The English dictionary is a wonderful invention, but there are times when it falls short of doing its job: making us understand what a word actually means.
‘Irony’ seems to be one such example; I used to ask my students to look up ‘irony’ in the dictionary and identify ironic examples in literature, but I noticed that most of them wouldn’t be able to do it. And this is after they’ve looked at multiple dictionary sources, so it wasn’t really for lack of trying.
I suspect, then, that the fault lies not so much with the learners, but more with the lexicographers.
Definition of irony
Let’s take the Oxford Learners’ Dictionary, for example, which offers two definitions for the word ‘irony’:
1) The amusing or strange aspect of a situation that is very different from what you expect; a situation like this
2) The use of words that say the opposite of what you really mean, often as a joke and with a tone of voice that shows this
Truth be told, I find the first definition “amusing” at best and “strange” at worst. Plus it’s just too vague. “A situation that is very different from what you expect” – “very different”, how? (And let’s not even engage with the limp, half-baked phrase – “a situation like this” – uh, like what??)
The second definition is better, in that at least we understand irony to mean something similar sarcasm – saying the opposite of what you really mean out of jest.
Okay, so if a family relative commented on your post-holiday avoirdupois (weight gain) in front of everyone and you wanted to offer a sarcastic riposte, perhaps you’d say something like “Thanks, that’s so kind of you to say, Auntie Maureen.” Because, of course, her tactlessness is just downright mean. Kind vs. mean; hence, sarcasm.
But it is important to remember that sarcasm is only one type of irony, because irony is a broad, umbrella term.
Types of irony
In general, there are 3 types of irony:
1) Verbal irony (i.e. sarcasm)
2) Situational irony (this is in effect the first definition above)
3) Dramatic irony (this is when the audience/reader knows something that a character in the play/text doesn’t)
Explaining Situational Irony: A Tale of Two Ironic Situations
Here’s one of my go-to scenarios for illustrating what ‘situational irony’ means:
- Rain, rain go away… oh wait
Say it’s been raining non-stop every day for a week, but somehow you always forget to bring along an umbrella before dashing out of your house, resulting in you arriving at school looking like a drenched mess on the regular. On the night before day 8 rolls around, you decide that you’ve had enough of your absent-mindedness, and you make a conscious effort to place an umbrella beside the front door in preparation for another morning downpour. Lo and behold, you walk out of your house the next morning only to find nothing but glorious sunshine (smirking down at you and your ill-timed brolly).
- When the safest place is unsafe
Here’s another example. Say Anna from Iceland – one of the safest countries in the world – travelled to Afghanistan – one of the most dangerous countries in the world – for a month. Contrary to what Anna had expected, she found Afghanistan to be surprisingly safe, and nothing remotely unfortunate happened to her during her time in this supposed powder keg. Upon returning to Iceland, she enters her house only to (cue another lo and behold!) discover that her house has been burgled. Ironic much?
Explaining Dramatic Irony: When #TMI is actually necessary
Some people think of dramatic irony as a ‘spoiler’ technique, i.e. you’re told early on about something that will eventually happen in the play or the novel – even before the character him/herself knows about it. But it’s an intended spoiler, because your ‘foresight’ is required for the emotional impact that the author or playwright wants to create.
I’ll use two plays to illustrate how dramatic irony works:
Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe
Doctor Faustus, a Renaissance tragedy by Christopher Marlowe (first performed in 1592), is a play that famously cautions against overreaching, or the challenging of mortal boundaries. Man is man; God is God – the two are separate, and man will never be God, nor should he attempt to ape the deistic supreme. At the start of the play, the ‘Chorus’ pretty much tells us that we’re in for a tragic spectacle, because Faustus, our scholarly, hubristic protagonist, can’t seem to get over the fact that there are powers one should just never seek to acquire. Especially not when the only way to acquire such powers is by bargaining with the Devil. When the play begins, we are told that Faustus –
“So much he profits in divinity,
That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name,
Excelling all, and sweetly can dispute
In th’ heavenly matters of theology;
Till swollen with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspired his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss:”
What eventually happens to Faustus is clear: God will punish this naughty, errant man for “mount[ing] above his reach”, for not being satisfied with scholarship, but desiring “magic”. Most importantly, we, the audience, know all about Faustus’ fate even before we see the protagonist for the first time, and this, ladies and gentlemen / boys and girls, is a prime example of dramatic irony.
A View from the Bridge, Arthur Miller
Here’s another example, taken from A View from the Bridge (1955) by the exam board-loved Arthur Miller.
At the start of the play, a character named Alfieri enters the scene. He’s a lawyer in his fifties, described in the stage directions as “portly, good-humoured, and thoughtful”. Immediately, he “speaks to the audience”, which tells you that he’s performing the conventional ‘Chorus’ role one finds in Greek drama (and in ‘Doctor Faustus’).
While he begins his speech by telling us about his roots as an Italian immigrant in America, and the differences between how people behave in Sicily and in New York, he ends by referring to a special case he had come across – that of Eddie Carbone, the longshoreman protagonist of the play:
“… who have I dealt with in my life? Longshoremen and their wives, and fathers and grandfathers, compensation cases, evictions, family squabbles – the petty troubles of the poor – and yet… every few years there is still a case, and as the parties tell me what the trouble is, the flat air in my office suddenly washes in with the green scent of the sea, the dust in this air is blown away and the thought comes that in some Caesar’s year, in Calabria perhaps or on the cliff at Syracuse, another lawyer, quite differently dressed, heard the same complaint and sat there as powerless as I, and watched it run its bloody course.
[At this point, the character Eddie appears on stage]
This one’s name was Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman working the docks from Brooklyn Bridge to the breakwater where the open sea begins.”
From Alfieri’s remark of “watching it run its bloody course”, we can infer that some form of violence, carnage or tragic end awaits Eddie in the play. And like Alfieri, we will also be watching Eddie’s fate “run its bloody course”, as we sit through the play’s performance (or read through the script).
Again, all this we know even before the protagonist Eddie Carbone appears before our eyes. It is also telling that he should appear immediately after Alfieri makes the ‘run its bloody course’ reference. Perhaps this renders the connection between what will happen and the visualisation of who it will happen to all the starker, all the more impactful.
I hope this post somewhat clarifies for you what irony means and what different types of irony look like in literature (and in real life).
Otherwise, I will have ironically failed at my job as a self-professed lang and lit expert… (and message me here so I can redeem myself and explain in more detail!)