The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Irony: A contradiction or incongruity between appearance or expectation and reality. This disparity may be manifested in a variety of ways. A discrepancy may exist between what someone says and what he or she actually means, between what someone expects to happen and what really happens, or between what appears to be true and what actually is true. The term may be applied to events, situations, and structural elements of a work, not just to statements. Irony may even be used as a general mode of expression, in which case one might describe an author’s very tone as ironic.

Irony comes from the Greek eiron, which derives from eironeia, meaning “dissembling.” In Greek drama, the eiron was a character who, although weaker than his opponent, the braggart alazon, nevertheless defeated him by misrepresenting himself in some way, for instance by acting foolish or stupid. Meiosis, or understatement, was perhaps the eiron’s most potent — and, to the audience, humorous — weapon.

Irony has been called the subtlest comic and rhetorical form. Instead of flatly stating a point, the ironist’s speech is often tongue-in-cheek, deliberately polished and refined, leaving the impression of intentional restraint. The ironist’s approach to a subject may even seem unemotional, a wry illustration of a point. Notably, the success of any irony is subject to a paradox: the ironist wears a mask that must be perceived as such. The audience must recognize the discrepancy at issue, or the irony fails to achieve its effect.

Irony should not be confused with either sarcasm or satire. Sarcasm is intentional derision that usually involves an obvious, even exaggerated form of verbal irony, such as false praise, and is generally directed at a specific person with a hurtful aim. Irony is more restrained, may employ false blame as well as false praise, is often directed toward a situation rather than a person, and generally lacks hurtful intent. Satire is a literary genre in which irony, wit, and sometimes sarcasm are used to expose human weaknesses, spurring reform through ridicule. Irony is a device or mode, not a genre, and typically lacks satire’s ameliorative aim.

Several types of irony exist, all of which may be classified under one of three rubrics: verbal irony (also called rhetorical irony), situational irony (also called irony of situation), and structural irony. Verbal irony, the most common kind of irony, is characterized by a discrepancy between what a speaker or writer says and what he or she means or believes to be true. In fact, a speaker or writer using verbal irony frequently says the opposite of what he or she actually means. For instance, imagine that you have come home after a day on which you failed a test, wrecked your car, and had a fight with your best friend. If your roommate were to ask you how your day went and you replied, “Great day. Best ever,” you would be using verbal irony, just as the narrator of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837) did when he said that “the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved that Oliver should be ’farmed,’ or, in other words, dispatched to a branch workhouse some three miles off.”

Verbal irony is sometimes viewed as a trope, one of the two major divisions of figures of speech, since it involves saying one thing but meaning another. Balancing the characteristic restraint of irony with the need for recognition makes verbal irony a particularly difficult device to master. Tone probably keys the listener in to the irony more than any other element, but knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the statement may also spur recognition of the speaker’s true meaning. Taking the aforementioned example, your roommate might pick up on the irony either through your tone or by knowing that you had suffered one or more calamities that day. Readers do not have the benefit of hearing a particular speaker’s tone, so knowledge of circumstances and the general tone of the work play a greater role in accurately identifying ironic statements.

Situational irony, the second type of irony, typically involves a discrepancy between expectation and reality and is keyed to the plot, deriving primarily from events or situations themselves, as opposed to statements made by individuals, whether or not they understand the situation as ironic. The scenarios described by Alanis Morissette in her song “Ironic” (1995) exemplify situational irony: dying the day after you win the lottery; working up the courage to take your first airplane flight and then crashing; finding the man of your dreams only to discover that he has a beautiful wife; and so forth. O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” (1905), in which husband and wife each give up their most prized possession, also exemplifies situational irony: the woman sells her beautiful long hair to buy a platinum fob chain for the man’s watch, and the man sells his watch to buy the woman tortoiseshell combs to hold up her hair.

Subsets of situational irony include dramatic irony, tragic irony, and Socratic irony (also called dialectical irony). Dramatic irony may involve a situation in which a character’s words come back to haunt him or her but more commonly involves a discrepancy between a character’s perception and what the reader or audience knows to be true. Lacking some material information that the reader or audience possesses, the character responds with inappropriate statements, expectations, or actions. A statement involves dramatic irony when a character fails to recognize the true import of his or her words. Expectation and action involve dramatic irony when they are inappropriate under the circumstances that actually exist. Characters may even accurately assess a situation without realizing it, attributing to someone or something a truth that they do not recognize as such.

Dramatic irony has often been used synonymously with tragic irony, but this usage is incorrect. Dramatic irony occurs in a wide variety of works, ranging from the comic to the tragic. Tragic irony is a type of dramatic irony marked by a sense of foreboding. As with all dramatic irony, tragic irony involves imperfect information, but the consequences of this ignorance are catastrophic, leading to the character’s tragic downfall. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (430 B.C.), for instance, Oedipus, the King of Thebes, vows to find the murderer of the prior king, only to find out what the audience knew all along: that he himself is the guilty party.

Socratic irony, named for the fifth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Socrates, is, loosely speaking, situational in nature, as it entails pretending ignorance to show up another’s errors. For instance, in Plato’s dialogues (early fourth-century B.C.), which portray Socrates as assuming the role of the eiron, when a man who is about to turn in his father for murder asserts the morality of his course of action, Socrates asks a series of seemingly naive questions that ultimately show not that the man would be wrong to turn his father in but that his grounds for doing so are irrational and self-contradictory.

Works that exhibit structural irony, the third major type of irony, contain an internal feature that creates or promotes a discrepancy that typically operates throughout the entire work. Some element of the work’s structure (or perhaps even its form), unrelated to the plot per se, invites the audience or reader to probe beneath surface statements or appearances. Narration is the most common vehicle for structural irony, especially the use of a naive or otherwise unreliable narrator whom the audience or reader distrusts due to a manifest flaw. For instance, the reader of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (1729) quickly recognizes that its narrator — an economist who advocates cannibalism, specifically, selling poor Irish infants to “persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom” as “wholesome food” to solve Ireland’s perpetual, cyclic problems of poverty, overpopulation, and starvation — is fallible. Since no reasonable reader would take this work at face value, discovering why Swift used a fallible narrator becomes the reader’s task. (Swift’s title can also be seen as an example of verbal irony, since he most certainly did not consider the proposal “modest.”)

Subsets of structural irony include cosmic irony (also called irony of fate) and romantic irony. Cosmic irony arises from the disparity between a character’s belief in his or her ability to shape his or her destiny and the audience’s recognition that an external, supernatural force has power over that character’s fate. Just as the unreliable narrator serves as a structural device giving rise to structural irony, so the supernatural force of cosmic irony makes the irony structural rather than situational in nature. The use of cosmic irony is more than a matter of plot.

Cosmic irony is characterized by four elements. First, it typically involves a powerful deity (or, sometimes, fate itself) with the ability and desire to manipulate or even control events in a character’s life. Second, the character subject to this irony believes — erroneously — in free will. Whether or not the character acknowledges the deity’s existence, he or she persists in attempting to affect events. Third, the deity toys with the character much as a cat might with a mouse; the outcome is clear to the disinterested observer, but the mouse hopes desperately for escape. Fourth, cosmic irony involves a tragic outcome; ultimately, the character’s struggle against destiny will be for naught. Cosmic irony is notably apparent in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), the last chapter of which contains the statement “the President of the Immortals … had ended his sport with Tess.”

Romantic irony, as defined by nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel, is present in poems and prose works whose authors or speakers at some point reveal their narration to be the capricious fabrication of an idiosyncratic and highly self-conscious creator. Romantic ironists typically “give up the game” only after they have carefully constructed some vision of “reality,” however. They may reveal their narrator to be a liar, for instance, or they may speak directly to the reader as an author. As a result, they wreak havoc with the reader’s or audience’s usual suspension of disbelief, debunking as illusion the normal operating assumption that the narration is a believable representation of reality. Romantic ironists want their readers or audiences to “see through” them, that is, to appreciate the manipulative nature of their art and the slightly comic quality of even their most serious artistic endeavors. In Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1875), for example, one of the characters says, “One cannot die in the middle of Act Five.” David Leavitt’s novella The Term Paper Artist (1997) also exemplifies romantic irony, blurring the line between fiction and autobiography by giving its protagonist the same name, profession, publishers, and written works as the author and by making the protagonist the subject of a plagiarism charge and lawsuit by an English poet, just as the author was in his own life. As Leavitt the character notes at the end of the novella, “Writers often disguise their lives as fiction. The thing they almost never do is disguise fiction as their lives.”

Sometimes different types of irony come into play at once, as in the following passage from Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis (c. 405 B.C.). Agamemnon has brought his daughter Iphigenia to Aulis to be sacrificed to the gods; Iphigenia thinks a marriage has been arranged for her. Agamemnon’s comments exemplify rhetorical irony, given the discrepancy between his literal words and what he really means, whereas Iphigenia’s failure to understand the true import of her words exemplifies dramatic irony:

Iphigenia: It’s a long journey then; and you’re leaving me behind!

Agamemnon: Yours is a long journey too, like mine.

Iphigenia: We could travel together then. You could arrange it.

Agamemnon: No, your journey is different. You must remember me.

Iphigenia: Will my mother sail with me? Or must I travel alone?

Agamemnon: You’ll sail alone … without father or mother.

Iphigenia: Have you found me a new home, Father? Where is it?

Agamemnon: That’s enough … There are some things young girls

shouldn’t know.

Iphigenia: Sort the Phrygians out quickly, Daddy, and come back to me.

Agamemnon: I must perform a sacrifice, before I go.

Iphigenia: Of course you must! The right sacred rituals.

Agamemnon: You’ll be there too. By the holy water.

Iphigenia: Shall I be part of the ceremonies at the altar?