, literary technique
, or situation in which there is a sharp incongruity or discordance that goes beyond the simple and evident intention of words or actions. There is presently no accepted method for textually indicating irony, though an irony (punctuation) mark has been proposed.
Ironic statements (verbal irony) typically imply a meaning in opposition to their literal meaning. A situation is often said to be ironic (situational irony) if the actions taken have an effect exactly opposite from what was intended.
'Twas thine own genius gave the final blow, And help'd to plant the wound that laid thee low: So the struck eagle, stretch'd upon the plain,No more through rolling clouds to soar again,View'd his own feather on the fatal dart,And wing'd the shaft that quiver'd in his heart.
Time changes all things and cultivates even in herself an appreciation of irony.
Ironic philosophies produce passionate works.
Neither irony nor sarcasm is argument.
When irony first makes itself known in a young man's life, it can be like his first experience of getting drunk; he has met with a powerful thing which he does not know how to handle.
Irony is the gaiety of reflection and the joy of wisdom.
Since my earliest childhood a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart. As long as it stays I am ironic — if it is pulled out I shall die.
Irony is the birth-pangs of the objective mind (based upon the misrelationship, discovered by the I, between existence and the idea of existence). Humor is the birth-pangs of the absolute mind (based upon the misrelationship, discovered by the I, between the I and the idea of the I.
, literary technique
, or situation in which there is a sharp incongruity or discordance that goes beyond the simple and evident intention of words or actions. There is presently no accepted method for textually indicating irony, though an irony (punctuation) mark has been proposed.
Ironic statements (verbal irony) typically imply a meaning in opposition to their literal meaning. A situation is often said to be ironic (situational irony) if the actions taken have an effect exactly opposite from what was intended. The discordance of verbal irony may be deliberately created as a means of communication (as in art or rhetoric). Descriptions or depictions of situational ironies, whether in fiction or in non-fiction, serve a communicative function of sharpening or highlighting certain discordant features of reality. Verbal and situational irony are often used for emphasis in the assertion of a truth. The ironic form of simile
, used in sarcasm
, and some forms of litotes
emphasize one's meaning by the deliberate use of language which states the opposite of the truth — or drastically and obviously understates a factual connection.
In dramatic irony, the author causes a character to speak or act erroneously, out of ignorance of some portion of the truth of which the audience is aware. In other words, the audience knows the character is making a mistake, even as the character is making it. This technique highlights the importance of a particular truth by portraying a person who is strikingly unaware of it.
DefinitionsHenry 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."
Also, Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage
, writes that "Irony consists in stating the contrary of what is meant."
The use of irony may require the concept of a double audience. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage says:
Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear & shall not understand, & another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders' incomprehension.
The term is sometimes used as a synonym for incongruous and applied to "every trivial oddity" in situations where there is no double audience. An example of such usage is:
SullivanArthur SullivanSir Arthur Seymour Sullivan MVO was an English composer of Irish and Italian ancestry. He is best known for his series of 14 operatic collaborations with the dramatist W. S. Gilbert, including such enduring works as H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado...
, whose real interest was, ironically, serious music, which he composed with varying degrees of success, achieved fame for his comic opera scores rather than for his more earnest efforts.
The American Heritage Dictionarys 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. It is often included in definitions of irony not only that incongruity is present but also that the incongruity must reveal some aspect of human vanity or folly. Thus the majority of 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.”
Origin of the termAccording to the Encyclopædia Britannica
The term irony has its roots in the Greek comic character EironEironIn the theatre of ancient Greece, the eirôn was one of three stock characters in comedy. The eirôn usually succeeds in bringing his braggart opponent down by making himself seem like less than he actually was.-History:...
, a clever underdog who by his wit repeatedly triumphs over the boastful character AlazonAlazonIn the theatre of ancient Greece, alazôn is one of three stock characters in comedy. He is the opponent of the eirôn. The alazôn is an impostor that sees himself as greater than he actually is. The senex iratus and the miles gloriosus are two types of alazôn.-Sources:* Carlson, Marvin. 1993...
. The Socratic irony of the Platonic dialogues derives from this comic origin.
According to Richard Whately:
AristotleAristotleAristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...
mentions..Eironeia, which in his time was commonly employed to signify, not according to the modern use of ‘Irony, saying the contrary to what is meant’, but, what later writers usually express by LitotesLitotesIn rhetoric, litotes is a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect when an idea is expressed by a denial of its opposite, principally via double negatives....
