What Is Irony?
Irony occurs when there is gap between what you expect to happen and what actually does happen. That gap often, but not always, seems like a cosmic joke:
- The day you clean out your car and put the umbrella in the house is the day it rains cats and dogs.
- Walking to lunch in between showers, you laugh at a guy who gets splashed by a passing car. The next moment, a gutter tilts, and you get soaked from head to foot.
These examples are situational irony.
Verbal irony, on the other hand, is when you say something you don’t really mean. Telling a person, "It’s good to know that you hate sour cream" after observing their plate of nachos festooned with huge gobs of the stuff is an example of verbal irony.
In literature, there are two more types of irony:
- Dramatic irony occurs when a character is unaware of circumstances that the reader and other characters know. The character acts out of their ignorance, which is a source either of amusement or suspense. A particular form of dramatic irony is tragic irony. Since ancient Greek audiences were already familiar with the stories being enacted, they understood the fate of characters like Oedipus, whose actions and speeches thus took the form of tragic irony.
- Romantic irony occurs when the author develops detachment from his work as art and becomes self-consciously about the act of creation. This form of irony originated in the writings of the German Romantic, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel. This type of irony is closely related to "metafiction," when characters become aware of themselves as characters and hold conversations directly with the audience.
How Do You Identify Irony in Writing?
To summarize, irony occurs when there is a gap between either what is said and what is meant, between what is known by the audience and what happens to a character, or between our expectation that art is a closed world and the writer’s unexpected mingling of fiction and reality.
Examples of Irony
1. In "Story of an Hour," Mrs. Mallard dies of a heart attack when her husband, presumed dead, suddenly arrives at home. The characters believe she died of "the joy that kills." The reader, however, knows that she dies because her new-found freedom has been stripped from her.
2. In Guy de Maupassant’s story, "The Necklace," the main character works for ten years to repay her employer for a lost necklace, only to find out that the original was an imitation.
3. The Simpson’s Halloween show in which Homer lands in a dumpster in "our" reality is a good example of the show dabbling in romantic irony.
4. In Flannery O’Connor’s "All Things that Rise Must Also Converge," there are several ironies, the main one being that Julian’s spiteful wish to teach his mother a lesson ends up causing her to have a stroke, and her death ruins his life.
5. In Frozen, the audience realizes that Elsa is locked up because she has uncontrollable powers. Her sister Anna, on the other hand, thinks Elsa just doesn’t want to be friends with her anymore rather than realizing that she can’t touch her for fear of hurting her again.