Definition of Irony:
Irony arises when a statement or scene presents a deliberate contrast between two—often opposing—levels of meaning. This contrast can take various forms. Dramatic irony occurs when readers know more than the characters do. Verbal irony happens when a character uses a statement in which the underlying meaning contradicts the obvious, literal meaning. Situational irony is created when the outcome of events differs from what readers would reasonably expect to happen.
Example of Dramatic Irony in Literature:
“Not for some far-off kinsman, but myself,
Shall I expel this poison in the blood;
For whoso slew that king might have a mind
To strike me too with his assassin hand.
Therefore in righting him I serve myself.”
—Sophocles’s Oedipus the King
Oedipus the King is rife with dramatic irony, because readers know from the beginning what Oedipus does not: that he is the one who killed his father, the former king. Blind to the truth, Oedipus sets out to find and bring justice to the murderer whose crime has brought plague upon the city of Thebes. In this quotation, he displays his ignorance of his own culpability by postulating that he may be in danger from the killer as well.
Example of Verbal Irony in Literature:
“I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.”
—Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”
Swift creates verbal irony by presenting his intentionally ludicrous idea as a “humble” or “modest” proposal to which he hopes no one will have “the least objection.” However, Swift is quite aware that his proposal is anything but modest, creating an ironic contrast between the literal meaning of the words, which advocate for selling and eating children, and the reality of what Swift is actually trying to get across, which is that the treatment of the poor as a “problem to be solved” is as dehumanizing as treating children as food.
Example of Situational Irony in Literature:
“‘I brought you back another exactly like it. And it has taken us ten years to pay for it. You can understand that it was not easy for us, for us who had nothing. At last it is ended, and I am very glad.’
Madame Forestier had stopped.
‘You say that you bought a necklace of diamonds to replace mine?’
‘Yes. You never noticed it, then! They were very similar.’
And she smiled with a joy that was at once proud and ingenuous.
Madame Forestier, deeply moved, took her hands.
‘Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste! It was worth at most only five hundred francs!’”
—Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”
In this example, situational irony arises from the dissonance between the mistaken perceptions of the Loisels and the reality, as unveiled by Madame Forestier. Mathilde and her husband drastically changed their lifestyle as they worked to pay off the huge debt they incurred from replacing what they thought was a diamond necklace. However, Madame Forestier reveals that all of their toil was for nothing. The necklace they sacrificed so much to replace was only a cheap fake. This is an example of situational irony because the readers hold the same expectations as the Loisels and thus are similarly surprised by the outcome. In dramatic irony, the readers would already know what Madame Forestier knows and expect the Loisels’ shock at the truth.