3 Types of Irony in Literature (and How to Write About Them)

Ever sign into Facebook only to see that your BFF posted a long rant about how much he hates Facebook?

The fact that he’s using Facebook to complain about how much he hates Facebook is a clear example of irony.

Locating examples of irony in literature, though, may not be so obvious. You might need to brush up on your literary analysis skills in order to write an ironclad paper about irony.

To help you out, here are three types of irony you’ll find in literature, ideas on how to write about irony in literature, and a few examples of where you might spot irony in your reading assignments.

Ready to do battle with irony? Don your armor, and let us begin!

irony in literature

3 Types of Irony in Literature (and How to Write About Them)

Irony can be defined as a situation that’s different than anticipated or as using words in a way that differs from their intended meanings.

Situational, dramatic, and verbal irony are the basic forms of irony in literature you’ll see most often.

Though it’s not always as obvious as using Facebook to complain about Facebook, irony does force you, as a reader, to look more deeply into the meaning of the text to fully appreciate it.

Situational irony

Situational irony occurs when an event turns out to be significantly different than what you expected. It’s sort of like the twist at the end of a movie.

Imagine looking out your dorm window to see a fellow student walking through the courtyard after a torrential rain. She’s wearing sandals and steps carefully around each puddle to avoid getting wet.

But she’s so concerned with looking down to avoid puddles that she forgets to look up and walks right under an awning that drenches her with rainwater as she walks by. It’s ironic that she tried so hard to stay dry but got soaked anyway.

In literature, you’ll find situational irony in the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. When you read the title, you generally think of a parent asking a child about her actions and who she plans to be with.

Ironically, Connie’s parents don’t seem too concerned with where she goes or who she goes with. The result: Connie ends up in a dangerous situation with an adult man and is likely raped.

Another example is the novel Animal Farm. The animals of the farm take over the farm so that they can run it as they see fit. They abhor the way people run things. Ironically enough, the animals end up acting just like people—and even worse in some situations.

What to look for when identifying situational irony:

  • As you read, try to predict the plot. Does the storyline progress as you think it would, or are you surprised by twists and turns throughout? If situations are different than you thought they’d be, this will likely be situational irony.
  • Remember, situational irony doesn’t necessarily only appear over the entire plot. Look for irony in specific scenes. (This is true whether you’re reading a poem, short story, play, or novel.)

Interested in reading one writer’s analysis of situational irony? Read An Analysis of Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace.

Dramatic irony

irony in literature

Dramatic irony is, as you would suspect, common in works of drama, specifically tragedies. In dramatic irony, the reader is aware of an event or situation that may harm or otherwise negatively affect a character, but the character is completely oblivious to it.

Dramatic irony can build suspense and hold readers’ interest because readers want to see whether the character learns the information that they (the readers) already know or whether the lack of information will be the downfall of the character.

Pretend you’re sitting in a classroom listening to a very serious professor give a very serious lecture about the Vietnam War. The professor is careful with every word because the dean of the department is sitting in the back of the classroom.

As a student, you can see that the small sign behind him clearly indicates that the wall has been freshly painted. The professor is facing the class, however, and doesn’t see the sign until he leans back, coating his new suit jacket in bright white paint.

In this case, you had knowledge that the professor did not, and you hoped that he wouldn’t walk into wet paint while the dean was there observing.

A more intense version of dramatic irony can be found in the play A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. The audience knows that Nora forged her father’s signature to help save her husband’s life, yet her husband, Torvald, does not.

Readers continue reading in anticipation to see whether Torvald will find out Nora’s secret and whether this secret will ultimately lead to her downfall and breakup of their marriage.

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What to look for when identifying dramatic irony:

  • As you read, pay attention to how information is revealed. If the story is told through an all-knowing (omniscient) narrator, readers will know every detail, but the characters will only know bits and pieces of the story.
  • Dramatic irony is also revealed through dialogue between characters. Look for characters talking about others behind their backs and dialogue that in some way advances the plot.

For a more in-depth example, read this example essay that focuses on dramatic irony: The Use of Dramatic Irony and Apostrophes in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, a Play by William Shakespeare.

Verbal irony

irony in literature

Verbal irony is a statement in which the meaning is different than the meaning the words seem to express.

Verbal irony in literature might appear as statements made by individual characters or in statements made by the narrator of the story. Such irony is often meant as a form of criticism.

Imagine moving a bunch of heavy boxes out of your dorm room. You ask a friend to help. While you’re carrying two ginormous boxes, your friend grabs a small shoe box and walks out the door. Your reply: “Thanks so much. I appreciate how hard you’re working to help me.”

While this phrase might be considered sarcastic, it’s also ironic in the sense that you were hoping he’d help with the heavy stuff, and he only grabbed a small box.

Keep in mind that verbal irony in literature doesn’t necessarily need to appear as off-handed or as a direct ironic statement. Conversations themselves may simply be ironic.

Take, for instance, the female citizens in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird

The women talk about the importance of being Christian and how they’re helping the Africans. What’s ironic about the conversation is that they’re not behaving very Christian-like because of their racist views about Tom Robinson (a member of their own community).

You’ll also see verbal irony in poetry, such as The Unknown Citizen by W.H. Auden. The entire poem is dripping with irony.

Consider the final lines of the poem:

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Here, the speaker is being ironic. The subject of the poem (the unknown citizen) isn’t necessarily happy, but it’s unlikely that he would have spoken up about his true feelings.

What to look for when identifying verbal irony:

  • Verbal irony is usually present in conversations, so dialogue is a great place to start your analysis.
  • Remember, verbal irony might also appear in the words of a narrator or in the words of a speaker in poetry.

Check out this example essay about irony for some writing inspiration.

Putting It All Together

irony in literature

Looking for a little help putting your ideas into essay format? Here are five quick tips:

  1. Take notes while you read. Don’t expect to remember every bit of irony without writing it down.
  2. Use a prewriting strategy (such as listing, freewriting, or outlining) to organize your ideas.
  3. Create a strong thesis statement to focus your paper.
  4. Use solid evidence to support your arguments.
  5. Revise and edit your essay.

Need a little more help with literary analysis? I recommend reading these posts:

If you’re weary from the battle and desperately need someone to rescue you, have no fear—a valiant and brave knight in shining Kibin armor can help you polish your masterpiece to perfection.

Good luck, and happy writing!

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