is a literary
or rhetorical device
, in which there is an incongruous
between what one says or does, and what one means or what is generally understood.
In modern usage, it can refer to incongruity between the intended meaning of an action and the actual or perceived meaning of an action.
There is some argument about what is ironic, but all the different senses of irony revolve around the perceived notion of an incongruity between what is said and what is meant; or between an understanding of reality, or an expectation of a reality, and what actually happens.
The term Socratic irony, which was coined by Aristotle, refers to the Socratic Method. It is not irony in the modern sense of the word.
Henry Watson Fowler
, in The King's English
, says “any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.”
The word 'ironic' is sometimes used as a synonym for incongruous
in situations where there is no “double audience,” and no contradiction between the ostensible and true meaning of the words. An example of such usage:
Ironically, Sir Arthur Sullivan is remembered for the comic operas he found embarrassing, rather than the serious works he hoped would be his legacy.
The American Heritage Dictionary recognizes a secondary meaning for irony: “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” This sense, however, is not synonymous with "incongruous" but merely a definition of dramatic or situational irony. The American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel found it unacceptable to use the word ironic to describe mere unfortunate coincidences or surprising disappointments that “suggest no particular lessons about human vanity or folly.”
Types of irony
These modern theories of rhetoric distinguish between three types of irony: verbal, dramatic and situational.
- Verbal irony is a disparity of expression and intention: when a speaker says one thing but means another, or when a literal meaning is contrary to its intended effect. An example of this is sarcasm.
- Dramatic (or tragic) irony is a disparity of expression and awareness: when words and actions possess a significance that the listener or audience understands, but the speaker or character does not.
- Situational irony is the disparity of intention and result: when the result of an action is contrary to the desired or expected effect. Likewise, cosmic irony is disparity between human desires and the harsh realities of the outside world (or the whims of the gods). By some older definitions, situational irony and cosmic irony are not irony at all.
Verbal irony, including sarcasm
Verbal irony is distinguished from situational irony and dramatic irony in that it is produced intentionally
by speakers. For instance, if a speaker exclaims, “I’m not upset!” but reveals an upset emotional
state through her voice while truly trying to claim she's not upset, it would not be verbal irony just by virtue
of its verbal manifestation (it would, however, be situational irony). But if the same speaker said the same words and intended to communicate that she was upset by claiming she was not, the utterance would be verbal irony. This distinction gets at an important aspect of verbal irony: speakers communicate implied propositions that are intentionally contradictory to the propositions contained in the words themselves. There are examples of verbal irony that do not rely on saying the opposite of what one means, and there are cases where all the traditional criteria of irony exist and the utterance is not ironic.
Ironic similes are a form of verbal irony where a speaker does intend to communicate the opposite of what they mean. For instance, the following explicit similes have the form of a statement that means P but which conveys the meaning not P:
- as hard as putty
- as funny as cancer
- as clear as mud
- as pleasant as root canal treatment
- as sharp as a marble
The irony is recognizable in each case only by using stereotypical knowledge of the source concepts (e.g., mud, root-canals) to detect an incongruity.
A fair amount of confusion has surrounded the issue regarding the relationship between verbal irony and sarcasm, and psychology researchers have addressed the issue directly (e.g, Lee & Katz, 1998). For example, ridicule is an important aspect of sarcasm, but not verbal irony in general. By this account, sarcasm is a particular kind of personal criticism leveled against a person or group of persons that incorporates verbal irony. For example, a person reports to her friend that rather than going to a medical doctor to treat her ovarian cancer, she has decided to see a spiritual healer instead. In response her friend says sarcastically, "Great idea! I hear they do fine work!" The friend could have also replied with any number of ironic expressions that should not be labeled as sarcasm exactly, but still have many shared elements with sarcasm.
Research shows that most instances of verbal irony are considered to be sarcastic, suggesting that the term sarcasm is more widely used than its technical definition suggests it should be (Bryant & Fox Tree, 2002; Gibbs, 2000). Some psycholinguistic theorists suggest that sarcasm ("Great idea!", "I hear they do fine work."), hyperbole ("That's the best idea I have heard in years!"), understatement ("Sure, what the hell, it's only cancer..."), rhetorical questions ("What, does your spirit have cancer?"), double entendre ("I'll bet if you do that, you'll be communing with spirits in no time...") and jocularity ("Get them to fix your bad back while you're at it.") should all be considered forms of verbal irony (Gibbs, 2000). The differences between these tropes can be quite subtle, and relate to typical emotional reactions of listeners, and the rhetorical goals of the speakers. Regardless of the various ways theorists categorize figurative language types, people in conversation are attempting to decode speaker intentions and discourse goals, and are not generally identifying, by name, the kinds of tropes used.
