Irony in Literature: Types and Examples Explained Image

While living abroad, I found myself in a pretty frustrating situation.

For exactly one year following my graduation, I was unable to seek employment while I awaited the approval of my residency permit. As the months passed and all my friends back home were finding stable work, I grew increasingly anxious and began to feel like a total failure.

Then, on almost the exact one-year anniversary of my graduation, I was offered a full-time remote position with a U.S. company—my status abroad wouldn’t matter.

Two days later, my work visa was approved.

Oh, the irony.

Irony in Literature

Perhaps one of the reasons we love a good case of irony in film or literature is that our own lives are so often filled with it.

The effect can be frustrating, comical, or even tragic—but we can’t escape it in real life, so why not embrace it in literature, too?

When used skillfully, irony can add both depth and substance to your writing.

What Is Irony?

Irony is a figure of speech in which the intended meaning of words is different from their actual meaning.

If you’re fluent in sarcasm, this might sound like the same thing. Sarcasm is in fact a type of verbal irony, but whereas sarcasm only characterizes someone’s speech, irony can be found in words, situations, or circumstances.

Simply put, irony is the difference between appearance (or expectations) and reality.

(Did you just think of that scene from 500 Days of Summer? Me too.)

Irony can add an exciting twist, strike at our emotions, and remind us of our own lives, making a work of fiction more relatable and reflective of the human experience.

Types of Irony

There are three main types of irony that frequently appear in literature and art. They are verbal, situational, and dramatic.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is the form that probably reminds you most of sarcasm. When you say the opposite of what you mean, you are using verbal irony.

For example:

After your sister says something foolish, you respond, “What a great idea, genius!”

Verbal irony usually produces a comic effect, although often at the expense of the speaker or someone else.

Lemony Snicket frequently uses verbal irony, which is used to paint an image while simultaneously producing a comedic effect. Take this example from his Unauthorized Autobiography:

“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.”

Verbal irony forces readers to think a bit harder about the writer’s intentions, and usually offers them a snicker or smirk in return for their efforts.

Situational Irony

Situational irony involves sharp contrasts or contradictions between the audience’s expectations and the actual outcome of a situation.

A pilot with a fear of heights is an example of situational irony, since we would expect someone who works at an altitude of 37,000 feet to be a bit more accustomed to heights.

This kind of irony is commonly employed in sitcoms or comedic films. However, situational irony can also take a tragic direction, like if a fire station burns to the ground, or a man in need of help is run over by an ambulance.

Dramatic Irony

When dramatic irony is used in films or literature, the audience knows more about what is really going on (or what is to come) than the oblivious characters.

More often than not, dramatic irony produces a tragic effect. For example, in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, we the readers know that Juliet has taken a sleeping potion to fake her death, but this is unbeknownst to Romeo, who believes she is really dead and proceeds to actually kill himself.

Dramatic irony fills readers with anticipation and heightens their interest. They know what is to come, but are powerless in the situation and cannot intervene or advise the characters.

Examples of Irony in Literature and Film

Can you guess what type of irony is being used in the following examples?

Example 1: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, three of the supporting characters, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, all wish for traits that they already possess.

Scarecrow thinks he’s unintelligent, but by the end discovers he is actually a genius; Tin Man wishes for a heart, but comes to realize he is very much capable of love; Lion seems cowardly, but turns out to be extremely courageous.

This is an example of:

A. Verbal Irony

B. Situational Irony

C. Dramatic Irony

Example 2: Othello by William Shakespeare

Othello trusts Iago, who has become his main advisor. Unbeknownst to Othello, however, Iago has long despised him, claiming he was unfairly passed over for a promotion to the rank of Othello’s lieutenant.

The audience knows that Iago is manipulating Othello and plotting against him, but Othello does not see this.

This is an example of:

A. Verbal Irony

B. Situational Irony

C. Dramatic Irony

Example 3: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

In his speech, Marc Antony refers to Brutus several times as an “honorable man,” knowing that Brutus aided in the murder of Caesar.

This is an example of:

A. Verbal Irony

B. Situational Irony

C. Dramatic Irony

Example 4: Beauty and the Beast

In the Disney animated film Beauty and the Beast, viewers know that the Beast is actually a prince who was once very handsome, but Belle has no idea that this is the case.

This is an example of:

A. Verbal Irony

B. Situational Irony

C. Dramatic Irony

Example 5: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

In the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, firefighters burn books rather than extinguishing fires.

(Also ironic? This book, which makes a statement about the perils of censorship, was banned for a time in the United States.)

This is an example of:

A. Verbal Irony

B. Situational Irony

C. Dramatic Irony

Quiz Answers: 1.B; 2.C; 3.A; 4.C; 5.B.

Writing with Irony

For readers, irony in literature can be extremely appealing because it reflects the unexplainable ironies and coincidences that we encounter in our own lives. It also builds suspense, peaking our interest and at at times making it impossible to put the book down.

By using irony in your own creative writing, you can add meaning to your text and make your story more intriguing for audiences.

What’s your favorite example of irony in film or literature? Share it with us in the comments below!

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