Definition of Irony as a Stylistic Device

December 14, 2021 by Essay Writer


Definition of irony

Irony is a common literary term and rhetoric device. Whether in fiction, non-fiction, or in life, irony is around us day to day. There are three main types of irony. The type most commonly thought of in story telling is called dramatic irony, but there is also verbal and situational irony. The following presentation aims to explore and explain the deeper layers of meaning in life and literature through irony.

So what exactly is irony? The term irony has its roots in the Greek comic character Eiron, a clever underdog who by his wit repeatedly triumphs over the boastful character Alazon.

Irony can be described as figure of speech in which words are used in such a way that their intended meaning is different from the actual meaning of the words. It may also be used to describe a situation that ends up in quite a different way than what is generally anticipated. Irony is a literary technique and rhetoric device that has been used for many years in speech, art and even everyday life.


Types of irony

In the ordinary use of language, Pocket Fowler ‘s Modern English Usage describes irony as ‘an expression of meaning by use of words that have an opposite literal meaning or tendency’. When we look out of the window at the pouring rain and exclaim ‘What a lovely day!’, we are using a trivial form of irony. There are three types of irony: verbal, situational and dramatic. There are additional subcategories, but these are the main three.

Verbal irony is the first type I will be explaining. It is the use of words to mean something different than what the person actually means, or says they mean. It is important to note that the speaker must be intending for this inconsistency for it to be classified as verbal irony. Situational irony is the next type. It is the difference between what is expected and the actuality of a situation. It occurs when the exact opposite of what is meant to happen, happens. Situational irony is the cause for much of the confusion surrounding the definition of irony. Dramatic irony is the final type I’ll be discussing. It occurs when the audience is more aware of what is happening than the characters, or when the audience is aware of something specific that the characters in the story are not yet aware of. It is the most common form of literary irony and writers frequently employ it in their works. Dramatic irony, unlike verbal and situational irony, exists purely in the written world.

Irony as a literary device

So why do writers use it? Irony inverts our expectations. Many times it is the exact opposite of what it appears to be. It can create the unexpected twist at the end of a story that gets us laughing – or crying. All types of irony appear in literature, though it is worth noting that dramatic irony can only occur in literature and cannot be applied to real life, whereas verbal and situational irony can. Often irony is used to suggest the stark contrast of the literal meaning being put forth. Irony spices up a literary work by adding unexpected twists and revealing a deeper layer of significance. Not by the words themselves, but by the situation and the context in which they are placed. This allows the reader to become more involved with the characters and the plot of the work.


Verbal irony

Verbal irony in literature occurs when either the speaker means something totally different than what they are saying. Or the audience realizes, because of their knowledge of the particular situation to which the speaker is referring, that the opposite of what a character is saying is true. Verbal irony also occurs when a character says something in jest that, in actuality, is true.

An example of this is found in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story Cask of Amontillado. While an unsuspecting Fortunato is being lead to his death by his former acquaintance Montresor, he is questioned about his wellbeing. Montresor notices Fortunato has a cough, which is growing more severe, the further down the catacombs they travel. Montresor then asks if Fortunato would like to turn back, Fortunato replies a cough won’t kill him. The audience discovers at the end that this was in fact a use of verbal irony because it is Montresor that kills Fortunato and not his cough.

A different example is in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Juliet commands her nurse to find out who Romeo is and says if he were married, then her wedding bed would be her grave. This is a verbal irony because the audience knows that she is going to die on her wedding bed.

Situational irony

Situational irony occurs when the actual result of a situation is totally different from the expected result. It involves a discrepancy between what is expected to happen and what actually happens (or what would seem appropriate). It is the type of irony that most people think of or mean when they describe something as ironic. There is however a difference between situational irony and coincidence or bad luck. For situational irony to occur there has to be something that leads a person to think that a particular event or situation is unlikely happen. This is a common type of irony found in comedic literature. Because it emerges from the events and circumstances of a story it is often subtler and effective than verbal or dramatic irony.

In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Pip and the audience both do not know who his benefactor is. In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Pip and the audience both do not know who his benefactor is. Throughout the novel the reader is lead to believe that the benefactor is indeed the rich Miss Havisham. Through her actions and the coincidences of Pip residing and being tutored by the Pockets, her cousins, the reader expects it to be her. However, the characters and audience later learn it is the convict Pip showed kindness to at a young age that set him up with his lavish lifestyle.