Tragic irony is most typically found in a fictional context. In this form of irony, the words and actions of the characters belie the real situation, which the spectators fully realize.
Tragic irony particularly characterized the drama of ancient Greece, owing to the familiarity of the spectators with the legends on which so many of the plays were based. Sophocles' Oedipus the King provides a classic example of tragic irony at its fullest.
Irony threatens authoritative models of discourse by "removing the semantic security of ‘one signifier : one signified’"; irony has some of its foundation in the onlooker’s perception of paradox which arises from insoluble problems.
- In the William Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo finds Juliet in a drugged death-like sleep, he assumes her to be dead and kills himself. Upon awakening to find her dead lover beside her, Juliet kills herself with his knife.
In drama, the device of giving the spectator an item of information that at least one of the characters in the narrative is unaware of (at least consciously), thus of placing the spectator a step ahead of at least one of the characters. Dramatic irony involves three stages: installation, exploitation and resolution.
- In City Lights, we know that Charlie Chaplin's character is not a millionaire, but the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherill) does not.
- In Cyrano de Bergerac, we know that Cyrano loves Roxane and that he is the real author of the letters that Christian is writing to the young woman; Roxane is unaware of this.
- In North by Northwest, we know that Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is not Kaplan; Vandamm (James Mason) and his acolytes do not. We also know that Kaplan is a fictitious agent invented by the CIA; Roger and Vandamm do not.
- In Oedipus the King, we know that Oedipus himself is the murderer that he is seeking; Oedipus, Creon and Jocasta do not.
- In Othello, we know that Desdemona has been faithful to Othello, but he doesn't. We also know that Iago is pulling the strings, a fact hidden from Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Roderigo.
- In Pygmalion, we know that Eliza is a woman of the street; Higgins's family does not.
This is a relatively modern use of the term, and describes a discrepancy between the expected result and actual results when enlivened by 'perverse appropriateness'.
- When John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, all of his shots initially missed the President; however a bullet ricocheted off the bullet-proof windows of the Presidential limousine and struck Reagan in the chest. Thus, the windows made to protect the President from gunfire were partially responsible for his being shot.
- Monty Python's last comedy album The Hastily Cobbled Together for a Fast Buck Album was continuously delayed from release for various reasons, having yet to see an official release, and has since been made available online for free by the group, thus making the album neither hasty nor earning the group any income.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story whose plot revolves around irony. Dorothy travels to a wizard and fulfills his challenging demands to go home, before discovering she had the ability to go back home all the time. The Scarecrow longs for intelligence, only to discover he is already a genius, and the Tin Woodsman longs to be capable of love, only to discover he already has a heart. The Lion, who at first appears to be a whimpering coward turns out to be bold and fearless, The people in Emerald City believe the Wizard to have been a powerful deity, only to discover he was a bumbling eccentric old man.
Irony of fate (cosmic irony)
The expression “irony of fate” stems from the notion that the gods (or the Fates
) are amusing themselves by toying with the minds of mortals, with deliberate ironic intent. Closely connected with situational irony, it arises from sharp contrasts between reality and human ideals, or between human intentions and actual results.
- In O. Henry's story The Gift of the Magi, a young couple are too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts. The man finally pawns his heirloom pocket watch to buy his wife a set of combs for her long, beautiful, prized hair. She, meanwhile, cuts off her treasured hair to sell it to a wig-maker for money to buy her husband a watch-chain.
- In 1974 the Consumer Product Safety Commission had to recall 80,000 of its own lapel buttons promoting "toy safety", because the buttons had sharp edges, used lead paint, and had small clips that could be broken off and subsequently swallowed.
- Importing Cane Toads to Australia to protect the environment only to create worse environmental problems for Australia.
- Jim Fixx, who did much to popularize jogging as a form of healthy exercise in his 1977 book The Complete Book of Running, died at the age of 52 of a heart attack (a death associated with sedentary, unhealthy lifestyles) while out jogging.
