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What is irony in literature?

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Irony is one of the more elusive aspects of literature.  When irony is a part of any literature, there will always be food for discussion and thought.

The basic definition of irony is to say one thing but to mean something different. Another way of defining irony is that it usually signals a difference between the appearance of things and the reality.

Irony is a discrepancy or difference:

  • between what is said and what is meant or what others understand
  • between what is said and what is done,
  • between what is expected or intended and what happens

The three basic kinds of irony used in literature include verbal irony, situational irony and dramatic irony.

Verbal irony is the literal meaning by humorous or sarcastic literary style or by an ironic expression or saying. Sarcasm is one kind of irony; it is praise which is really an insult. Sarcasm generally involves malice, the desire to put someone down. For example, this sentence is ironic:  "This is my brilliant son, who failed out of college."

In Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, Marc Antony says in his funeral oration:

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

Mark Antony really means that Brutus is dishonorable.

Situational irony is the inconsistency "between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal expected result of an event" that is marked by inconsistency or incongruity. To further explain, it is the "technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually stated."

In Macbeth by William Shakespeare: The witches predict a series of events that happen to come true, but Macbeth often misinterprets their words. 

In  “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge: 

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

In this example, it is ironic that water is everywhere but none of it can be drunk (as it is seawater).

Dramatic irony is "the inconsistency between a situation developed in a play/drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play." This means that in a situation of dramatic irony, the audience knows more than the characters in the work. This creates a kind of suspense as one knows what is about to come, though the characters themselves do not.

In Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, when Romeo finds Juliet in a drugged sleep, he assumes her to be dead and kills himself. Upon awakening to find her dead lover beside her, Juliet then kills herself. Of course, the audience knew that Juliet was not dead. 

In Macbeth by Shakespeare, Macbeth plans the murder of Duncan whilst pretending loyalty. Duncan does not know of Macbeth’s plans, but the audience does.

Learning to recognize irony is an important part of becoming a mature reader, particularly in literature.  Writers use irony because "it allows them to convey deeper meanings without having to state it bluntly." Sometimes, irony is used to  create comical relief. Shakespeare often used irony to draw the audience in to the plot and to keep it interesting for the readers.

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