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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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What is the definition of irony?

Irony is sometimes a form of sarcasm, wherein the person speaking means the total opposite of what they are saying.  For example:  John runs into a fire hydrant and exclaims, "Oh, this is just terrific!"  It isn't really terrific, but John's outburst helps him cope with his predicament, and might actually bring humor to an otherwise sobering situation. 

Irony can also be something that isn't expected to happen according to the normal scheme of things.  Here's an example:  Emily, a prominent gynecologist, spends her whole life working on a cure for cervical cancer, only to succumb to it herself at the age of 55.  Now, that's irony!

Irony is also used by playwright to poke fun at societal practices and customs.  The actors and actresses say one thing, but mean another, and it quickly becomes apparent to the audience, often with humorous results!

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What is the definition of irony?

Irony is, in general, when something different than what you expect happens. There are three main types of irony in literature. Here are the three types:

Verbal Irony- This is when a statement seems to contradict itself. An oxymoron (“jumbo shrimp”) is one example.

Situational Irony- When something happens in a story that is the opposite of what you expect, or very different from what is expected, that is situational irony. For example, imagine that a story describes a group of children are approach a house covered in cobwebs, creeping along, and they open the door and suddenly- it turns out to be their own house.

Dramatic Irony- When the reader knows something that the characters in the story don’t, that’s dramatic irony. For example, consider that in the story with the haunted house the children are scared, and we know that it is actually a friendly little old lady living inside. You can imagine that potential for dramatic irony!

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What is irony?

Irony is a literary term for when an author uses a word or a bunch of words to mean the opposite of what they usually mean.  The author has a character say one thing but the actual message that the author intends to send is the opposite.

An example of this would be when Shakespeare has Hamlet say

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty

This is ironic because Hamlet is really talking about how bad he thinks people are.

In literature, you can also have situational irony, (where something happens that seems really funny because of who it happens to) and dramatic irony (where the readers or audience know what's happening is ironic, but the characters don't).

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What does irony mean?

Irony is the word used to indicate the gap between appearance and reality. When we think of irony, there are three main types that we can enounter. The first is verbal irony, which is when we say the opposite of what we mean. Take, for example, the following scenario. You have just done a presentation for me as your teacher in class, and it was terrible. I, as a cruel teacher, say to you, "Well that was wonderful." That is the opposite of what was true, and thus it is an example of verbal irony.

Situational irony is a twist of fate that results in an ending that is completely the opposite of what we expect. An excellent example of this occurs in "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry, when both Della and Jim sell their most precious possession in order to buy a gift that can now no longer be used by their partner.

Lastly, dramatic irony is when we as the audience or one or more characters knows something that other characters do not or are blind to. Perhaps one of the most famous examples is in Romeo and Juliet, when we as the audience know at the end of the play that Juliet is not dead and that she is just about to revive. However, Romeo does not, and he kills himself just before she wakes up.

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