Guide to Literary Terms

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What is the definition of irony?

The definition of irony is language that expresses the truth by conveying the opposite of what is literal or expected.

Irony

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Irony is the use of language to express the opposite of (or something very different from) what is communicated literally. In literature, irony can produce an amusing or intense emotional impact. There are three types of irony: situational, verbal, and dramatic. 

Irony evolved from the Greek word eiron, meaning “disassembler.”

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

  • In Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” big game hunter Rainsford relishes his status as a hunter rather than prey, 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 working to earn enough money to replace a lost diamond necklace she borrowed from a friend, only to find that the original had been a fake.

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

  • In William Shakespeare’s 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 convincing his listeners to revolt against Brutus and the other conspirators is in fact his goal. 
  • Verbal irony also appears in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor employs verbal irony when he tells Fortunato, whom he plans to murder, that he will drink to Fortunato’s “long life.”

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

  • In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo drinks poison in Juliet’s tomb, thinking her dead, but the reader/audience knows she is merely in a deathlike slumber caused by Friar Laurence’s potion. 
  • In William Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello continues to trust Iago while the audience is aware that Iago is lying and plotting Othello’s downfall.

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