, i.e. ‘saying less than is meant’.
The word came into English as a figure of speech
in the 16th century as similar to the French ironie. It derives from the Latin ironia and ultimately from the Greek εἰρωνεία eirōneía, meaning dissimulation, ignorance purposely affected.
Types of ironyModern theories of rhetoric distinguish among verbal, dramatic and situational irony.
- 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 when someone says "Oh, that's beautiful", when what they mean (probably conveyed by their tone) is they find "that" quite ugly.
- Dramatic irony is a disparity of awareness between actor and observer: when words and actions possess a significance that the listener or audience understands, but the speaker or character does not, for example when a character says to another "I'll see you tomorrow!" when the audience (but not the character) knows that the character will die before morning.
- Situational irony is the disparity of intention and result: when the result of an action is contrary to the desired or expected effect. Being "shot with one's own gun", or "hoisted with one's own petardPetardA petard was a small bomb used to blow up gates and walls when breaching fortifications. The term has a French origin and dates back to the sixteenth century...
" are popular formulations of the basic idea of situational irony. Cosmic irony is disparity between human desires and the harsh realities of the outside world. By some definitions, situational irony and cosmic irony are not irony at all.
Verbal ironyAccording to A glossary of literary terms by Abrams and Hartman,
Verbal irony is a statement in which the meaning that a speaker employs is sharply different from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed. The ironic statement usually involves the explicit expression of one attitude or evaluation, but with indications in the overall speech-situation that the speaker intends a very different, and often opposite, attitude or evaluation.
Verbal irony is distinguished from situational irony and dramatic irony in that it is produced intentionally by speakers. For instance, if a man exclaims, “I’m not upset!” but reveals an upset emotional state through his voice while truly trying to claim he's not upset, it would not be verbal irony 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 he was upset by claiming he was not, the utterance would be verbal irony. This distinction illustrates an important aspect of verbal irony - speakers communicate implied propositions that are intentionally contradictory to the propositions contained in the words themselves. There are, however, 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 intends to communicate the opposite of what they mean. For instance, the following explicit similes begin with the deceptive formation of a statement that means A but that eventually conveys the meaning not A:
- as soft as concrete
- as clear as mud
- as pleasant as a root canalEndodontic therapyEndodontic therapy is a sequence of treatment for the pulp of a tooth which results in the elimination of infection and protection of the decontaminated tooth from future microbial invasion...
- "as pleasant and relaxed as a coiled rattlesnake" (Kurt Vonnegut from Breakfast of ChampionsBreakfast of ChampionsBreakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday is a 1973 novel by the American author Kurt Vonnegut. Set in the fictional town of Midland City, it is the story of "two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast." One of these men, Dwayne Hoover, is a normal-looking but...
The irony is recognizable in each case only by using stereotypical knowledge of the source concepts (e.g., that mud is opaque, that root canal surgery is painful) to detect an incongruity.
In The Unauthorized Autobiography of Lemony Snicket
, this formulation is broken down by the construction of an ironic simile followed by a reversion of the meaning so the statement once again means A.
- "Today was a very cold and bitter day, as cold and bitter as a cup of hot chocolate, if the cup of hot chocolate had vinegar added to it and were placed in a refrigerator for several hours."
- "The day was as normal as a group of seals with wings riding around on unicycles, assuming that you lived someplace where that was very normal."
Verbal irony and sarcasmA fair amount of confusion has surrounded the issue regarding the relationship between verbal irony and sarcasm
Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage states:
Sarcasm does not necessarily involve irony and irony has often no touch of sarcasm.This suggests that the two concepts are linked but may be considered separately. The OED entry for sarcasm
does not mention irony, but the irony entry reads:
A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.
The Encyclopædia Britannica
has "Non-literary irony is often called sarcasm”; while the Webster's Dictionary
Sarcasm: 1 : a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain. 2 a : a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual.
Partridge in Usage and Abusage would separate the two forms of speech completely:
Irony must not be confused with sarcasm, which is direct: sarcasm means precisely what it says, but in a sharp, caustic, ... manner.
The psychologist Martin, in The psychology of humour, is quite clear that irony is where “the literal meaning is opposite to the intended”; and sarcasm is “aggressive humor that pokes fun”. He has the following examples: For irony he uses the statement "What a nice day" when it is raining. For sarcasm, he cites Winston Churchill
who, when told by a lady that he was drunk, said "my dear, you are ugly ... but tomorrow I shall be sober", as being sarcastic, while not saying the opposite of what is intended.
