Guide to Literary Terms

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In literature, [irony] is the technique of indicating an intention or attitude opposed to what is actually stated. Often, only the context of the statement leads the reader to understand it is ironic. Irony makes use of hyperbole, sarcasm, satire, and understatement.

Some things are identified as ironic, when they actually are not. In Alanis Morissette's song, "Ironic," rain on one's wedding day is not ironic. There is a hope that it will not rain, but there is every possibility that it will occur, as the weather is often unpredictable. However, a fireman's house burning down is ironic. The home of a policeman being burglarized is also ironic. 

In simple terms, irony is often described as the difference between what is said and what is meant, or the difference between what is expected and what actually happens.

There are four different kinds of irony. Cicero defined verbal irony as "saying one thing and meaning another." (There may be the presence of sarcasm with verbal irony.) Situational irony is found when a fireman's house burns down, or with what some call poetic justice: when "accidental events occur that seem oddly appropriate." One example is when a con-artist is tricked by someone else. Dramatic irony is the most significant form of irony in literature. In this form, the audience is often aware of something that the character is not. For example, in Shakespeare's Macbeth, the audience knows that the witches have no desire to help him: they simply want to lead his soul to its eternal damnation. 

Some scholars also recognize rhetorical irony . In this case, a speaker...

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