In The Gift of the Magi, a short story by O. Henry, a wife sells her hair to buy her husband a watch chain, and her husband sells his watch to buy her combs for her hair. Both have made sacrifices in order to buy gifts for one another, but in the end, the gifts are useless. The real gift turns out to be how much they are willing to give up to show their love for one another.

Dramatic irony

Dramatic irony is when an audience is taken into the writer ‘s confidence and is made aware of more than the participating characters know. Dramatic irony is similar to situational irony and therefore can be easily confused. In situational irony, both the characters and the audience are fully unaware of the implications of the real situation. In dramatic irony, the characters are oblivious of the situation but the audience is not.

Dramatic irony depends on the structure of a work rather than its use of words. In plays it is often created by the audience’s awareness of a fate in store for the characters that they themselves are unaware of. Because the reader knows something the character does not, they read to discover how the character will react when he or she learns the truth of the situation. Dramatic irony is huge in Shakespeare’s tragedies, such as Othello.

In Othello, all of the characters betrayed and destroyed by Iago trust him absolutely. Roderigo believes Iago to be his friend, assisting him to advance his relationship with Othello. Othello himself labels his ensign ‘honest Iago ‘ and trusts him with advising him on his wife. Cassio allows Iago to talk him in to drinking and losing the respect and position he held with Othello. Finally, Emilia is betrayed into giving Desdemona ‘s handkerchief to Iago. In a rage, Othello storms to Desdemona ‘s room and murders her in her bed. Shortly afterward, it is revealed that Iago was the man responsible for orchestrating the entire facade. Othello experiences the recognition that comes with ironic tension and realizes that he has unjustly murdered Desdemona, who he promised to always love and trust in an act of tragic irony.

The ending of Anton Chekhov’s story Lady with the Dog, in which an accomplished Don Juan engages in a routine flirtation only to find himself seduced into a passionate lifelong commitment to a woman who is no different from all the others, is another an example of dramatic irony.


Irony as a literary device

Like all other figures of speech, irony brings about some added meanings to a situation. Ironical statements and situations in literature develop readers’ interest. Irony makes a work of literature more intriguing and forces the readers to use their imagination and comprehend the underlying meanings of the texts. Moreover, real life is full of ironical expressions and situations. Therefore, the use of irony brings a work of literature closer to the life.

Irony vs. coincidence

Though irony can serve as a great literary device in a work when used properly, there is still much confusion surrounding the exact definition of the term. Situational irony is the type of irony that is most likely to be mislabeled. Situational irony is defined as: the inconsistency between what might be expected and what actually occurs. The big issue surrounding the concept of situational irony is that it is often confused with that of coincidence. Coincidence is defined as: a sequence of events that, although accidental, seems to have been planned or arranged. Pay close attention, because this is where things get confusing. To call a fact or event ironic is to make a statement about the relationship between the actuality of a fact or event and the expectations regarding that fact or event. To call a fact or event coincidental, on the other hand, is to make a statement about the relationship between that fact or event and another, independent fact or event. Events are often confused as ironic because situational irony does involve a certain degree of coincidence. The important difference being for something to be labelled as ironic, it must be both coincidental and contradictory in a humorous or poignant and extremely improbable way.

Redefining irony

Irony is the difference between the appearance and the reality. Although irony has been used for such a long time, there still isn’t an exact definition of the word. Hundreds of definitions that have been suggested over the years, one of them from American Heritage Dictionary is that ‘irony is a figure of speech which is a contradiction or incongruity between what is expected and what actually occurs’.

Most definitions of irony, however, seem to suggest that irony involves a contrast between appearance and actual reality. In other words, a discrepancy between what is anticipated to be true and what is actually true. The Oxford Companion to the English Language tells us that ‘irony is a language device, either in spoken or written form in which the real meaning is concealed or contradicted by the literal meanings of the words (verbal irony) or in a situation in which there is an incongruity between what is expected and what occurs (situational and dramatic irony)’.

Closing thoughts on irony in literature

Irony can be a useful literary device when used correctly and effectively. Irony is a classic literary device that can be used to add to a story, and is useful in many types and genres of storytelling. Irony is one of many literary devices that a writer can employ in their writing for a variety of reasons; be it humor, foreshadowing, or comic relief. It is also useful literary device to be aware of and understand, though it is important to acknowledge that there I no finite definition of what exactly counts as irony.

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