Psychology researchers Lee and Katz (1998) have addressed the issue directly. They found that ridicule is an important aspect of sarcasm, but not of 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 woman reports to her friend that rather than going to a medical doctor to treat her cancer, she has decided to see a spiritual healer instead. In response her friend says sarcastically, "Oh, brilliant, what an ingenious idea, that's really going to cure you." 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.
Most instances of verbal irony are labeled by research subjects as 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 (e.g., Gibbs, 2000) 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 question
s ("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. 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 (Leggitt & Gibbs, 2000).
Dramatic ironyDramatic irony is 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 placing the spectator a step ahead of at least one of the characters. Dramatic irony has three stages - installation, exploitation, and resolution (often also called preparation, suspension, and resolution) - producing dramatic conflict in what one character relies or appears to rely upon, the contrary of which is known by observers (especially the audience; sometimes to other characters within the drama) to be true. In summary, it means that the reader/watcher/listener knows something that one or more of the characters in the piece is not aware of.
- In City LightsCity LightsCity Lights is a 1931 American silent film and romantic comedy-drama written by, directed by, and starring Charlie Chaplin. It also has the leads Virginia Cherrill and Harry Myers. Although "talking" pictures were on the rise since 1928, City Lights was immediately popular. Today, it is thought of...
the audience knows that Charlie ChaplinCharlie ChaplinSir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin, KBE was an English comic actor, film director and composer best known for his work during the silent film era. He became the most famous film star in the world before the end of World War I...
's character is not a millionaire, but the blind flower girl (Virginia CherrillVirginia CherrillVirginia Cherrill was an American actress best known for her role as the blind flower girl in Charlie Chaplin's City Lights...
) believes him to be rich.
- In North by NorthwestNorth by NorthwestNorth by Northwest is a 1959 American thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason, and featuring Leo G. Carroll and Martin Landau...
, the audience knows that Roger Thornhill (Cary GrantCary GrantArchibald Alexander Leach , better known by his stage name Cary Grant, was an English actor who later took U.S. citizenship...
) is not Kaplan; Vandamm (James MasonJames MasonJames Neville Mason was an English actor who attained stardom in both British and American films. Mason remained a powerful figure in the industry throughout his career and was nominated for three Academy Awards as well as three Golden Globes .- Early life :Mason was born in Huddersfield, in the...
) and his accomplices do not. The audience also knows that Kaplan is a fictitious agent invented by the CIA; Roger (initially) and Vandamm (throughout) do not.
- In Oedipus the KingOedipus the KingOedipus the King , also known by the Latin title Oedipus Rex, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed c. 429 BCE. It was the second of Sophocles's three Theban plays to be produced, but it comes first in the internal chronology, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone...
, the reader knows that Oedipus himself is the murderer that he is seeking; Oedipus, Creon and Jocasta do not.
- In OthelloOthelloThe Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in approximately 1603, and based on the Italian short story "Un Capitano Moro" by Cinthio, a disciple of Boccaccio, first published in 1565...
, the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful to Othello, but Othello does not. The audience also knows that Iago is scheming to bring about Othello's downfall, a fact hidden from Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Roderigo.
- In The Cask of AmontilladoThe Cask of Amontillado"The Cask of Amontillado" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in the November 1846 issue of Godey's Lady's Book....
, the reader knows that Montresor is planning on murdering Fortunato, while Fortunato believes they are friends.
- In The Truman ShowThe Truman ShowThe Truman Show is a 1998 American satirical comedy-drama film directed by Peter Weir and written by Andrew Niccol. The cast includes Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, as well as Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Ed Harris and Natascha McElhone...
, the viewer is aware that Truman is on a television show, but Truman himself only gradually learns this.
- In Romeo and JulietRomeo and JulietRomeo and Juliet is a tragedy written early in the career of playwright William Shakespeare about two young star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately unite their feuding families. It was among Shakespeare's most popular archetypal stories of young, teenage lovers.Romeo and Juliet belongs to a...
, the other characters in the cast think Juliet is dead, but the audience knows she only took a sleeping potion.
- In Forrest GumpForrest GumpForrest Gump is a 1994 American epic comedy-drama romance film based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Winston Groom. The film was directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Tom Hanks, Robin Wright and Gary Sinise...
