Definition Of Irony in Literature and its three main types with examples made easy for students

Knowing Irony in Literature, its three main types with examples made easy for students

You may have come across an irony or said an ironic phrase yet don’t know that is an irony or an ironic statement. It is important to note that writers use irony to create humour and suspense as well as making an emphasis on a particular subject.

Irony draws attention to a plot of a story, character trait, or thematic argument to bring out incongruity of situations. Many may not know the definition of irony but might know it when they see it. They might even provide different types of irony examples without realising it. Whether a plot twists or sarcasm in their daily actions and statements, they have used irony in different ways.

For example: You might have lost the last money your mother has in her purse when she gave it to you to buy food stuffs from a nearby glossary shop for the family’s dinner. When you broke the sad news to your mother, she said you will eat tonight for us to see.

Is her statement Ironic? Yes! So what is the definition of Irony in Literature. In simple terms Irony is a Literary Term which is in contrast with what one intends to mean.

Definition of Irony

Irony in literature is an expression other than or opposite of its literal meaning. It can also be defined as a literary device or technique that is in contrasts with expectations and reality. There are many ways writers use irony to express themselves through their Characters in stories. Most times there is always a distance between what the character says and what they actually mean.

Irony in literature is an expression other than or opposite of its literal meaning. It can also be defined as a literary device or technique that is in contrasts with expectations and reality.

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There can be an instance where a writer reveals something that is the opposite of what is expected. There could also be a difference between a character’s understanding of a situation versus the reality of what it actually is.

Irony is a literary device where the chosen words are intentionally used to indicate a meaning other than the literal one. Most times people mistake Irony for sarcasm. Sarcasm is actually a form of verbal irony, but sarcasm is usually intentional and has an insulting meaning to it.

When you say, “Perfect!” after your husband insult you by using a bitter word like “crazy” you don’t actually mean that the expression is positive. Here, using the word “perfect” ironically indicates a higher negative implication, even though the wording itself is positive.

However, the meaning of irony in literature is far more than you ever thought of. There are many more examples that define or exhibit irony in literature than just sarcasm. Within literature, there are three different kinds of irony and these are Verbal Irony, Situational Irony and Dramatic Irony.

1. Dramatic irony: ls also known as tragic irony. This is an irony that readers, watchers or audience are fully aware of the events in a play, story or drama that the characters are not aware of. This seems simple because many of us in our favourite soap operas are aware of characters intentions but Characters are unaware. For example in Brothers (FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano) President Oscar Hidalgo is unaware of Vice President Lucas Cabrera intentions to overthrow him to be the president of the Philippines but watchers are fully aware.

Dramatic Irony is an irony that readers, watchers or audience are fully aware of the events in a play, story or drama that the characters are not aware of.

Simply put, this type of irony occurs when the audience knows something that the main characters of a story do not. The meaning of dramatic irony is similar to situational irony. However, with dramatic irony, the audience or reader knows something that the main or other characters do not. The fact that the reader is aware of something that the character isn’t creates drama, tension and suspense as you root for the character to “figure it out.”

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In the cases of dramatic irony, the story may turn out well in the end. A subset of dramatic irony is tragic irony. As the name implies, this is a case where all does not end well for the character. The audience is still privy to more information than the character and are aware that the character’s lack of information is what will lead to the tragic end.

For example, in William Shakespeare’s Othello (1603), Othello trusts Iago—but the audience knows better. Another example of dramatic irony is the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex (circa 429 BCE) by Sophocles, where the audience knows the main character’s tragic fate before he does.

2. Situational irony: This irony occurs when an expected outcome is subverted. You might have heard an adage like “If you find a meat you won’t get a utensil to cook it but when you get a utensil you also don’t get a meat.” It rings the bell right? This spells out how a situation ironically subvert the intended outcome. Situational irony occurs when the situation is in contrast to what is expected.

Situational irony is an irony which occurs when an expected outcome is subverted and its opposite happens.

For example, in O. Henry’s classic short story, “The Gift of the Magi” (1905), a wife cuts off her long hair to sell it in order to buy her husband a chain for his prized watch. Meanwhile, the husband sells his watch in order to buy his wife a comb for her hair. The situational irony comes from each person not expecting to have their gift undercut by the other’s actions. A subset of situational irony is cosmic irony, which highlights incongruities between the absolute, theoretical world and the mundane, grounded reality of everyday life.

Other examples of situational irony are: a marriage counselor is divorced, a fire station is burnt down, a police station is robbed or if you fall asleep while reading a book about insomnia! All of these are examples where you would expect one thing in the situation but the opposite happens. An easy example of situational irony in literature is at the end of the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy wakes up and realises it was all a dream!

Situational irony in literature provides the reader with a surprising twist and can help to deepen understanding of characters or themes. Situational irony usually shows the reader that not everything is what it seems: appearances do not always match reality and vice versa. Writers use it to claim to us that how we see the world is not how it is in reality.

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Within the main category of situational irony are subcategories. One subcategory is cosmic irony: in which there is a supernatural element such as a higher power such as God, fate or the Universe that creates the irony in the situation. Poetic irony, also known as poetic justice, is a type of situational irony where ultimately a situation causes the righteous or virtuous character to be rewarded and their enemies punished.

Historical irony is another subcategory of situational irony in which the outcome of an event is the opposite from what was intended. In this case, hindsight allows the character or reader perspective to view the historical event as ironic as its result was one that was never expected.

Classic tales that include situational irony are:

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant

“Antigone” by Sophocles

“The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell

“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

3. Verbal irony: Is a statement in which the speaker’s words are in sharp contrast with the intent of the speaker. These are statements which are incongruous with the speaker’s intent. This is when the character intends a meaning that is in contrast with the literal or usual meaning of the words.

Verbal irony is a statement in which the speaker’s words are in sharp contrast with the intended meaning of the speaker.

A speaker says one thing while meaning another, resulting in an ironic clash between their intended meaning and their literal meaning. Verbal irony examples occur when a character says one thing but actually means the opposite. It occurs often in the form of sarcasm or dry humour. However, it can also be more subtle and foreboding.

If you see someone with pimples all over her face and you ask the person her face has become smooth like a baby, what kind of facial cream is she using, you want to buy some. This is sarcasm, the person might even feel insulted by your words.

If someone is looking out the window at gloomy, rainy weather and they exclaim “What a beautiful day!” or, if you are always late to class but tell your friends that you are going to “surely win the school award for punctuality”. These are clear examples of the intended meaning being the opposite.

Verbal irony has been used skillfully by many writers throughout history. A famous example is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”
(1729). In this classic work of satire, Swift uses verbal irony to make the reader believe that his “modest proposal” to eradicate poverty in Ireland is a sound argument.

In reality it is sickening and outrageous, but Swift achieves his goal of pointing out the callous exploitation of the poor in Ireland by the rich elites and landowners.

It is worth noting that there are categories of verbal irony, its subcategories are: sarcasm, understatement, overstatement and Socratic irony. Named for the famous ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, Socratic irony is when a character will feign or pretend ignorance when asking a question in order to lead the person answering to expose their own ignorance.

This is often employed by skillful lawyers in a courtroom drama. Socrates himself used this technique or the socratic method to teach his students, stimulate critical thinking and lead them to a deeper understanding.

These three forms of Irony when understood can fully improve your dialect, manner of thinking, writing and most of all shape your thoughts about the world.


Joyceline Natally Cudjoe

An Entertainment Columnist, Content Writer, Blogger, Novelist, Poet, and a Publicist. For business or story tip off, contact me on +233 24 646 6866 or email: [email protected]

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