Guide to Literary Terms Irony

Irony

There are three types of irony: situational, verbal, and dramatic.

Situational irony involves a reversal of readers’ and/or characters’ expectations.

Correct examples:

  • In Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” big game hunter Rainsford relishes his status as a hunter rather than a “huntee,” but finds these roles reversed when he is hunted by Zaroff.

  • In Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” middle-class Mathilde Loisel dreams of being rich, but ends up spending years in poverty as she works to earn enough money to replace a diamond necklace she borrowed from a friend and lost, only to find that the original had been a fake.

Verbal irony occurs when a character/narrator intentionally says something different from or contradictory to what they really mean, often revealing hidden meanings and motives underlying their words. This type of irony can include sarcasm.

Correct examples:

  • In Julius Caesar, Antony sarcastically refers to Brutus as an “honorable man” in his speech at Caesar’s funeral. He also says, “Let me not stir you up / To such a sudden flood of mutiny,” when stirring his listeners to mutiny against Brutus and the other conspirators is in fact his goal.

  • In “The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor employs verbal irony when he tells Fortunato, whom he plans to shortly murder, that he will drink to Fortunato’s “long life.”

Dramatic irony occurs when the reader or audience knows something vital that a character doesn’t. This type of irony is used most commonly, though not exclusively, in plays.

Correct examples:

  • In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo drinks poison in Juliet’s tomb, thinking her dead, but the reader/audience knows she is only in a death-like slumber due to the effects of Friar Laurence’s potion.

  • In Othello, Othello continues to trust Iago, while the reader/audience is aware that Iago is lying and plotting Othello’s downfall.