, the audience knows the historical significance of the characters and scenarios Forrest Gump finds himself in, but he often does not.
Tragic ironyTragic irony is a special category of dramatic irony. In tragic irony, the words and actions of the characters contradict the real situation, which the spectators fully realize. The Oxford English Dictionary
the incongruity created when the (tragic) significance of a character's speech or actions is revealed to the audience but unknown to the character concerned, the literary device so used, orig. in Greek tragedy.
Ancient Greek drama
was especially characterized by tragic irony because the audiences were so familiar with the legend
s that most of the plays dramatized. Sophocles
' Oedipus the King
provides a classic example of tragic irony at its fullest. Colebrook writes:
Tragic irony is exemplified in ancient drama ... The audience watched a drama unfold, already knowing its destined outcome. ... In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, for example, 'we' (the audience) can see what Oedipus is blind to. The man he murders is his father, but he does not know it.
Irony has some of its foundation in the onlooker’s perception of paradox
that arises from insoluble problems. For example, 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 stabs herself with a dagger thus killing herself.
Situational ironyThis 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 assassinateReagan assassination attemptThe Reagan assassination attempt occurred on Monday, March 30, 1981, just 69 days into the presidency of Ronald Reagan. While leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., President Reagan and three others were shot and wounded by John Hinckley, Jr...
Ronald ReaganRonald ReaganRonald Wilson Reagan was the 40th President of the United States , the 33rd Governor of California and, prior to that, a radio, film and television actor....
, all of his shots initially missed the President; however, a bullet ricocheted off the bullet-proof Presidential limousine and struck Reagan in the chest. Thus, a vehicle made to protect the President from gunfire was partially responsible for his being shot.
- The Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a children's novel written by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W. W. Denslow. Originally published by the George M. Hill Company in Chicago on May 17, 1900, it has since been reprinted numerous times, most often under the name The Wizard of Oz, which is the name of...
is a story whose plot revolves around irony. Dorothy travels to a wizard and fulfills her challenging demands to go home, before discovering she had the ability to go back home all the time. The Scarecrow longs for intelligenceIntelligenceIntelligence has been defined in different ways, including the abilities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, planning, emotional intelligence and problem solving....
, only to discover he is already a geniusGeniusGenius is something or someone embodying exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of unprecedented insight....
, and the Tin Woodsman longs to be capable of loveLoveLove is an emotion of strong affection and personal attachment. In philosophical context, love is a virtue representing all of human kindness, compassion, and affection. Love is central to many religions, as in the Christian phrase, "God is love" or Agape in the Canonical gospels...
, 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 CityEmerald CityThe Emerald City is the fictional capital city of the Land of Oz in L. Frank Baum's Oz books, first described in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz...
believed the Wizard to be a powerful deityDeityA deity is a recognized preternatural or supernatural immortal being, who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, held in high regard, and respected by believers....
, only to discover that he is a bumbling, eccentric old man with no special powers at all.
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. The resulting situation is poignantly contrary to what was expected or intended.
The words ironic, irony, and ironically are sometimes used of events and circumstances that might better be described as simply "coincidental" or "improbable".
Some examples of situations poignantly contrary to expectation:
- In O. HenryO. HenryO. Henry was the pen name of the American writer William Sydney Porter . O. Henry's short stories are well known for their wit, wordplay, warm characterization and clever twist endings.-Early life:...
's story The Gift of the MagiThe Gift of the Magi"The Gift of the Magi" is a short story written by O. Henry , about a young married couple and how they deal with the challenge of buying secret Christmas gifts for each other with very little money...
, a young couple are too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts. The wife cuts off her treasured hair to sell it to a wig-maker for money to buy her husband a chain for his heirloom pocket watch. She's shocked when she learns he had pawned his watch to buy her a set of combs for her long, beautiful, prized hair.
- In the ancient Indian storyIndian literatureIndian literature refers to the literature produced on the Indian subcontinent until 1947 and in the Republic of India thereafter. The Republic of India has 22 officially recognized languages....
of KrishnaKrishnaKrishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...
