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Irony

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English Literature

Nowadays, irony has come to mean doing something as a joke or with insincerity. From literature to films to memes, irony is everywhere. But what does irony actually mean? In literature (and film), the main types of irony are verbal irony, situational irony, dramatic irony, and structural irony. This explanation will differentiate irony based on the intent of the subject of irony. It will also differentiate between one-off uses of irony and sustained uses of structural irony.

Irony Meaning

Irony

  1. Irony occurs when the apparent significance of something is at odds with its contextualised significance. In simple words, in an instance of irony, a person may say something but mean the opposite.
  2. In literature, irony refers to the literary technique of highlighting and creating such inconsistencies.

For example, if someone says, ‘Wow, lovely weather we’re having’ when theyre standing drenched in the rain with a sullen expression, we can interpret their statement as ironic. The apparent significance of what they have said (that the weather is pleasant) is at odds with its actual meaning, which we can grasp from the context of the rain and their expression: this person thinks the weather is awful.

All uses of irony in literature are dependent on context in one way or another. When authors include irony in their work, they draw upon or create a context against which a statement or event becomes ironic.

Take the famous opening line to Jane Austens Pride and Prejudice (1813).

Ironic statement: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Context: In the 1800s, the social pressure was on single women, not men, to find a wealthy husband. This is an ironic statement because its context undermines it. Or rather, Austen knowingly undermines it.

Origins of irony: intent and circumstances

Irony can be created by a persons ironic intent or from the ironic circumstances of a situation. Irony is created when the subject of irony either says or does something with the intent of being ironic, for example, when someone on Facebook posts about how social media is a terrible tool. The irony of their circumstances is pointed out or created by someone else. This someone else can be another character, the author, or even the reader.

The subject of irony is where the spotlight of irony is pointed. If a person makes an ironic statement (verbal irony), they are in the spotlight of the irony.

Verbal irony originates from the intent of the subject of irony. The subject of irony is being ironic on purpose. Situational irony and dramatic irony originate from circumstance because the irony of a certain set of circumstances is pointed out by another individual. In dramatic irony, the audience knows something that the characters in the drama dont, thus adding to the humour or ridiculousness of the situation.

Types of irony

The main types of irony in literature include verbal irony, situational irony, dramatic irony, and structural irony. There are, of course, other forms of irony, like tragic irony and comic irony.

Verbal irony

Verbal irony is a statement that has an intentionally contradictory meaning.

A statement does not count as verbal irony unless the speaker says it with ironic intent. A person can either pick up on the irony of a certain situation, or they can create the irony themselves and make an ironic stat ment.

In Lady Windemeres Fan (1892) by Oscar Wilde, Lord Darlington says:

I can resist everything except temptation. – Oscar Wilde, Act One, Scene One

This statement is ironic because it is contradictory. If he could resist everything, he could resist temptation – the most important thing to resist!

For contrast, take this ironic statement from Pride and Prejudice. Why is this not verbal irony?

Ironic statement: ‘She is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me.

Context: Mr Darcy will fall in love with the woman he said he's not attracted to, Elizabeth.

Is Mr Darcy aware of this context? Does Mr Darcy speak with ironic intent? The answer is no. Therefore, this isnt verbal irony, it's situational irony.

Sarcasm

Sarcasm is often considered an unrefined type of verbal irony.

Sarcasm is an instance of verbal irony whereby the speaker says something intentionally insincere to mock or criticise an event or person.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy makes this sarcastic remark about Mr Wickham in an argument with Elizabeth:

“His misfortunes!” repeated Darcy contemptuously; “yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed.”

This is an example of sarcasm, as Mr Darcy believes the opposite of what he is saying and intends to mock and criticise Wickham.

Situational irony

Situational irony occurs when an outcome is at odds with what it is reasonably expected to be.

