The Encyclopedia Britannica online gives the best succinct definition of irony in literature and drama. It states that irony in literature and drama is found in a "situation in which there is an incongruity between what is expected and what occurs (dramatic irony)." We can add more particulars to this...
The Encyclopedia Britannica online gives the best succinct definition of irony in literature and drama. It states that irony in literature and drama is found in a "situation in which there is an incongruity between what is expected and what occurs (dramatic irony)." We can add more particulars to this essential definition of dramatic/literary irony.
Irony is a rhetorical device, used to effect an emotional or intellectual response from the reader or listener (at a play, speech, etc.). It is a literary device that is a figure of speech and thus a linguistic (language) tool for writers and speakers. This rhetorical and literary device that is a linguistic figure of speech is used to present a contradiction between what is expected and what occurs or is meant.
Looking at Captain Ralph the Rover in Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey, you can now identify how Southey employs irony to great effect and to the accomplishment of a surprise ending. First, Captain Ralph the Rover, in a fit of wicked "fun" against the memory of the Abbot of Aberbrothok, cuts the Inchcape Bell from its fastening to the buoy ("Float") on Inchcape Rock. It is important to know that a bell on a buoy was employed to warn sailors in dangerous weather of how near they were to rocks upon which they could crash. The Abbot of Aberbrothok donated Inchcape Bell to save lives, and it did save lives for Inchcape sailors.
Second, after Captain Ralph the Rover goes to sea to plunder merchant ships, he returns to Inchcape and it just happens to be...ironically...foul and dangerous weather with dark, lightless skies.
Third, there is no sound...ironically...in the dark night to warn Captain or sailors of how near they are to being dashed by storming seas against the Inchcape rocks. And whose fault is it that they are welcomed by silence in the shadow of threatening rocks? Uh huh (see "First, Captain Ralph..." above).
Fourth, they thunderously crash...ironically...against Inchcape Rock. On his journey to his last breath, Captain Ralph the Rover hears...ironically...the tones of the Inchcape Bell rising from the deep sea bottom where it is being tolled (rung) by the hand of the Devil who is lying in wait...ironically...for he who destroyed the life saving gift of the Abbot of Aberbrothok.
Returning to the definition of "irony," you can see that Captain Ralph the Rover had one expectation relating to his wicked "joke" and then is met with a different reality from what he expected; there is an incongruity between what he expects and what actually occurs...and that reality turns out to be his doom instead of a "joke." It is this ironic set up that allows Southey to give a chilling surprise ending to an otherwise simply told tale.