Irony's Definition, Types, Etymology & Examples
Definition & Etymology of Irony
To have a much better understanding of the term irony, it is very important to have a little bit knowledge about etymology of the word irony. The word irony has been derived from the Greek word eironeia, which means feigned ignorance or dissembling. The origin of the word irony may be found deep in the history of Greek comedy. In a Greek comedy, a character used to outmaneuver another character by employing such words, which appeared to be the opposite of his thoughts, ideas, intention, or feelings. Generally, irony is a sarcastic or humorous remark intended to be in contrast to what one says. For example, calling a stupid person ‘genius’ is an irony. Britannica Encyclopedia defines the word irony as, “Irony, language device, either in spoken or written form in which the real meaning is concealed or contradicted by the literal meanings of the words (verbal irony) or in a situation in which there is an incongruity between what is expected and what occurs (dramatic irony).”
Types of Irony
There are several kinds of irony in literature, which are discussed below:
Verbal irony is a kind of irony, wherein the apparent meaning of words uttered by a character is entirely opposite to what he thought or expected. Abrams and Hartman in their book A Glossary of Literary Terms define verbal irony as, “Verbal irony is a statement in which the meaning that a speaker employs is sharply different from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed."
William Shakespeare has made use of verbal irony in his tragedies to a great extent. In Julius Caesar, Antony delivers an astonishing, incredible and astounding speech at the funeral ceremony of Julius Caesar, which is brimming with many examples of verbal irony. When Antony finds an opportunity to address the mob, he extols Brutus very lavishly and calls him an honourable man. This is an ironic statement made by Antony. His main purpose is to prove Brutus along with other conspirators as an assassin of Julius Caesar. He says:
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest –
For Brutus is an honourable man,
So are they all, all honourable men –
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me.
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man.
(Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)
Samuel Coleridge has also made use of verbal irony in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.When their ship is passing through the vast ocean, they have no water for drinking. That’s why; he asserts that, though, there is an ample amount of water everywhere, yet there is not a single drop of water for drinking. This is an example of verbal irony. He says:
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge)
In Hamlet, we also find several number of verbal ironies. When Getrude and Hamlet are having
discussion in her chamber, she tells Hamlet that you have offended your father very much. She means that he has hurt the feelings of his father i.e., Claudius. Hamlet replies that she has offended his father, meaning Senior Hamlet not Claudius. Look at the following lines taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
Hamlet. Now, mother, what's the matter?
Gertrude. Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
Hamlet. Mother, you have my father much offended.
(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
Situational irony is another kind of irony. It is a difference between two conditions. When a person or a character in a drama or fiction, undergoing a specific situation, gets confronted with a certain situation, which is entirely against his expectations, then such a contrast between the two conditions is called situational irony. Elleström, author of Divine Madness: On Interpreting Literature, Music and the Visual Arts, defines situational irony as, “Situational irony is broadly defined as a situation where the outcome is incongruous with what was expected, but it is also more generally understood as a situation that includes contradictions or sharp contrasts.”
Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations offers an excellent example of situational irony. Throughout the novel, Pip, who is the hero of this novel, labours under the delusion that Miss Havisham is his real benefactor. He has a firm belief that Miss Havisham wants him to become a gentleman so that he may be able to tie the knot with Estella. It is Magwitch, who reveals the secret fact that he is his real benefactor. Thus; there is a discrepancy between what Pip expected and what he faced. Such a discrepancy is known as situational irony.
Dramatic irony is a literary device, which occurs when the readers are having better knowledge about the fate of a character or the results of events than the character himself. The character is unaware of what the readers know. The readers are well aware of the twists of the situation, while the character is blind to such results.
For example, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Caesar is not aware of the evil intentions of Brutus and Cassius. Readers know very well about the conspiracy being hatched against Caesar. The author has skilfully woven the events in such a way that readers have the feeling that the conspirators will succeed in their objectives. Calpurnia’s dream reveals upon the readers that something bad is going to happen. However, Caesar ignores her warnings and goes straight away to the senate. Look at the following lines,wherein Caesar describes the dream of his wife to Decius:
Calpurnia here, my wife, stays me at home:
She dreamt to-night she saw my statue,
Which, like a fountain with a hundred spouts,
Did run pure blood: and many lusty Romans
Came smiling, and did bathe their hands in it:
(Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)
When he reaches senate, Cassius, who is the leading figure in the plan, along with Brutus and other conspirators stabs Caesar. Thus; they murder him at the eve of his coronation. That’s what we call dramatic irony.
Which kind of irony have you observed in a movie, novel, play or your life?
Cosmic irony is also known as irony of fate. Cosmic irony is a literary device, wherein the discrepancy between two conditions mainly depends upon the intervention of god, deity, fate, luck or heavenly forces not on the actions of a character. Divine forces play an important role in converting a better situation into a negative one. A character may blame his fate for his failure.
William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, is an excellent example in this regard. Cosmic irony is apparent in the very beginning of the play. The appearance of the ghost before Prince Hamlet is certainly the intervention of fate. It was due to sheer luck that he comes across with the ghost of his father. The ghost reveals the murderer of his father and orders him to take revenge upon the death of his father. He is so dismayed by knowing the real murderer of his father that he asserts the following lines:
The time is out of joint;-O cursed spite,
That e’er I was born to set it right!
(Hamlet, by William Shakespeare)
Bradley remarks, “In all that happens or is done in Hamlet, we apprehend some mysterious, vast power. This power works its way through the deeds or delays of men to its inevitable end. And most of all do we feel this in regard to Hamlet and the King. For these two, the one by his shrinking from his appointed task, and the other by efforts growing ever more feverish to rid himself of his enemy, seem to be bent on avoiding each other.”
The accident that Hamlet met, while on the way to England, is also an example of intervention of fate. It was his destiny that forced him to return to Denmark back and later on face his death. This accident actually convinces the readers that fate, destiny and divine forces are mainly responsible for the death of Hamlet. Thus, such an irony, which is the result of fate or destiny, is called cosmic irony.
- What is Irony?
- What is the definition of Irony?
- What is the difference between Sarcasm and Irony?
- What are the types of Irony?
- What is the difference between Dramatic and Cosmic Irony?
- Explain the etymology of the word Irony?
- Give an example of Irony from a novel, play or short story?
© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq