When you’re reading a book or watching a movie, you probably have some expectations about what will happen next. But many skilled authors and screenwriters have the seemingly uncanny ability to thwart your expectations by throwing you a curve ball or two.
For example, perhaps instead of the main character getting the award she’s worked so much for, her biggest rival wins it. Or, just when things seem to be improving for the protagonist, another problem throws her back down to point zero.
This tactic is called situational irony.
What Is Situational Irony?
As a literary device, situational irony is when what actually happens is entirely different from what readers or the audience is led to expect. It generally thrives on sharp contradictions and contrasts.
One purpose of situational irony is to let readers distinguish between expectation and reality. This can help make the story, character, or theme more relatable to readers, because real life does not always unfold as expected.
To review, irony comes in three different types, and all three can be applied in creative writing:
- Dramatic irony: when the audience knows more than the characters in the story
- Situational irony: when what happens is totally different from what the audience has come to expect
- Verbal irony: when characters say things that are opposite of what they really mean (examples of this might include sarcasm, understatement, overstatement, and Socratic irony).
What Is an Example of Situational Irony?
Situational irony can also be observed in real life. For example, someone who claims to be an expert on something but ends up failing in that area can constitute a situational irony. This may include:
- A hair stylist who always seems to have a bad hair day
- A marriage therapist who gets divorced
- The CEO of a gadget company not allowing his kids to use technology
- A bookstore owner who doesn’t like to read
In each of the above scenarios, you would expect the person (hair stylist, marriage therapist, etc.) to be authorities in their field, so their apparent failure in that realm makes the situation ironic.
Examples of Situational Irony in Literature
In this section, we will share a few examples of situational irony in literature.
Spoiler Alert: If you have not read these books and wish to read them without knowing the ending, you may want to skip this section.
Example #1. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Throughout the book Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’ Hara pines after childhood love Ashley Wilkes, even throughout her marriage with the enigmatic and ever-patient Rhett Butler.
Towards the end of the book, when Ashley’s wife Melanie dies, surprisingly, Scarlett realizes she never really loved Ashley and that she owes Rhett an apology. She goes home filled with new life, excited to tell Rhett about this realization and to shower him with her undivided affection from now on.
But when she arrives, a totally different Rhett meets her—a resigned, broken man who has decided to leave her because he could never compete with her devotion to Ashley.
The story ends with Scarlett reassuring herself that she can get whatever she wants—but it also leaves the reader to question whether she will really succeed this time.
Example #2. Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery
In this eighth installment in the Anne of Green Gables classic series, Montgomery follows the experiences of her youngest daughter, Rilla, as World War I breaks out. In the first part of the book, Montgomery effectively portrays the bond between a dog named Monday and his master Jem.
Towards the second half of the book, as the death toll continues to rise under the war, the dog Monday is seen waiting at the train station for his beloved master to come back. One night, he is suddenly heard howling an ungodly howl, leading the reader to believe that his behavior is linked to a death in the family, most likely his master Jem.
But the news comes: it’s Rilla’s second oldest brother, Walter, who died in the war, throwing us completely off-guard, especially when Rilla receives a very thought-provoking letter from Walter, containing all his realizations about war and love, sent before he died.
Example #3. “A Couple of Capitalists” from Across the Years by Eleanor Porter
In this short story, Reuben and his wife Emily do whatever it takes to be able to afford the house on the hill: cutting back on all luxuries, barely having their basic necessities, and Reuben even giving up his favorite pastime of eating peanuts.
Finally, they reach the pinnacle of all their efforts and dreams. And when, at just under 60 years old, they finally move into the new house, Reuben decides, for the first time, to splurge on the one thing he has given up so long but always craved: peanuts!
But wouldn’t you know it? By this time, he’s so old, his teeth are all gone and he can’t even chew the peanuts!
In fact, the peanuts are only one of a number of things that go against all expectations: following one mishap after another, eventually, the couple decide that they can’t get used to living in such a big home and they end up moving back to their old house!
Example #4. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
This short story opens to a wife, Della Dillingham, counting out the money she had meticulously saved for months, just one day before Christmas. The author makes it clear that the Dillingham household had only two things they took pride in: Della’s hair, and her husband’s gold watch, which had been a family heirloom.
So the story takes an interesting turn when Della decides to sell her hair in order to buy her husband a watch chain. She waits anxiously for Jim to come home, and when he does come, he greets her with a look she can’t quite read—as it turns out, her husband has bought Della the pretty combs she had always wanted for her beautiful hair.
But the irony doesn’t end there. When Della remembers to bring out her gift of the chain for the gold watch, Jim finally tells her that he has sold the watch in order to buy her the combs!
The irony is that both gifts are now useless—but we still love the way the story ends, showing us the unrivaled power of love and generosity.
What Is the Difference Between Dramatic and Situational Irony?
In both dramatic and situational irony, the event that happens does subvert expectations. The main difference is that, in dramatic irony, the audience knows about the unexpected twist of events before the characters do. For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, as the reader, you know that Juliet is alive, but Romeo doesn’t know that, and he drinks poison as a result.
In situational irony, the audience finds out at the same time as the character that the outcome is not what they expected.
The Power of Situational Irony
From these examples, it’s easy to see how stories can be made all the more satisfying by turning our expectations on their heads.
By understanding the different types of irony, you can create exciting stories that your readers won’t forget.
What’s your favorite example of situational irony in film or literature? Share it with us in the comments below!