, King KamsaKamsaIn Hinduism, Kamsa or Kansa , often known as Kans in Hindi, is the brother of Devaki, and ruler of the Vrishni kingdom with its capital at Mathura. His father was King Ugrasena and mother was Queen Padmavati...
is told in a prophecy that a child of his sister DevakiDevakiIn Hinduism, Devaki is the wife of Vasudeva and biological mother of Krishna.She was the daughter of Devaka, the younger brother of King Ugrasena of Mathura. She was a partial incarnation of Aditi, the mother of the Devas.-Imprisonment :...
would kill him. To prevent this, he imprisons both Devaki and her husband VasudevaVasudevaIn Hindu itihasa , Vasudeva is the father of Krishna, the son of Shoorsen, of the Yadu and Vrishni dynasties. His sister Kunti was married to Pandu. He was a partial incarnation of Rishi Kashyap....
, allowing them to live only if they hand over their children as soon as they are born. He murders nearly all of them, one by one, but the seventh and eighth children, Balarama and Krishna, are saved and raised by a royal couple, NandaNanda (mythology)Nanda or Nandagopa, according to the Harivamsha and the Puranas, was the head of the gopas .It is said that Nand Baba owned 9 lakhs of cows . Nandvanshis or Ahirs are descendants of Nand. The night of Krishna's appearance or birth, Vasudeva brought Krishna to Nanda for Krishna's childhood years...
and Yashoda. After the boys grow up, Krishna eventually kills Kamsa as the prophecy foretold. Kamsa's attempt to prevent the prophecy led to it becoming a reality. Self-fulfilling propheciesSelf-fulfilling prophecyA self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior. Although examples of such prophecies can be found in literature as far back as ancient Greece and...
are common motifs in Greek mythologyGreek mythologyGreek mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece...
as well. This story is similar to the story of CronusCronusIn Greek mythology, Cronus or Kronos was the leader and the youngest of the first generation of Titans, divine descendants of Gaia, the earth, and Uranus, the sky...
preventing his wife from raising any children, the one who ends up defeating him being ZeusZeusIn the ancient Greek religion, Zeus was the "Father of Gods and men" who ruled the Olympians of Mount Olympus as a father ruled the family. He was the god of sky and thunder in Greek mythology. His Roman counterpart is Jupiter and his Etruscan counterpart is Tinia.Zeus was the child of Cronus...
, the later King of the Gods. Other similar tales in Greek Mythology include PerseusPerseusPerseus ,Perseos and Perseas are not used in English. the legendary founder of Mycenae and of the Perseid dynasty of Danaans there, was the first of the mythic heroes of Greek mythology whose exploits in defeating various archaic monsters provided the founding myths of the Twelve Olympians...
(who killed his grandfather, AcrisiusAcrisiusAcrisius was a mythical king of Argos, and a son of Abas and Aglaea , grandson of Lynceus, great-grandson of Danaus. His twin brother was Proetus, with whom he is said to have quarreled even in the womb of his mother...
by accident with a discus despite Acrisius' attempt to avert his fate) and more famously OedipusOedipusOedipus was a mythical Greek king of Thebes. He fulfilled a prophecy that said he would kill his father and marry his mother, and thus brought disaster on his city and family...
who killed his father and married his mother not knowing their relationship due to being left to die by his father to prevent that very prophecy from occurring.
- In the novel series Harry PotterHarry PotterHarry Potter is a series of seven fantasy novels written by the British author J. K. Rowling. The books chronicle the adventures of the adolescent wizard Harry Potter and his best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, all of whom are students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry...
, the evil Lord VoldemortLord VoldemortLord Voldemort is the main antagonist of the Harry Potter series written by British author J. K. Rowling. Voldemort first appeared in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which was released in 1997...
hears a prophecy about him (prior to the first book) which states his greatest enemy will be 'born as the seventh month dies' and be the son of parents who have both 'thrice defied him'. He believes this to mean the young Harry Potter. The prophecy also said 'he would have power the Dark Lord (meaning Voldemort) knows not' and 'neither could live while the other survives'. Seeing this as a threat to his power and life he sets out to kill this baby, however, he fails due to Harry's mother's sacrifice forming protection. This in turn causes the connection between Harry and the Dark Lord to form. As Albus DumbledoreAlbus DumbledoreProfessor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore is a major character in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. For most of the series, he is the headmaster of the wizarding school Hogwarts...
realises, setting store by the prophecy was a choice, but in choosing to believe it, Voldemort then made it a reality.
- In the Kalgoorlie (Australia) gold rush of the 1890s, large amounts of the little-known mineral calaveriteCalaveriteCalaverite, or gold telluride, is an uncommon telluride of gold, a metallic mineral with the chemical formula AuTe2, with approximately 3% of the gold replaced by silver. It was first discovered in Calaveras County, California in 1861, and was named for the county in 1868.The mineral often has a...