Historical irony (cosmic irony through time)
When history is seen through modern eyes, it sometimes happens that there is an especially sharp contrast between the way historical figures see their world and the probable future of their world, and what actually transpired. For example, during the 1920s The New York Times
repeatedly heaped scorn on crossword puzzles. In 1924 it lamented "the sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern;" in 1925 said "the question of whether the puzzles are beneficial or harmful is in no urgent need of an answer. The craze evidently is dying out fast;" and in 1929 judged that "The cross-word puzzle, it seems, has gone the way of all fads." Today, no U.S. newspaper is more closely identified with the crossword than The New York Times.
In a more tragic example of historical irony, what people now refer to as "World War I
" was originally called "The War to End All Wars" or "The Great War". Historical irony is therefore a subset of cosmic irony, but one in which the element of time is bound up.
- "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Nearly the last words of American Civil War General John Sedgwick before being shot through the eye by a Confederate sniper.
- In Dallas, in response to Mrs. Connolly's comment, "Mr. President, you can't say that Dallas doesn't love you," John F. Kennedy said, "That's very obvious." He was assassinated immediately afterwards.
Further examples of irony in history:
- Alfred Nobel invented the relatively stable explosive dynamite essentially to prevent deaths (such as in mining work which relied on the unstable explosives gunpowder and nitroglycerin), but his invention was soon taken up as a weapon in the Franco-Prussian War, among others, causing many deaths.
- Fritz Haber was the patriotic German Jewish creator of Zyklon B. Initially used as a pesticide, it was later used in the Holocaust.
- In the Kalgoorlie (Australia) gold rush of the 1890s, large amounts of the little-known mineral calaverite (gold telluride) were identified as fool's gold, and were (foolishly, as it later turned out) discarded. The mineral deposits were used as a building material, and for the filling of potholes and ruts. (Several years later, the nature of the mineral was identified, leading to a minor gold rush to excavate the streets).
Irony in use
One point of view has it that all modern art is ironic because the viewer cannot help but compare it to previous works. For example, any portrait of a standing, non-smiling woman will naturally be compared with the Mona Lisa; the tension of meaning exists, whether the artist meant it or not .
While this does not appear to exactly conform to any of the three types of irony above, there is some evidence that the term "ironic art" is being used in this context . This definition could extend to any sort of modern artistic endeavour: graphic design; or music (sampling, for example).
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
begins with the proposition “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In fact, it soon becomes clear that Austen means the opposite: women (or their mothers) are always in search of, and desperately on the lookout for, a rich single man to make a husband. The irony deepens as the story promotes his romance and ends in a double wedding.
Comic irony from television sketch-comedy has the distinction over literary comic irony in that it often incorporates elements of absurdity. A classic example is where a shark tries to impress his shark friends by learning to surf. He then surfs so well that his friends mistake him for an actual surfer and eat him.
Comic irony has long been a staple of comic strips, in which the action is free to be unrealistic. An example is a notable Far Side cartoon in which a hapless cat is trapped against an inside house window, having to watch the once-in-a-lifetime consequences of a collision outside between a truck labeled "Al's Rodents" and another labeled "Ernie's Small Flightless Birds".
Metafictions are kinds of fiction which self-consciously address the devices of fiction. It usually involves irony and is self-reflective. Metafiction (or “romantic irony” in the sense of roman
the prose fiction) refers to the effect when a story is interrupted to remind the audience or reader that it is really only a story. Examples include Henry Fielding
’s interruptions of the storyline to comment on what has happened, or J.M. Barrie
’s similar interjections in his book, Peter Pan
. The concept is also explored in a philosophical context in Sophie's World
, by Jostein Gaarder
A notable attempt to sustain metafiction throughout a whole novel is Christie Malry's Own Double Entry by B.S. Johnson, none of the characters are real and exist only within the author's imagination.
- Star, William T. "Irony and Satire: A Bibliography." Irony and Satire in French Literature. Ed. University of South Carolina Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina College of Humanities and Social Sciences, 1987. 183-209.
- Bogel, Fredric V. "Irony, Inference, and Critical Understanding." Yale Review ): 503-19.
- Colebrook, Claire. Irony. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
- Hutcheon, Linda. Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. London: Routledge, 1994.
- for review of Socratic irony see Kieran Egan The educated mind : how cognitive tools shape our understanding. (1997) University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN p. 137-144
- Lavandier, Yves. Writing Drama, pages 263-315.