For example, if your English language teacher makes lots of spelling mistakes in a spelling lesson, this is situational irony. This is because our expectation that the teacher is good enough at spelling to teach it is inverted. In other words, their inability to spell is at odds with the context of 1) their role as a language teacher and 2) it being a spelling lesson.

Dramatic irony

If you have ever been in on a secret, it is likely you have experienced dramatic irony in real life. Dramatic irony is created when the reader or audience knows more about the characters, or narrators, circumstances than they do.

Dramatic irony is created in a situation where the reader or audience knows something that the character does not.

The technique of dramatic irony originated in Ancient Greek theatre, but it can also be used in prose and poetry. In a play, the audience has a privileged position of being able to witness an entire story, whereas characters only witness events that they are on stage for.

Shakespeare makes ample use of dramatic irony in his comedy, Twelfth Night (1602). Throughout the whole play, the audience knows that Viola is actually a woman, dressed as a man, but other characters dont. This creates the dramatic irony.

Shakespeare also uses dramatic irony to mock the pompous Malvolio. The other servants play a prank on Malvolio, writing letters to him pretending to be his employer, Olivia. This makes Malvolios following statement dramatically ironic:

Nothing that can be can come between me and the full prospect of my hopes.

Something can and will come between his hopes, and the audience knows this because they are in on the trick.

Although irony is used in a sustained way throughout the majority of the play, this does not count as structural irony as the elements at odds in the story are resolved within the story itself, as the characters eventually learn that Viola is a woman in disguise.

Dramatic irony is dependent on an insider-outsider relationship between the characters and the audience.

Tragic irony

Tragic irony is dramatic irony used for non-comedic purposes. It originates from Greek tragedy plays.

Sophocles's Oedipus Rex (first performed in 429 BC) is a tragedy. The main character, Oedipus, spends the whole play looking for the man who murdered his father without realising that he is the man he is looking for: he was the one who killed his father. The audience knows the truth all along as they watch Oedipus struggle.

Comic or tragic dramatic irony?

Although Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to mock Malvolio in Twelfth Night, there is also a sense that the prank goes too far and that the audience is sadistic for enjoying Malvolio's suffering. He is locked in a dark cage and led to believe that he has gone mad. Although Malvolio is seen as a grumpy character that may deserve the prank played on him, Shakespeare seems to add a tinge of tragic irony to his mistreatment, leading the audience to question the ethical implications of their involvement in his suffering.

Structural irony

Structural irony refers to the sustained use of irony throughout an entire text, the irony of which is not resolved within the text itself but informs the texts meaning.

According to A Glossary of Literary Terms (2012) by M. H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham,

Some literary works exhibit structural irony; that is, the author, instead of using an occasional verbal irony, introduces a structural feature that serves to sustain a duplex meaning and evaluation throughout the work.1

One way to do this is to introduce structural irony into a text through a fallible narrator, a naïve hero. The author can also make the entire plot have a double meaning, which undermines the surface-level meaning of the text.

Content warning: discussion of disturbing topics.

Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita (1955) uses a naïve and flawed narrator. The novel is about a middle-aged mans morbid obsession with his step-daughter whom he nicknames Lolita. Humbert Humbert goes into extreme detail about his feelings for Lolita and their time together. He thinks he can succeed in making the reader empathise with his crimes by showing just how intense his feelings were for Lolita. However, the reader is disgusted at his actions and descriptions throughout the narrative. This gives the whole novel a layer of irony, as Humbert Humbert thinks he is in control of his narrative when the real puppet master is Nabokov, who makes a mockery of him.

Purpose and effects of irony

Irony is used to undermine the significance of something or someone. Irony often creates a humorous tone and evokes empathy from a reader or audience. Irony is a helpful tool for writers to explore contradictory experiences and complex feelings and situations. Uses of irony in literature can often show us that the author doesnt want us to take the text, and by extension life, too seriously. The masterful use of irony shows the writer and speakers wit. Verbal, situational, and dramatic irony also has the effect of engaging, and therefore flattering, the reader or audiences intellect.