(gold telluride) were ironically identified as fool's gold. These mineral deposits were used as a cheap building material, and for the filling of potholes and ruts. When several years later the mineral was identified, there was a minor gold rush to excavate the streets.
- John F. KennedyJohn F. KennedyJohn Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy , often referred to by his initials JFK, was the 35th President of the United States, serving from 1961 until his assassination in 1963....
's last conversation was ironic in light of events which followed seconds later. During the motorcade in Dallas, in response to Mrs. Connolly's comment, "Mr. President, you can't say that Dallas doesn't love you," Kennedy replied, "That's very obvious." Immediately after, he was mortally wounded.
- In 1974, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety CommissionConsumer Product Safety CommissionThe United States Consumer Product Safety Commission is an independent agency of the United States government created in 1972 through the Consumer Product Safety Act to protect "against unreasonable risks of injuries associated with consumer products." The CPSC is an independent agency that does...
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.
- Introducing cane toads to AustraliaCane toads in AustraliaThe cane toad is an invasive species in Australia. The cane toad is the largest species in the family Bufonidae. Adult cane toads are usually heavy-built and weigh an average of up to 1.8kg. . Their size may vary from 15-23 cm. and their skin is warty...
to control the cane beetle not only failed to control the pest, but introduced, in the toads themselves, a very much worse pest.
- KudzuKudzu in the United StatesKudzu is a serious invasive plant in the United States. It has been spreading in the southern U.S. at the rate of annually, "easily outpacing the use of herbicide spraying and mowing, as well increasing the costs of these controls by $6 million annually." Its introduction has produced devastating...
- a vine imported to the United States in the 1930s and planted all over the South at the direction of the US Government in order to prevent soil erosion. Instead of preventing erosion, it climbs and chokes native trees and plants, thus causing even more erosion.
Historical irony (cosmic irony through time)When history is seen through modern eyes, there often appear sharp contrasts between the way historical figures see their world's future and what actually transpires. For example, during the 1920s The New York Times repeatedly scorned 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 it 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." 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 "The First World War" was called by H.G. Wells "The war that will end war", which soon became "The war to end war
" and "The War to End All Wars", and this became a widespread truism, almost a cliche. Historical irony is therefore a subset of cosmic irony, but one in which the element of time is bound to play a role. Another example could be that of the Vietnam war
, where in the 1960s the U.S.A. attempted to stop the Viet Cong (Viet Minh) taking over South Vietnam. However it is an often ignored fact that the U.S. originally supported the Viet Minh to prevent imperialist ambitions.
Gunpowder was, according to prevailing academic consensus, discovered in the 9th century by Chinese alchemists
searching for an elixir of immortality
Historical irony also includes inventors killed by their own creations, such as William Bullock
- unless, due to the nature of the invention, the risk of death was always known and accepted, as in the case of Otto Lilienthal
In certain kinds of situational or historical irony, a factual truth is highlighted by some person's complete ignorance of it or his belief in the opposite of it. However, this state of affairs does not occur by human design. In some religious contexts, such situations have been seen as the deliberate work of Divine Providence
to emphasize truths and to taunt humans for not being aware of them when they could easily have been enlightened (this is similar to human use of irony). Such ironies are often more evident, or more striking, when viewed retrospectively in the light of later developments which make the truth of past situations obvious to all.
Ironic artOne 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).
A South African weekly published a cartoon by Zapiro
of the Prophet Mohammad complaining that his followers lack a sense of humor, angering Muslims and raising fear of reprisal attacks during the 2010 World Cup.
Comic ironyIrony is often used in literature to produce a comic effect. This may also be combined with satire
. For instance, an author may facetiously state something as a well-known fact and then demonstrate through the narrative that the fact is untrue.
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 this romance and ends in a double marriage proposal.
MetafictionMetafictions are kinds of fiction that 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
Notable attempts to sustain metafiction throughout a whole novel are Christie Malry's Own Double Entry by B.S. Johnson, in which none of the characters are real and exist only within the author's imagination, and In The Night Room by Peter Straub
, in which the narrator is an author, whose fictional character comes to life and accompanies him through the book.
Socratic ironyThis is "The dissimulation of ignorance practised by Socrates
as a means of confuting an adversary". Socrates would pretend to be ignorant of the topic under discussion, in order to draw out the inherent nonsense in the arguments of his interlocutors. Chambers dictionary
has: "a means by which a questioner pretends to know less than a respondent, when actually he knows more."
