Irony is a commonly used literary device and a component of storytelling. On a broad level, irony occurs when the opposite of what we expect to happen in any given situation is what ends up occurring.
The most common types of irony in literature and storytelling are:
- Situational irony,
- Dramatic irony, and
- Verbal irony.
There are several other types of irony, as well as subtypes. To get a deeper sense of what these different forms of irony mean, and how they work, keep reading.
Dramatic irony is when the audience is in on a secret or knows something that’s going on in the story that the characters themselves remain unaware of.
In cases of dramatic irony, the knowledge of the audience surpasses the knowledge of the characters in the story themselves. This literary device is used by storytellers to form a sense of difference in perspective. The audience is in on something that the characters themselves are unaware of, and this makes the story more compelling as a whole.
A classic example of dramatic irony is in Sophocles’s Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex. Oedipus has vowed to avenge his father’s death and find the person who killed him. Little does he know that the person who killed his father is Oedipus himself. This shows a clear instance of dramatic irony.
Tragic irony is a type of dramatic irony where the audience is aware that a tragedy awaits the story’s characters, though the characters themselves do not know this.
In the Brother’s Grimm fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, tragic irony takes place between the central characters.
When Snow White finds shelter with the seven dwarves, she allows an old woman into the home even when she was warned by the dwarves not to let anyone inside. Snow White continues to buy an apple from the strange old woman in exchange for a strand of her hair.
The audience is aware from the start that the old woman is a witch who wants to place a spell on Snow White through the apple she gives her, which are poisoned. We, the audience, know the apples are poisoned; however, Snow White herself does not know this. Snow White’s lack of knowledge of the foreboding situation she herself is in is what makes up the tragic irony in this classic fairytale.
Verbal irony occurs when the literal words of what someone says conflicts with the intention or true meaning behind the statement.
Examples of verbal irony can be as simple as a snarky/sarcastic statement. If your room is not clean, for example, and your mom walks in and comments on how tidy everything is, this would be considered verbally ironic. In other words, the intention of the words opposes their literal meaning.
Sarcasm is a type of verbal irony; however, sarcasm includes a negative or snarky undertone.
Sarcasm is usually used as a subtle way of embarrassing or insulting someone, though without being too explicit or on the nose.
Sarcasm can be self-directed just as much as it can be other-directed. For example, suppose I’m planning a trip to Italy during the hottest time of summer.
When I arrive at the Air BnB I booked, I realize that they do not have working air conditioning. I comment, “who’s the genius that booked this place?”
This is a sarcastic statement since the words are opposite the intention, and there is a tone of mockery.
Understatement is a form of verbal irony that is used to make something seem smaller or less significant it is.
In the Disney film Aladdin, main character, Aladdin, a young and poor thief is having a conversation with his father, Abu.
They are discussing the concept of stealing and that it’s condemned. Aladdin then says that stealing shouldn’t be as big of a crime as it is. He says “I steal what I can’t afford, That’s everything!”
Here, Aladdin is using an understatement to describe the act stealing what he cannot afford. He is downplaying the significance of stealing by phrasing it as an understatement.
Overstatement is another form of verbal irony where we exaggerate or embellish an event or story to make it more impactful or memorable.
People will often overstate things to add emphasis to a situation or to make a story more compelling.
Overstatements are often figurative, and not meant in a literal sense. We can see an example of overstatement In Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
When the title character Dracula meets Mina, a woman who reminds him of a lover he had previously been with, but ended up losing.
Upon seeing Mina; Dracula states, “I have crossed oceans of time to find you.” He uses an overstatement to attempt to describe how deeply he feels towards her.
Socratic irony is when people play dumb or act as if they do not know something so that they can receive coveted information which they want to obtain.
Socratic Irony is used often in court trials, movies with courtroom dramas or crime investigations. A great example of this literary technique occurs in the final court scene from the film Legally Blonde.
