7 Examples of Irony in Literature

Definition of Irony

Irony is a literary device that plays on difference between appearance and reality for rhetorical effect. It involves a disconnect or contradiction between what is stated versus what is truly meant or expected. The contrast between literal and intended meaning generates layered insights, social commentary and even humor.

Types of Irony

Verbal Irony

When someone says the opposite of what they actually mean, it is called verbal irony. For example, if someone did something really stupid, you might say “Wow, that was so smart”, however you actually mean it was dumb. Another example of verbal irony is, “Thanks a lot for your help” said to someone unhelpful is an example of verbal irony.

Situational Irony

This is when what actually happens is different or even opposite from what you would expect to happen. For example, a fire station burning down would be situational irony.

Dramatic Irony

When a character’s words or actions take on significance that the character is unaware of but the audience understands. For example, In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago’s asides to the audience create dramatic irony as we realize his true malicious motives.

Common Examples of Irony

Verbal

  • Saying “I’m fine” while visibly distraught
  • “No homework tonight! Yay!” Said without enthusiasm
  • An understatement like “It’s just a scratch” while bleeding profusely

Situational

  • A traffic cop getting a parking ticket
  • Holding an event to raise awareness but hardly anyone attends
  • Buying an expensive vitamin supplement then getting sick
  • Constructing an elaborate security system that gets disabled

Dramatic

  • In Jane Eyre, the audience realizes Mr. Rochester is already married while Jane remains ignorant
  • In Hamlet, the audience understands Hamlet has gone “mad” strategically while other characters interpret his behavior literally

Function of Irony in Writing

Authors employ irony for numerous purposes:

  • To create suspense by hinting at outcomes unknown to characters
  • Prompt re-evaluations of assumptions by subverting expectations
  • Inject humor through sarcasm and understatement
  • To achieve depth through implied layered meanings
  • To critique subjects through exaggerated distortion
  • Engage critical thinking by generating alternative perspectives

Common Examples of Irony

  • “This is the last diet I’ll ever go on” (while starting another)
  • A fire truck arriving at an emergency then catching fire itself
  • In The Story of an Hour, Mrs. Mallard feeling liberation as she inwardly rejoices at news of her husband’s death before he suddenly returns.

Examples of Irony in Literature

Example#1

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by S. T. Coleridge

“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”

The above stanza is the example of situational irony. The sailors are stranded in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by vast amounts of water, yet they are suffering terribly from thirst with “nor any drop to drink.” This stark contrast between the abundance of water and their inability to drink any of it exemplifies situational irony.

Example#2

“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

“Gwendolen: In fact, you must be the very person who ate as many as eight of the muffins that dreadful evening when I was taken ill and confined to my room. Cecily: I didn’t think it polite to mention it.”

Gwendolen accuses Cecily of eating eight muffins during a particular evening when she, Gwendolen, became ill and had to stay in bed. However, Gwendolen never expressly confirmed that Cecily did indeed eat eight muffins. In fact, she might be suggesting that Cecily enjoyed several muffins without specifying an exact number. The use of emphasis with “in fact,” and “dreadful evening” adds a touch of seriousness while the accusation itself is lighthearted and not necessarily true. The response of Cecily i.e. “I didn’t think it polite to mention it” adds to the irony that she in fact did eat at least some muffins that evening but did not want to draw attention to herself or show any boasting displays as she thought it impolite. Here, the use of irony through these sentences presents a contrast between what is truly happening and the surface meanings of the speeches. It also brings about a comic potential as it pokes fun at mannerly society norms.

Example#3

“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and alternative, was the process of a rational mind….Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them.”

The excerpt is example of dramatic irony. The reader understands the absurd and circular logic that traps the airmen into continuing to fly dangerous bombing missions. However, the characters themselves do not realize the contradictory insanity governing the “Catch-22” rules, which creates dramatic irony.

Example#4

“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

“Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.”

Jane uses irony to establish a contrast between the words of the speaker and their true meaning. The speaker describes the intelligence of a woman. Instead of complementing her, her words “less difficult to develop”, “mean understanding”, “little information” and “uncertain temper” suggest that she is not very bright and well informed. The use of irony highlights the prejudice of the speaker against the woman. It encourages the reader to evaluate the reliability of the speaker as an observer. In essence, the use of irony emphasizes the discrepancy between the words of the speaker and the actual truth that the woman may not be highly intelligent, but her mind is not easy to understand because the speaker is judging her unfairly.

Example#5

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

“The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.”

The speaker narrates that the magi or wise men were very smart and intellectual individuals who brought gifts to the baby Jesus at the time of his birth. The words “as you know” reflect the speaker assumption that the audience already knows this information. This hints at a strong familiarity with the story, which many people would have read or heard in the Bible. The familiarity creates irony when the speaker after explaining something so well known goes on to describe the difficult and uncertain journey of these wise men.

Example#6

“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury

“With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”

The passage employs the situational irony. Bradbury describes the fire captain Beatty with lofty and positive language. He refers to the fire house as a “great python” and describes it playing “symphonies of blazing and burning.” However, Beatty is using these instruments to burn books and destroy knowledge. The incongruous contrast between the powerful language and Beatty’s destructive actions exemplifies situational irony.

Example#7

“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

“The game with Eric Stratton reminded me of that crazy poem by Robert Burns, you probably read it. ‘That day, he dressed himself, his gitters full of great paine, in green muir. I’ll dress myself, my staff tiers rove the velure gites of vain.”

Here, Holden displays the verbal irony through his mocking, sarcastic misquotation and reinterpretation of Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse.” The writer intentionally mangles and misremembers the poem distorting its words and meaning into nonsensical phrases. This blatant oppositional mocking of the poem’s actual text exemplifies the verbal irony.

Examples of Irony in Literature
Examples of Irony in Literature

Related terms

1- Satire

Satire often employs irony as a tool to expose folly, vice or hypocrisy through ridicule, sarcasm and witty criticism. The ironic contrasts highlight faults in people, ideas or societal conventions in an exaggerated and mocking way.

For example, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” satirizes the oppressive attitudes toward the Irish poor through the ironic suggestion that they solve famine by selling babies as food.

2- Understatement

Understatement involves using restrained and muted language to depict something more severe or intense. This creates ironic disparity between the understated phrasing and the reality being described.

An example is in the novel Catch-22 when Yossarian calls the life-threatening combat missions merely “a little angle” through understatement.

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