Understanding Irony

Irony is a literary device wherein there is a contradiction between expectations and reality. The term comes from the Greek word eironeia which means “purposely affected ignorance.” Generally speaking, irony is used to amplify an effect of a piece of literature. To achieve a better understanding of irony, let’s explore its three different types: verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony.

Three types of irony

1. Verbal Irony

This is probably the most common form of irony we encounter daily. Verbal irony has to do with language and the context in which the language is used. Verbal irony occurs when the real meaning is not directly stated, sometimes deliberately concealed, by using words or phrases whose literal meanings are contradictory or opposite to what is really meant. You can achieve verbal irony by employing either understatement or overstatement. 

Understatement is when something is downplayed in order to show its greatness or significance. “I’ve only read every book written by Stephen King.” 

Overstatement is exaggerating something to show the opposite. An example of this would be saying “we’re best friends” when talking about someone you hate. 

Another type of verbal irony is sarcasm, which is used to mock something or someone. An example would be when The Joker in The Dark Knight talks about how he got his scar, “But now, I see the funny side. Now, I'm always smiling!”

2. Dramatic Irony

This type of irony typically occurs in literature and involves the audience. A situation is a dramatic irony if the audience knows something that the characters don’t. In this case, the audience anticipates the possible outcomes of the situation and is thus held in suspense. A famous example of dramatic irony is Oedipus Rex where the audience is well aware of the true identity of Oedipus and his parents and of his fate. Dramatic irony, when used, is important to the plot of a work. It does not just occur in one part of the story. Rather, it occurs throughout and propels the story forward. For instance, in Oedipus Rex, the dramatic irony is present throughout.

3. Situational Irony

Situational irony involves a situation wherein the outcome is very different, indeed likely the opposite, of the expectation. This type of irony is utilized in literature to evoke laughter, empathy, and/or to teach a lesson to the audience. Situational irony is also present in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex when Oedipus’ father, the king, sends him away from the kingdom to prevent a prophecy that his son will kill him from coming true. However, it turns out that this decision is the very reason why his son was able to kill him.

Significance of Irony

As mentioned earlier, irony is crucial to literature not just as a plot device, but more importantly as a vehicle for meaning and for evoking reactions from the audience. In contemporary media, irony is still very much alive. Many comedians and comedy shows use the different types of irony to make their audience laugh. As a reader, understanding irony will help you better appreciate literature, and in turn, write a better literary analysis.

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