This explanation is a starting point for your understanding of irony. In the past few decades, writers, comedians, and meme creators have developed different layers of irony, such as post-irony. Post-irony is a kind of sincere irony, where what you say is what you mean, but with a layer of irony.

Irony - Key takeaways

  • Irony occurs when the apparent significance of something is at odds with its contextualised significance. In literature, irony refers to the literary technique of highlighting and creating such inconsistencies.
  • All uses of irony in literature are dependent on context.
  • The main types of irony in literature include verbal irony, situational irony, dramatic irony, and structural irony.
  • Verbal irony is a statement that has an intentionally contradictory meaning.
  • Situational irony occurs when an outcome is at odds with what it is reasonably expected to be.
  • Dramatic irony is created in a situation where the reader or audience knows something that the character does not.
  • Structural irony refers to the sustained use of irony throughout an entire text.

1. Geoffrey Galt Harpham and M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, Nelson Education, Ltd., 2012.

Irony

One way to identify irony is to consider the contextual information and whether there is any incongruity between what is said or done and the context against which it is said.

Irony is a perception of inconsistency between the apparent significance of a statement or event and its contextualised significance.

Dramatic irony is a type of irony that is created in a situation where the reader or audience has access to crucial information about a character’s situation, which they lack.

The three main types of irony in literature are verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony. Something is classed as verbal irony if the speaker intends it to be ironic. An example of verbal irony is Oscar Wilde’s epigram, ‘I can resist everything but temptation.’ Situational irony is created when our expectations for an outcome are reversed. O. Henry’s story, ‘The Gift of the Magi’, is an example of situational irony. A woman cuts off her hair to buy her husband a new chain for his watch. Meanwhile, the husband sells the watch to buy his wife a comb for her beautiful hair. Dramatic irony is created when the reader or audience knows more about a character’s situation than they do. Tragic irony is a type of dramatic irony. Shakespeare’s comedyTwelfth Night is full of dramatic irony. For example, the audience knows that Viola is a woman disguised as a man but the characters don’t.

The purpose of dramatic irony is to engage the reader or audience with the story and to mock the ignorance and shortsightedness of characters and narrators within a story. Dramatic irony appeals to the audience’s intellect as they are in on a secret with the author. The technique can also make the audience more empathetic towards the characters.

Final Irony Quiz

Question

How can we define irony?

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Answer

  1. Irony occurs when the apparent significance of something is at odds with its contextualised significance.
  2. In literature, irony refers to the literary technique of highlighting and creating such inconsistencies.

Show question

Question

What is an example of a famous opening sentence from a classic of English literature that uses irony?

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Answer

'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.'

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Question

Where does irony come from, or how can irony be created?

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Answer

Irony can be created by a person's ironic intent or from the ironic circumstances of a situation.

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Question

What is verbal irony?

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Answer

Verbal irony is a statement that has an intentionally contradictory meaning.

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Question

What is an example of verbal irony?

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Answer

'I can resist everything except temptation.' (Oscar Wilde, Lady Windemere's Fan (1892).)

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Question

What is sarcasm?

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Answer

A sarcastic statement is a statement that is intentionally insincere to mock or criticise an event or person.

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Question

Dramatic irony is when the audience...

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Answer

... knows more than the characters or narrators in a fictional work.

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Question

What is tragic irony?

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Answer

Dramatic irony that is not funny.

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Question

What is structural irony?

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Answer

Structural irony refers to the sustained use of irony throughout an entire text, the irony of which is not resolved within the text itself but informs the text's meaning.

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Question

Why is irony used?

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Answer

  • to undermine the significance of something or someone.
  • to explore contradictory and complex feelings and situations
  • to engage and flatter the reader

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Question

What are two key effects that irony can produce?

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Answer

Irony can create humour and can evoke empathy from a reader or audience.

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