Definitions and Examples of Irony in Literature

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Articulating a simple irony definition can be daunting. It’s a large concept, but irony can be broken down into three central categories. We’ll define each of these three main types of irony, and provide examples from plays, short stories, essays and poems.

IRONY

Definition: There are three types of irony: verbal, situational and dramatic.

Verbal irony occurs when a speaker’s intention is the opposite of what he or she is saying. For example, a character stepping out into a hurricane and saying, “What nice weather we’re having!”

Situational irony occurs when the actual result of a situation is totally different from what you’d expect the result to be. Sitcoms often use situational irony. For example, a family spends a lot of time and money planning an elaborate surprise birthday party for their mother to show her how much they care. But it turns out, her birthday is next month, and none of them knew the correct date. She ends up fuming that no one cares enough to remember her birthday.

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows a key piece of information that a character in a play, movie or novel does not. This is the type of irony that makes us yell, “DON’T GO IN THERE!!” during a scary movie. Dramatic irony is huge in Shakespeare’s tragedies, most famously in Othello and Romeo and Juliet, both of which we’ll examine later.

Why Writers Use It: Irony inverts our expectations. It can create the unexpected twist at the end of a joke or a story that gets us laughing — or crying. Verbal irony tends to be funny; situational irony can be funny or tragic; and dramatic irony is often tragic.

Irony in Shakespeare and Literature

Dramatic Irony in Othello

Othello is one of the most heartrending tragedies ever written, and Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony is one of the reasons the play is so powerful to read and watch.

We know that the handkerchief used as proof of Desdemona’s infidelity was, in fact, stolen by Emilia at Iago’s behest. Desdemona was framed by Iago, and we know she is innocent. But we are powerless to stop Othello; he has resolved to murder his wife.

Iago, whom Othello considers a friend, has been plotting Othello’s demise for the duration of the play. Othello does not know that Iago is the one pulling the strings, but we do. We know he is the one who convinces Roderigo to kill Cassio, even as we watch him pretend to help Cassio after he is wounded. Only we see Iago kill Roderigo before he can reveal the truth. In this way, we are complicit with Iago’s misdeeds. We are the only witnesses, and yet we can do nothing.

Dramatic Irony in Romeo and Juliet

In the final act of this archetypal love story, Shakespeare employs dramatic irony to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Friar Laurence sends a messenger to tell Romeo about Juliet’s plan to drug herself into deathlike coma. We watch in horror as the messenger fails to deliver this vital piece of information. And though we know that Juliet is not really dead, we see Romeo poison himself because he cannot live without her.

Verbal Irony in A Modest Proposal

Johnathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a classic example of verbal irony. He begins seemingly in earnest, discussing the sad state of destitute children:

[...] whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

Seems reasonable enough. But things take a very ironic turn:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

Is Swift sincerely proposing that we eat children? No, but he has indeed inverted our expectations and written a wonderfully ironic essay.

Situational irony in The Gift of the Magi

In this short story by O. Henry, a wife sells her hair to buy her husband a watch chain, and her husband sells his watch to buy her combs for her hair. Both have made sacrifices in order to buy gifts for one another, but in the end, the gifts are useless. The real gift is how much they are willing to give up to show their love for one another.

Situational irony in “Messy Room” by Shel Silverstein

Whosever room this is should be ashamed!
His underwear is hanging on the lamp.
His raincoat is there in the overstuffed chair,
And the chair is becoming quite mucky and damp.
His workbook is wedged in the window,
His sweater’s been thrown on the floor.
His scarf and one ski are beneath the TV,
And his pants have been carelessly hung on the door.
His books are all jammed in the closet,
His vest has been left in the hall.
A lizard named Ed is asleep in his bed,
And his smelly old sock has been stuck to the wall.
Whosever room this is should be ashamed!
Donald or Robert or Willie or–
Huh? You say it’s mine? Oh, dear,
I knew it looked familiar!

The speaker criticizes the room’s owner at length, only to discover that the room is his own.

Check Out the Previous Literary Terms in the Series

Alliteration
Allusion
Assonance
Extended Metaphor
Juxtaposition
Metonymy
Oxymoron
Hyperbole
Personification
Simile

Share your best examples of irony in the comments!

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