Part of the reason people find it hard to give a definition of irony is because of Alanis Morissette's 1995 hit song 'Ironic'. Morissette sings about a number of situations – like rain on one's wedding day – that, while inconvenient, aren't ironic. Which means people like us need to rescue storytellers everywhere by writing a blog that explains what this literary term actually is. (You're welcome.)
Although she popularised irony, Alanis Morissette didn't invent it. That honour goes to the Greek character, Eiron. He was an underdog who used his considerable wit to fight another character. This spawned the Greek word eironeía, the literal meaning of which is 'purposely affected ignorance.' It then entered Latin as ironia, before becoming a popular English figure of speech in the 16th century.
Dramatic irony is when your audience has more information than your character(s) in a story. This nifty literary device became popular in Greek tragedy – and, true to the genre, the different point of view often leads to tragic outcomes.
One famous example of dramatic irony is in Shakespeare's smash hit, Othello. The audience knows that Othello's BFF Iago is a bad guy who wants to ruin Othello. The audience also knows that Desdemona has been faithful. Othello doesn't know either of these things. This means that the audience can sense some imminent fireworks – while poor Othello remains in the dark.
There are three stages to dramatic irony: installation, exploitation, and resolution. In Othello's case:
A common example of dramatic irony: In the film The Truman Show, where Truman is the only person who doesn't know that he's being filmed all the time.
Situational irony is when the outcome of a situation is totally different from what people expect. This type of irony is a literary technique that's riddled with contradictions and contrasts.
For example, in the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, all the people in Emerald City assume that its Oz is powerful and impressive. However, Oz turns out to be the exact opposite: an old man with no special powers.
A common example of situational irony: In 1925, when the New York Times said the crossword puzzle was a craze that was “dying out fast”. That didn't age well.
Verbal irony is when your speaker says something that's the opposite to what they mean. While it sounds similar to sarcasm, it's not exactly the same. People usually use sarcasm to attack something, but that's not always the case with irony.
Our old friend Alanis Morrissette did manage to get one example of irony into her song. When the man (in the song) whose plane is going down says "Well, isn't this nice", it's clearly in the form of verbal irony. He's not actually happy that the plane's about to crash, so his statement is the opposite of what he means.
One more note: unlike dramatic irony and situational irony, verbal irony is always an intentional move by the speaker.
A common example of verbal irony: When people say "What a pleasant day!" when there's a thunderstorm outside. The jokers.
O. Henry's short story The Gift of the Magi is jam-packed with irony, all in the name of teaching the reader about sacrifice and love. When Della opens her gift of tortoiseshell combs from Jim, it's dramatic irony because she briefly forgets that her hair is too short to wear them. It's also dramatic irony if the reader guesses in advance that Jim sold his watch to buy the precious combs.
Jane Austen was a big fan of irony, filling her novels with the stuff. Early in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is asked to play and sing at a party at Lucas Lodge. At the same time, Sir Lucas is trying to persuade Mr. Darcy to dance, an offer that he rejects. But then Sir Lucas spies Elizabeth, and encourages Mr. Darcy to ask her for a dance – which he dutifully does. It's a total reversal of his earlier behaviour (he claims to hate dancing), making it the perfect example of situational irony.
Our mate William Shakespeare issues a cracking example of verbal irony in his play Julius Caesar. When Mark Antony says 'But Brutus says he was ambitious; / And Brutus is an honourable man', it seems as if he's praising Brutus after the assassination of Julius Caesar. However, it's nothing but a witty ruse. Mark Antony is actually implying that Brutus isn't ambitious or honourable at all. Sneaky!
For bonus points, here are a few extra types of irony. They're perfect for days when you want to dial the irony all the way up to eleven.
Cosmic irony is when irony goes to a whole other, godly level. Why? Because you only get it in stories that contain gods who want different things to humans. These gods might play with humans' lives for kicks, creating oodles of ironic situations. The irony is the contrast between what the humans expect, and what actually happens. This type of irony mostly occurs in Greek legends.
Historical irony is all about real events that – when you look at them in the rearview mirror – turned out a lot different than people predicted. Like the Chinese alchemists who discovered gunpowder when they were looking for a way to create immortality. Their discovery had an entirely opposite effect.
Socratic irony was named after the philosopher Socrates. This old rascal would pretend to not know about a topic during a debate, leading his opponent to reveal all their nonsensical arguments. It's also an example of dramatic irony because mischievous Socrates was pretending to have less information than he actually did.
Tragic irony is a little step up from dramatic irony. We see it in Romeo and Juliet, where our two lovers find out the truth slightly too late to prevent a tragedy. Hence the 'tragic' part.
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