's been taken ill, he does not. Now, a healthy dose of suspense is added to the plot.
- Let's take the same woman and her brother's best friend in a different, comedic direction. She still visits the café every day and her brother's best friend is still determined to tell her how he feels. In this instance, he wants to leave a love poem at her door. One day, thinking she'll be at the café, he goes to her apartment to slide his poem under her door, but we know she's running late and is still at home. Right when he bends down to push the piece of paper under her door, she flings it open in a hurry, steps out, and trips right over him!
- A woman thinks her boyfriend is about to break up with her. He hasn't been himself lately, acting distracted and distant. We know he bought her an engagement ring and is nervous she won't say yes. He calls her one afternoon and simply says, "I need to see you. Meet me at Columbus Square at six o'clock." She's sure he's going to break up with her. But when she arrives, he's set up a beautiful proposal with a string quartet, dozens of roses, and a huge sparkler of a diamond.
- In Macbeth by William Shakespeare, Macbeth appears to be loyal to Duncan, but he is actually plotting his murder. Duncan doesn't know Macbeth's plans, but the audience knows what is going to happen.
- George Orwell makes full use of dramatic irony in Animal Farm. Throughout the book the reader knows many crucial facts that the characters are not aware of. Such as the animals believing Boxer was sent to the hospital, when the reader knows the pigs sold him to the slaughter house and used the money to buy whiskey for themselves.
Dramatic irony has a nice place in both comedy and tragedy. As readers wait to see when the main character will "catch on", suspense is building and the pages are turning. For more examples, take a look at Dramatic Irony Examples.
This type of irony occurs when something happens that is completely different from what was expected. Usually, these instances incorporate some type of contradiction and a certain level of shock.
- An ambulance driver speeds to the scene of a road accident. The victim isn't badly hurt until the ambulance driver whips around a corner and runs over the victim's legs, not realizing she'd crawled to the center of the road.
- The whole story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum is a case of situational irony. Dorothy and her friends are in search of external forces to help them get what they need, but discover that they each had what they needed the whole time. Dorothy learns that the shoes she was wearing can get her home. Scarecrow discovers he was smart all along. The Tinman finally learns that he has a good heart. The cowardly Lion turns out to be extremely courageous.
- The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin tells the tale of a wife who learned her husband was dead. She felt a sense of freedom, thinking about her new life out from under his thumb. Suddenly, the husband returns (he never was dead) and she dies of shock.
- A man has been working hard all his life, saving a portion of every paycheck for retirement. Upon retirement he plans to move to the Virgin Islands, sit back and relax. On the morning of this retirement party, he dies of a sudden, massive heart attack.
- A man buys a gun to protect his home, but during a break-in the intruder wrestles the gun from him and shoots him.
For more examples, check out Examples of Situational Irony.
This type of irony comes to play when a speaker says one thing, but means another.
That sounds a lot like sarcasm, doesn't it? Let's say we were reading about a character who was afraid of heights. One day, her boyfriend surprises her with two tickets for a hot air balloon ride. She replies with, "Wow, I can't wait!" Would you think that's verbal irony or sarcasm? It's actually verbal irony. This form of irony occurs when a character says one thing, but means another. Sarcasm comes into play when a witty attack or somewhat derogatory statement is made.
Here are two examples of verbal irony and two examples of sarcasm:
- A writer is working on his manuscript, and it's a comedy. The days have been fraught with rain and clouds, bringing down his mood and hampering his ability to craft witty scenes. As he opens his blinds one morning, he sees the dark clouds outside again and says, "Great. Another rainy day. How wonderful.”
- A woman has a Saint Bernard with a massive drooling problem. She tries to keep him off the sofa, but he loves pretending he's a lap dog. One night, he trots over to her and places a gigantic paw on her lap. He's looking at her with those sad brown eyes. “All right," she says. "You know how I just love dog drool on my sofa.”
- In the episode of Friends where the friends go to London for Ross and Emily’s wedding, Chandler says, "I'm so glad we're having this rehearsal dinner. You know, I so rarely get to practice my meals before I eat them."
- A snobbish woman - who perceives moonstone to be a poor man's gemstone - is given a pair of moonstone earrings by her fiancé. When she opens the box, she says, "Thank you, honey. I just love moonstones. They're so... simple."
The first two examples are verbal irony, the second two are sarcasm. Did you spot the difference? Sarcasm is meaner, more derogatory or condescending. For more, see Examples of Verbal Irony.
Socratic Irony and Cosmic Irony
Dramatic, verbal and situational irony are considered the three main types of irony in literature and drama but there are other types of irony found in everyday life.
Socratic irony is most often found in the world of academia; it is related to the Socratic Teaching Method. This method encourages students to present opposing views while the teacher feigns ignorance. This way, students learn to reason and deduce on their own, independent from the opinions of their teacher. Outside of academia, Socratic irony may be thought of as "playing the fool," simulating ignorance in order to reveal another person's ignorance or flaws.
- Sacha Baron Cohen's satirical characters, such as Ali G and Borat, acted stupid to highlight the ignorance and stupidity of those they talked to.
- Your parents pretend not to know you dented the car, and ask a series of seemingly innocent questions that eventually lead to your confession.
Cosmic irony can be attributed to some sort of misfortune. This form of irony is the result of fate or chance and the outcomes are not a result of the characters' actions. So it can seem as if an outside force has a hand in the situation.
- in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbevilles, despite being innocent, the main character loses everything, including her life, in tragic circumstances beyond her control. The novel ends with, "Justice was done, and the President of the Immortals (in the Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess."
- We all know the story of the Titanic. It was said that not even God could sink that ship. It was built with watertight compartments designed to keep it afloat even when taking on water. Devastatingly, the ship struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage.
Keep the Audience Guessing
Outside tragic nonfictional irony of events like the sinking of the Titanic, isn't irony a wonderful literary tool? No one wants to be predictable, and irony is anything but that. Whether it's dramatic irony, where readers are waiting for the other shoe to drop; situational irony, where everyone involved is shocked; or verbal irony, where words don't line up with true intentions, irony is a fantastic way to send a curveball straight down centerfield. Don't be afraid to keep your readers guessing. They'll be more prone to take additional journeys with you in your future tales of tragedy, comedy, and love.