If, like me, you’re of a certain vintage, the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ‘irony’ are lyrics from Alanis Morrisette’s song ‘Ironic’. Irony is when there’s rain on your wedding day, right?
Well, no. The situations described in Morrisette’s song are actually all simply unfortunate. Which is, in itself, somewhat ironic for a song called ‘Ironic’ (don’t you think?).
In this article, we’ll have a look at the five main types of irony in literature, along with examples for each.
What Is Irony In Literature?
So why isn’t rain on your wedding day ironic?
It might not be what you’d hoped for, but it lacks the sense of reversal often at the heart of irony; as comedian Ed Byrne commented, it would only be ironic if you were getting married to a weatherman.
Irony is also commonly confused with sarcasm, and, although there is some crossover between the two, there are two key differences.
The first is that sarcasm can only be used to describe speech; whilst events and situations can be ironic, they cannot be sarcastic. The word ‘sarcasm’ is derived from the Greek for ‘cutting flesh’, and this brings us to our second difference: sarcasm is cutting and is intended to wound.
So, whilst you can say something ironically by saying the opposite of what you mean, you are only being sarcastic if you are trying to hurt, insult or belittle someone by doing so.
In our writing, we can make use of irony as a literary device for a number of reasons:
- To build tension
- Create humour
- Elicit sympathy for our characters
- Give our story a satisfying twist
- Tie various elements to a central theme or moral
- Character development (either the hero or other characters)
What Are The Different Types Of Irony?
Let’s look at the five different types of irony, each of which can be used as a literary device…
Verbal Irony Definition
When a character says the opposite of what they are really thinking, they are using verbal irony. When I step outside into pouring rain and state, ‘What a lovely day!’ I am being ironic, because that’s not what I actually mean. (What I actually mean is that I live in Glasgow.)
The contrast between what is said and our understanding of the underlying sentiment is often used for humour. For example, in The Simpsons, when Bart tells Homer, ‘I respect you as much as I ever have or ever will,’ we of course understand that Bart means that he has a very low level of regard for his father.
Maybe we want a lighthearted scene. We might want to build a sense of a character’s joviality, black humour, or dourness. Whatever the reason, verbal irony can be a powerful tool in developing characterisation and mood in your writing.
Dramatic Irony Example And Definition
Dramatic irony is when the audience or readers know something that the characters do not.
We find this type of irony throughout the plays of William Shakespeare. Think of the prologue from Romeo and Juliet, for example:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
We know from the beginning that the lovers will die at their own hands. Dramatic irony is employed to keep the audience or reader on the edge of their seats, aware of the danger hurtling towards the blithely unaware characters.
Inevitability is a key element of dramatic irony: at some point, the characters will learn what the audience already knows.
In ancient Greek drama, this moment was known as ‘anagnorisis’, and it is intimately tied up with the conventions of tragedy: that the hero’s downfall is caused by their fatal flaw. The audience knows ahead of time what the character’s fatal flaw or crucial mistake is, while the character themselves only realises it too late.
And this is the great power of dramatic irony – rather than acting as a ‘spoiler’ and ruining a big reveal, it engages readers further as they wait in agony for the moment a character’s world comes crashing down around them.
The inevitability of dramatic irony lends tension to even the quieter moments of a story and helps it build towards a thrilling climax.
Situational Irony Definition
Situational irony occurs when the opposite of what you’d expect to happen happens.
Remember how rain on your wedding day is ironic – if you’re getting married to a weatherman? That’s situational irony. Another example might be if an ambulance, racing to help an injured person, instead struck and further injured that person.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, features a sailor who is stuck on a ship that is going nowhere, and is slowly dying of thirst; the irony is that there is ‘Water, water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink.’ Tragic irony indeed.
In this example, situational irony adds to our understanding of the character’s desperation and gives us a sense of the bitterness of his situation.
If you want your readers to gasp at the unfairness of your character’s situation, or see the bittersweetness or humour in a moment when the outcome they expected was reversed or subverted, then situational irony is an effective way to achieve this.
Cosmic Irony Definition
Cosmic irony is closely related to situational irony. Going further than simply subverting an expectation, cosmic irony is when it seems as though the universe itself is against your characters.
We often see cosmic irony in stories where the gods seem to have control of a character’s fate, and have fun at their expense.
In Antigone, a play by Sophocles, we see cosmic irony in the antagonist, Creon’s, fate. Creon angers the gods when he decrees that the body of Antigone’s disgraced brother is not to be buried. Creon’s pride leads to the cosmic irony of the punishment the gods give him: because he did not respect the rituals of death, he ultimately suffers the death of all who are close to him.