In this scene, the main character Elle Woods, is interrogating the daughter of the victim that was murdered.Elle knows that the daughter’s alibi doesn’t hold because she claims to have been at a hair salon while the murder took place to get a perm.
Elle is aware of how long it would take to get a perm, and also knew other facts surrounding her hair that dismantled the daughter’s alibi, and undermines her being at the salon to begin with.
To arrive at this conclusion where it was clear the daughter’s alibi didn’t hold, Elle uses soctratic irony where she acts dumb to pull more information from the suspect.
Situational irony is a literary device where the outcome of a situation ends up being the opposite of what you’d expect or presume.
An example of situational irony occurs in the film Titanic. The ship the Titanic was known as being “unsinkable”, and was then described as the safest ship in the world.
We know now the irony of the Titanic being called the unsinkable ship, since this is precisely what happened when the Titanic collided with the iceberg that sunk it.
The situational irony stands in both real life and fiction in this case, since the Titanic is based on true events.
Cosmic irony, also known as “irony of fate,” is a kind of situational irony where higher powers intervene to make the situation ironic.
Cosmic irony can occur when characters feel as if the universe is conspiring against them, or what is happening to them is supernatural or beyond human control and comprehension.
An example of this form is irony takes place in Aladdin. When Aladdin comes across a magic lamp the Genie pops out of it and says he is able to grant him three wishes.
Aladdin asks the Genie to turn him into a handsome prince so that he can pursue Princess Jasmine.
Even when the Genie (who is a higher power, in this case) grants Aladdin his wish, he still ends up getting rejected by Princess Jasmine.
Hence, the cosmic irony in this situation is that even with the help of a higher power (or perhaps in spite of it,) Aladdin couldn’t get what he wanted.
Poetic irony describes when the consequences of the characters’ actions are proportionate to their moral worth or virtuousness throughout the events of the story.
In much simpler terms: they get what they deserve. The bad guys get punished, and the good guys get rewarded. This is known as poetic justice.
Anytime the so-called ‘bad guy’ gets what they deserve is an instance of poetic irony.
To give you a concrete example: in the Hunger Games: Mockingjay, poetic irony happens when the demonic ruler and creator of the concept of the ‘Hunger Games’, President Snow, is ultimately killed, and at the hand of his own people under his ruling. To put an end to the evil crusades like the Hunger Games.
Those under the dictatorship finally stood up for themselves, and the antagonist or villain of the story gets what they deserve, which, in a nutshell, is poetic justice.
Structural irony is when the narrator of the story is unreliable in their narration/telling of the events. This could be either a result of ignorance, or the narrator is deliberately lying.
Structural irony lends itself to a major plot twist at some point in the story where the audience is let in on what is really occuring. For example, everything has all been planned to throw the audience off by the author.
In the popular comedy films Dumb and Dumber, the structure of the plot is itself ironic because the narrators of the events, Lloyd and Harry, are extremely gullible and dim-witted individuals.
As viewers, we know not to believe or take what they say too seriously, because in most cases they’re mistaken or in the dark.
Since Lloyd and Harry’s narration of the events is not reliable, and the audience knows better: the story is one that can be aptly described as being structurally ironic.
Historic irony occurs when decisions made in the past lead to unexpected results and are later looked at in the form of “hindsight”.
In the historical drama, The Social Network, that looks at the rise of the social media site Facebook,there are instances of historical irony towards the end of the movie.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and multi-billionaire creator of Facebook, is now successful, and he has been named the world’s youngest billionaire. We would expect that he should be happy at this point in the story.
As it turns out, looks and prestige are often deceiving, and despite his success: he finds himself alone and dejected.
At the end of the film Mark has a palpably tragic look in his eyes, and the screen fades to black.
Irony is found in all forms of storytelling; be it movies, novels, television or real life. With various subtypes and forms, irony adds layers of nuance and intrigue to stories that provide unexepcted twists and turns along the way.