Zoe Williams of The Guardian wrote: "The technique [of Socratic irony], demonstrated in the Platonic dialogues, was to pretend ignorance and, more sneakily, to feign credence in your opponent's power of thought, in order to tie him in knots."
A more modern example of Socratic irony can be seen on the 1970s American television show, Columbo. The fictional character, Lt. Columbo, is seemingly naïve and incompetent. His untidy appearance adds to this fumbling illusion. As a result, he is underestimated by the suspects in murder cases he is investigating. With their guard down and their false sense of confidence, Lt. Columbo is able to solve the cases leaving the murderers feeling duped and outwitted.
Irony as infinite, absolute negativityDanish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard
, and others, see irony, such as that used by Socrates, as a disruptive force with the power to undo texts and readers alike. The phrase itself is taken from Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics
, and is applied by Kierkegaard to the irony of Socrates. This tradition includes 19th century German critic and novelist Friedrich Schlegel ("On Incomprehensibility"), Charles Baudelaire
, and the 20th century deconstruction
ist Paul de Man
("The Concept of Irony"). In Kierkegaard's words, from On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates
[Socratic] irony [is] the infinite absolute negativity. It is negativity, because it only negates; it is infinite, because it does not negate this or that phenomenon; it is absolute, because that by virtue of which it negates is a higher something that still is not. The irony established nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it...
Where much of philosophy attempts to reconcile opposites into a larger positive project, Kierkegaard and others insist that irony—whether expressed in complex games of authorship or simple litotes
—must, in Kierkegaard's words, "swallow its own stomach". Irony entails endless reflection and violent reversals, and ensures incomprehensibility at the moment it compels speech. Similarly, among other literary critics, writer David Foster Wallace
viewed the pervasiveness of ironic and other postmodern tropes as the cause of "great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fictionists [ironies] pose terrifically vexing problems."
- Irony markIrony markAlthough in the written English language there is no standard way to denote irony or sarcasm, several forms of punctuation have been proposed. Among the oldest and frequently attested are the percontation point invented by English printer Henry Denham in the 1580s, and the irony mark, furthered by...
- SatireSatireSatire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...
- ApophasisApophasisApophasis refers, in general, to "mention by not mentioning". Apophasis covers a wide variety of figures of speech.-Apophasis:...
- SarcasmSarcasmSarcasm is “a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter jibe or taunt.” Though irony and understatement is usually the immediate context, most authorities distinguish sarcasm from irony; however, others argue that sarcasm may or often does involve irony or employs...
- HypocrisyHypocrisyHypocrisy is the state of pretending to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that one does not actually have. Hypocrisy involves the deception of others and is thus a kind of lie....
- ParadoxParadoxSimilar to Circular reasoning, A paradox is a seemingly true statement or group of statements that lead to a contradiction or a situation which seems to defy logic or intuition...
- OxymoronOxymoronAn oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms...
- Post-ironyPost-ironyPost-irony is a term alternately used to connote a return from irony to earnestness, or more commonly, a state in which earnest and ironic intents become muddled.Examples of post-ironic artwork include South African band Die Antwoord, and the Werner Herzog film Bad Lieutenant: Port of...
- "The final irony"—a GuardianThe GuardianThe Guardian, formerly known as The Manchester Guardian , is a British national daily newspaper in the Berliner format...
article about irony, use and misuse of the term
- Article on the etymology of Irony
- "Irony", by Norman D. Knox, in Dictionary of the History of Ideas (1973)
- "Sardonicus"—a web-resource that provides access to similes, ironic and otherwise, harvested from the web.
- Excerpt on dramatic irony from Yves Lavandier's Writing Drama
- "American Irony" compared with British irony, quoting Stephen FryStephen FryStephen John Fry is an English actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, poet, comedian, television presenter and film director, and a director of Norwich City Football Club. He first came to attention in the 1981 Cambridge Footlights Revue presentation "The Cellar Tapes", which also...
- American and British irony compared by Simon PeggSimon PeggSimon Pegg is an English actor, comedian, writer, film producer, and director. He is best known for having co-written and stared in various Edgar Wright features, mainly Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and the comedy series Spaced.He also portrayed Montgomery "Scotty" Scott in the 2009 Star Trek film...
- Modern example of ironic writing