Here, cosmic irony is used by Sophocles for a number of reasons: to explore the human condition, and to emphasise the theme of fate versus free will.
If you want to create a character whose inescapable fate is so monumental and devastating that it will leave your readers in awe and despair, cosmic irony is the way to go.
Socratic Irony Definition
Socratic irony derives from the teaching method of Greek philosopher Socrates, who used questioning to prompt a student to work logically through their ideas. This brings us to Socratic irony, where a character feigns ignorance in order to uncover hidden truths.
The most famous example of this literary technique is perhaps the TV detective Columbo, whose entire persona is an example of Socratic irony. Presenting a humble appearance, the detective would trick ne’er do wells by leading them to reveal a seemingly insignificant, yet crucial detail.
His catchphrase ‘One more thing’, is a masterclass in Socratic irony, as he pretends to remember to enquire about a small matter when his targets are most unguarded.
This type of irony works especially well in the crime genre, and intersects with dramatic irony: the reader will realise when a character has stepped into a trap laid by the questioner, though the character themselves will only realise too late.
It’s also a powerful tool to drive up the tension in courtroom dramas – think of the well known ‘You can’t handle the truth’ scene in the film A Few Good Men.
The great thing about Socratic irony is that it can be used to create completely opposite effects.
On the one hand, if you want to build up to a stunning climax, you can use Socratic irony to show a gradually more tense interaction that becomes an explosive confrontation when one side realises what they’ve let slip.
However, if you want to show your readers a character who quietly and deftly draws their oblivious opponent into a net of their own making, you can use Socratic irony for this as well.
How To Use Irony In Your Writing
Although irony is a highly effective tool, one thing to keep in mind when using it is that it relies entirely on the reader’s ability to recognise that it’s there in the first place.
You need to read between the lines to see irony, because it hinges on the reader noticing the difference between how things appear and what the real truth is, or what is expected as opposed to what actually happens.
Points Of View And Irony
If you want to use any of the various types of irony discussed, some possibilities include using an omniscient point of view, flashbacks, or foreshadowing. These approaches all allow the readers to have access to information that characters themselves may not have, or set up expectations that you can then play with.
As with all writing techniques, irony works best if employed for a clear purpose. What do you want to achieve with your use of irony?
- Does it align with your overall theme or message?
- Does it develop your readers’ understanding of the character?
- Does it add an additional element to your climax or your ending?
The purposes of irony are as varied as the examples you’ll find, perhaps in some of your favourite books or films. In fact, looking for examples in your favourite stories can be an excellent way to develop your own understanding of how to write irony, or they can serve as inspiration!
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are The Five Main Types Of Irony?
The five main types of irony are verbal, dramatic, situational, cosmic and Socratic.
- Verbal irony is when you say the opposite of what you mean.
- Dramatic irony is when the audience or reader knows something that the characters don’t.
- Situational irony is when the opposite of what is expected happens, often to humorous effect.
- Cosmic irony is when the outcome of a character’s actions seem to be controlled by fate, the universe, or the gods.
- Socratic irony is when a character’s feigned ignorance enables the truth to come out.
What Are Three Dramatic Irony Examples?
- The manipulative and scheming Iago is repeatedly described in Shakespeare’s Othello as ‘honest’.
- In Shrek, when Shrek thinks Fiona can’t possibly love him because he’s an ogre, unaware that Fiona is cursed to become an ogre each night.
- In the movie Parasite, when the Parks return home from their trip, unaware that the Kims are hiding in the house. There is further dramatic irony when the Kims later discover that there is another person secretly hidden in the house.
What Is Situational Irony In Literature?
In literature, situational irony is when the outcome you’d expect does not happen, and your expectation is subverted or reversed in some manner.
For example, in Roald Dahl’s, Lamb to the Slaughter, Mary kills her husband by hitting him with a frozen leg of lamb. She then cooks the lamb and feeds it to the police officers who arrive to ask her some questions. The police unwittingly destroying evidence is situational irony, as is the fact that Mary is not, as she first seems, the ‘lamb’ of the title – her husband is.
Irony creates additional depth and meaning to your work, and connects you to a rich literary tradition which goes back literally thousands of years. If you want your readers to be painfully aware of the predicament your character is in, or to gasp at the intricacy of your plotting, or laugh out loud at absurdity, irony is all its forms will help.
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