Situational irony is a literary technique in which an expected outcome does not happen, or its opposite happens instead. Situational irony requires one's expectations to be thwarted and is also sometimes called an irony of events. The outcome can be tragic or humorous, but it is always unexpected. Keep reading for examples of situational irony from everyday life and literature.
Situational irony is one of the three main types of irony. Some people mix it up with coincidences, which occur when two unlikely events are actually quite similar. For example, two friends coming to a party in the same dress is a coincidence. But two friends coming to the party in the same dress after promising not to wear that dress would be situational irony — you'd expect them to come in other clothes, but they did the opposite. It's the last thing you expect.
Other everyday examples of situational irony include:
- A fire station burns down.
This is unexpected because one would assume the fire chief would keep his own building safe.
- A marriage counselor files for divorce.
This is ironic because the expectation is that a professional who coaches couples through rough patches would herself have a strong marriage.
- The police station gets robbed.
Again, the expectation is that professional crime fighters would be able to help themselves; in this case, by securing their own station.
- A post on Facebook complains about how useless Facebook is.
This is ironic because one would expect someone who dislikes Facebook to stay away from it instead of using it to make their point.
- A traffic cop gets his license suspended because of unpaid parking tickets.
Because the traffic cop is usually the one issuing tickets, most people would assume he always followed the rules.
- A pilot has a fear of heights.
This situation is ironic because airplane pilots spend most of their time at work high in the air.
- A member of PETA wears leather shoes.
Because PETA members work to protect animal rights, one would assume they would avoid products made from animal skins.
- An English teacher has poor grammar.
You'd expect an English teacher to be an expert in grammar. It would be quite ironic if they couldn't actually use proper grammar.
- A man who needs medical assistance is run over by the ambulance sent to help him.
In this case, the man got the exact opposite of what he needed from the medical help on the scene.
- An anti-technology group sets up a website to recruit new club members.
People who dislike technology aren't likely to be looking for clubs on the internet, so using technology to recruit is unexpected.
- A student passes a class with a well-written essay about how bad the class is.
The class couldn't have been that bad if the student can write so well. Plus, it's pretty ironic if complaining about the class is what gets them to pass in the end.
- A child runs away from someone throwing a water balloon at him and falls into the pool.
This is ironic because the child ends up wetter than he would have been, thwarting his expectations of what would happen when he ran away from the water balloon.
- The cobbler's children have no shoes.
A cobbler is a professional shoemaker, so the expectation is that her own children would have many shoes, not zero.
- The president is injured when a Secret Service agent knocks him down while protecting him.
It's ironic because the Secret Service is tasked with protecting the president. They would be the last people you'd expect to actually hurt him.
- A man leaps out of the road to avoid being hit by a car, only to have a tree branch fall on his head.
This is not the outcome the man expected because he thought he would escape being hurt.
- A defensive football team hits the running back so hard that he falls into the endzone and scores a touchdown.
That's probably not what the team intended to do with their overzealous blocking.
- A Wall Street investor makes fun of others who are afraid of a risky stock pick but later loses all his money.
The investor's expectations were not borne out in his stock performance, but there's an increased sense of irony because he was so confident.
- A mother complains about her lazy children, not realizing they have been secretly making her a birthday present.
In this situation, the mother's ideas about her children are thwarted in an unexpected surprise.
- A heartfelt movie about valuing love over commercialism has lots of product placement.
The message of the anti-commercialism movie may be a little less clear with all those subconscious advertisements in every scene.
- A famous singer sings her own song at a karaoke bar but is booed.
You'd think that her version would be the best, but ironically, the crowd feels the opposite way.
You'll find lots of situational irony in the pages of your favorite books. Situational irony is the source of surprise endings, plot twists and every moment a reader gasps in shock. Check out these famous examples of situational irony in drama, literature and poetry.
- Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
“O my love, my wife! Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.” Romeo finds Juliet drugged and assumes she is dead. He kills himself but then she awakens, sees that he is dead and kills herself. This is ironic because both lovers killed themselves over a mistaken assumption, leading to a tragic outcome instead of the happy ending the lovers expected.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
In this book, the firemen set books on fire rather than put out fires. The book has been on the top 100 list of banned books in America, which is ironic because the novel features themes about the dangers of book burning and censorship in society.
- The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
In this story, the wife cuts her long hair and sells it to have the money to buy her husband a pocket watch chain. He sells his watch to buy her a hair accessory, leaving both with a useless gift, which was not what they expected for their efforts.
- The Fate of Cronus, Greek mythology
Cronus believed a prophecy that he would be overthrown by his children so he devoured any children Rhea, his wife, had. However, she tricked him with Zeus, giving Cronus a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes instead of the baby. Zeus later rescued his siblings and they overthrew their father, which was unexpected for Cronus, who thought he had outsmarted his fate.
- Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Oedipus was abandoned by his parents due to a prophecy that foresaw him killing his father and marrying his mother. He returned to his ancestral home as an adult and fulfilled the prophecy without realizing it until it was too late.
- Tartuffe by Molière
Tartuffe cons his benefactor to get title to Orgon’s house. He goes to the house with a policeman to finalize the eviction order but is instead arrested for being a crook.
- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink." Though seawater is all around, the mariner is dying of thirst because it is salty and cannot be drunk.
- "Messy Room" by Shel Silverstein
"Whosever room this is should be ashamed! Donald or Robert or Willie or—Huh? You say it’s mine? Oh, dear, I knew it looked familiar!" In this poem, the narrator's room is so messy he can't even recognize it. The unexpected twist at the end is that he realizes he's been complaining about his own mess.
- The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin
When a wife hears of her husband's death she begins to imagine a life of freedom without him, but he suddenly returns home alive and well. This is so unexpected that she drops dead of shock in a twist that surprises both the characters and the reader.
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Throughout the books, Harry Potter is expected to kill Voldemort, but he eventually realizes he must allow Voldemort to kill him instead. This is a major reversal in what was expected throughout the books.
Now that you've seen so many examples of situational irony, you're sure to find more in your life every day. Learn more about the different kinds of irony with these examples of dramatic irony in drama and literature. Or, if you want to sharpen your wit, take a look at these interesting verbal irony examples (and no, we're not being sarcastic).