Irony is the experiencing of a state of affairs which is distinctly contrary to what one might reasonably expect in any given situation. But irony is so much more than that. The intricacies and breadth of irony makes it one of the most interesting and often-used literary tools.

Irony: Definition & Etymology

Before we begin in earnest, it is important to make a clear distinction between irony and sarcasm. Sarcasm is a form of irony, specifically it is irony that is delivered using spoken words; that is why you have probably heard the statement, "He is being ironic," which is, of course, an incorrect use of the term irony, as irony describes a given situation but is not uttered through voice or writing by an individual or entity. To delve deeper into the definition of sarcasm, you will have to (oddly enough), go to the sarcasm page.

To acquire a better grasp on the topic, let us discuss what irony is not. Here are a few examples:

These three examples of non-irony should be more than adequate in illustrating the intricacies of this often-misused word.

etymological tree of the word irony

Now that you have a tenuous understanding of the word irony, it is important to learn about the four different types of irony.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is sarcasm. There is not much more to say, other than direct you towards the page discussing sarcasm, but to spare you the torment of having to click elsewhere on the page, I will provide a brief overview of sarcasm and even include an example or two.

Sarcasm is the use of jest or mockery to impart witty banter or derision towards someone or a situation. Surely, an example is now in order.

Imagine a difficult day at work, after which you were stuck in traffic for two hours, only to get home and see your house burnt down into a pile of ash. In moment of lucidity, before your mental breakdown, you say 'At least the day ended on a positive note.' If that actually happened, then in that moment of utter personal despair, you would have uttered a sarcastic comment--you were verbally ironic.

Dramatic & Tragic Irony

Dramatic irony is a literary device used to impart knowledge upon the third-party observer or reader which exceeds the realm of knowledge and understanding of the character within a narrative.

Alfred Hitchcock illustrated dramatic irony in his brilliant style by describing it as such:

"Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There's a bomb beneath you and it's about to explode!'" --Alfred Hitchcock, 1985

Tragic irony, is an extension of dramatic irony where the audience is aware of the events that are about to unfold and can only watch as the character in the story stumbles unknowingly towards a tragic conclusion.

Situational Irony

Situational irony is developed when reasonable and commonly expected outcomes for a given situation fail to materialize or are inverted. Situational irony is often used for comedic effect, so it is a bit easier to pick up since it is generally not crafted in a way to be clever, so almost anyone can recognize it.

An ironic situation would be where a child, while playing with friends, manages to dodge a water balloon, and struts about mockingly at his successful maneuver, but then falls into the pool.

Socratic Irony

Socratic irony is process of exposing the weakness or flaw in an idea or individual through assuming an ignorant position. Socratic irony owes its name to the method of teaching used for Socrates where he would ask a student a series of questions, feigning ignorance, in order to lead the student to the desired answer.

This method is often used in academic settings in order to help students improve their critical thinking skills, and arrive at answers themselves, rather than have it handed to them by the instructor.

Examples of Irony in Literature

Irony is an often-used literary device, and can come in a very basic form or a complicated maze. Some examples of irony in literature are:

Of Mice & Men: Lennie's last name is "Small". It is ironic because Lennie is a big guy.

Romeo & Juliet: In the final scene, the audience is aware that Juliet has drank the potion, but Romeo does not, and kills himself, thinking that Juliet has already taken her own life. The audience watches in horror as Romeo takes his own life not knowing that Juliet is about to wake up from her deep slumber brought on by the potion.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: In his poem, Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes, 'Water, water everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.' This is the story of lost ship in the middle of the ocean, with endless water surrounding the ship and its passengers, but they have no water to drink.

Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)Because at least someone should keep his memory alive.