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Isn't It Ironic? Nope! A Guide to Understanding Actual Irony

Updated on April 19, 2015

Irony. What it is and isn't.

Irony is a tricky thing. Most people think they know what irony is yet often confuse it with coincidence, sarcasm, or plain ol’ bad luck. It seems as though half of the times when I hear someone say, “Well, that’s ironic”, the situation is not ironic in the slightest. Case in point, Alanis Morissette's song “Ironic” (lampooned by English teachers everywhere) has become famous for its misuse of the term. Take a look as I will reference its non-examples and correct examples throughout this article...

Defining Irony

Now that we’ve had a brief musical interlude, here’s a broad definition of irony.

Irony (n): the opposite (in words or action) of a reasonably expected outcome

To further clarify, irony can be broken down into three specific categories. All of these categories have something to do with twisting an expected outcome to create a desired effect.

  • Situational Irony (which has made careers for the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and O. Henry)

  • Dramatic Irony (best used by William Shakespeare and Alfred Hitchcock)

  • Verbal Irony (done to death on every sitcom ever)

Let’s individually examine each.

Situational Irony

Situational irony focuses on the reversal of expectations. A reasonable expectation is set, and then the opposite occurs. Typically, when people think of irony, they are thinking of situational irony. Usually, the effect of situational irony is in some way related to surprise since what happens is the opposite of what you thought would happen. The following video should make it clear:

Explore Situational Irony with these Literary Examples:

In “The Machine That Won the War” most of the population of Earth believes that Multivac, a supercomputer, won the war against an alien race called the Denebians, but in fact, the war was won with the simplest of machines: a flipped coin.

  • Expectation: The war was won by advanced technology.
  • Reality: The war was won by a simple coin toss.

In “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, the narrator believes that he is proving his sanity by relating his tale. However, as the tale goes on, the reader realizes the extent of the narrator’s madness.

  • Expectation: The narrator’s confession proves his sanity.
  • Reality: The narrator’s confession proves his insanity.

In “The Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry, a couple of kidnappers believe they will score some easy cash by kidnapping a kid. Throughout the story, the kid takes the nickname “Red Chief” and terrorizes the kidnappers to the point that they pay Red Chief’s parents to take him back.

  • Expectation: The kidnappers will score some easy cash.
  • Reality: The kidnappers pay Red Chief’s parents to take him back.

In “Ironic”, Morrissette calls “rain on your wedding day” ironic. It isn’t. It’s bad luck and/or coincidence. A “fly in your Chardonnay” also is not ironic. It just sucks. A “free ride when you’ve already paid” is ironic because you weren’t expecting to receive a free ride, so you paid for one. For situational irony to exist, a reasonable expectation (I’ll have to pay for a cab.) must first be set and then reversed (I could have gotten a free ride!).

Promotional poster for the film JAWS. The swimmer is unaware of the impending shark attack, but the audience sees the shark.
Promotional poster for the film JAWS. The swimmer is unaware of the impending shark attack, but the audience sees the shark. | Source

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony occurs only in fiction whether literature, theatre, or film. Dramatic irony exists when the reader or audience knows information that one or more characters in the story do not know. The characters typically behave in a way opposite to how they would if they had the same knowledge as the audience. Often dramatic irony creates suspense (due to audience’s awareness of looming danger unknown to the characters) or humor (due to misunderstandings between characters). The following video will clarify:

Explore Dramatic Irony with these Literary Examples:

In “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, Mrs. Mallard, a newly-widowed woman, grieves for her lost husband but soon becomes overjoyed when she realizes she has been freed from an oppressive marriage. When Mrs. Mallard leaves her room, she sees her husband-- unexpectedly NOT dead (an example of situational irony)-- and drops dead. Relatives believe she died of a heart attack brought on by joy at her husband’s appearance. As the title states, all of this happens within the space of an hour.

  • The Readers Know: Mrs. Mallard would not be happy at the sudden “resurrection” of her husband.
  • The Other Characters Don’t Know: Mrs. Mallard probably died from shock and disappointment-- certainly NOT joy.

In “The Open Window” by Saki, a young girl tells the story about the anniversary of her uncles’ death. At the culmination of the story, her uncles appear at the open French window, scaring the wits out the man to whom she’d told her story.

  • The Readers Know: At the end of the story, the uncles are not ghosts but alive and well.
  • The Other Characters Don’t Know: Framton Nuttel (the man who listened to the story) doesn’t realize that the people he sees aren’t ghosts; the uncles don’t know why Nuttel ran away in fear.

In Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, the opening prologue tells the audience that the “star-cross’d lovers'” “death-marked love” will force them to take their own lives, ending their parents’ feud. Later in the play, the audience realizes that Juliet has faked her own death, but only Friar Laurence is aware of this.

  • The Readers Know: Romeo and Juliet are fated to die; Juliet initially fakes her own death.
  • The Other Characters Don’t Know: Romeo and Juliet will die due to the feud; Juliet is only under heavy sedation in the tomb.

Alanis Morissette's “Ironic” does not have much dramatic irony. However, in the song, a man who is afraid of flying finally gets on his first flight, and as the plane goes down, he thinks, “Isn’t this nice.” He doesn’t realize that the plane is crashing although Morissette's listeners know. That’s called dramatic irony, folks.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony happens when someone says the opposite of what they really mean. Verbal irony is pretty straightforward, but many people confuse it with sarcasm. Sarcasm is all about attitude, usually a critical or insulting one (think David Spade). However, verbal irony can exist without being infused with sarcasm. Like the use of a foil in literature, verbal irony makes a point through contrast. I’ll allow the following video to elaborate:

Explore Verbal Irony with these Literary Examples:

In Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, Juliet tells Nurse, “Well, thou hast comforted me marvelous much” after Nurse advises Juliet to marry Paris despite Juliet’s existing marriage to Romeo. Juliet does not mean the words she says; she means the opposite and turns to Friar Laurence for different advice. In most performances, Juliet says this line without sarcasm since Nurse does not pick up on Juliet’s true feelings.

In Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, Marc Antony says, “Brutus is an honorable man” when he truly means to imply that Brutus is dishonorable. This is another example of verbal irony without sarcasm.

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    • Keith W Johnson profile image

      Keith W Johnson 2 years ago

      Thanks for the feedback, and I think you're right. I'd classify what you're describing as "situational irony" since the person typically doesn't expect their argument to have a reverse, unintended effect; however, it could certainly be its own subcategory of irony as often as it happens.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 2 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Well done! I saw this from the Hub Pages page on Face Book. Being a word-nerd, I had to check it out! ;) (truth, not irony!)

      I'm thinking that another layer of irony is when someone sticks their foot in their mouth, and unintentionally sabotages their own argument, it fits into irony. Such as someone criticizing revealing fashions by saying, "If we were meant to run around naked, we'd have been born that way!" .. Uh--ooops!!

      Voted up ++