Irony: Definition, Types, and Examples

Updated on January 27, 2017
What do I do here? I'll just stand here quivering then.
What do I do here? I'll just stand here quivering then.

It is ironic that several of America’s Founding Fathers, who believed that all men were created equal, owned slaves. It is ironic that many people believe Columbus discovered America when Native Americans already inhabited North America. It is ironic that Julius Caesar’s closest “friends” assassinated him. It is ironic that the sports teams with the biggest payrolls and usually the best talent don’t always win championships.

What exactly do we mean by the word “ironic?"

Irony is a “statement or action whose apparent meaning is underlain by a contrary meaning.” When something ironic happens, it occurs in the opposite way we expect it to happen. Many writers use irony in their work, and some are more ironic than others are, especially in their endings.

In “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin, Mrs. Mallard dreams of a life without her husband. We expect Mrs. Mallard’s husband to have met his demise in a train wreck, yet Mrs. Mallard herself has a heart attack from “the joy that kills” at the end of the short story when her husband arrives home unscathed. It is ironic, then, that the woman who wishes her husband dead is dead from the “joy” of seeing him alive.

Nice shooting! I mean, no shooting!
Nice shooting! I mean, no shooting!

Seven Main Types of Irony

1. Verbal or Rhetorical Irony

We use this when what we say is not what we mean. We trip up a set of stairs, and we say to ourselves, “Smooth move.” We step in something untoward and gooey, and our friend says, “That was brilliant!” In the play, 12 Angry Men, one of the jurors yells, “I’m gonna kill him!” though he does not intend to do so. How many of us have said, “Oh, I just love fill-in-the-blank,” when loving is most likely the furthest thing from our minds concerning fill-in-the-blank? We are an ironic species. We like to say what we don’t mean, mainly for effect. “I could have died!” we might shout. Those around us are thinking ... Really?

2. Structural Irony, or Irony of the Situation

This is the difference between what we expect to happen and what actually happens. After her husband becomes king, Lady Macbeth expects wealth, prestige, and glory, yet sleepwalking, guilt and obsessive-compulsive behavior plague her because of all that blood. In your school, an attractive girl dates a not-so-attractive boy. Many couples in real life simply don’t have the “expected” look. The smaller, less-talented team in the movie Hoosiers wins the state basketball title. In many films, we think a certain character just has to be the villain because he or she is so villainous, yet in the end, we learn it was someone else. In life, we would find it ironic that a millionaire can’t secure a credit card because he or she has never been in debt. Simply read the newspaper, and you will see headlines abounding in the irony of a situation. For more examples, look at the graphics accompanying this article.

It's a good thing they put up that new building to hide all that trash.
It's a good thing they put up that new building to hide all that trash.

3. Conscious Irony

Characters recognize this, which is somewhat similar to sarcasm. Characters know they’re being ironic, and they usually make no bones about it. Mark Antony repeatedly uses the word “honorable” in his funeral oration to describe the conspirators who killed Julius Caesar. After a while, “honorable” becomes a despicable word. After a poor outing, our coaches might say, “That was the best game you’ve ever played in your entire lives.” Parents sometimes say to their children, “Oh, right, you’ve done all of your homework, and you’ve done it so well. I am positive you’ll get high marks for all ten minutes of your labors.” We sometimes refer to those who are consciously ironic as sarcastic. Many parents (and some teachers), then, are incurably sarcastic and occasionally witty.

4. Unconscious Irony

The audience recognizes this kind of irony, but not the characters. Othello calls his betrayer Iago “honest” throughout the play, when we all know Iago is anything but honest. King Duncan has kind comments about Macbeth’s castle, the place where his hosts will murder him later that night. Our friend says, “I know he only thinks about me,” when we’ve just seen him with another girl. We may overhear someone say, “This day can’t possibly get any worse.” Because we’re sarcastically ironic, we know from experience that indeed it probably will.

5. Tragic or Dramatic Irony

The audience knows much more than the characters do in this . If it weren’t for this type of irony, soap operas, horror stories, “slasher” films and murder mysteries would have trouble keeping our attention. In Oedipus, we know our hero is doomed from the start. Oedipus, though, thinks he leads a charmed life. We also know many of the passengers on the Titanic are doomed the second they step on the ship. We still watch, though, because we enjoy watching trains wreck, planes crash, and boats sink magnificently. The average soap opera fan knows who the father of the baby is long before the DNA test comes back. If dramatic irony is done well, the reader or viewer usually talks back to the page or the screen, something along the lines of, “Look behind you! The killer is right behind you! Are you blind?” In Oedipus' case, of course, he is blind.

I understand what this sign means, but does it really mean what it's saying?
I understand what this sign means, but does it really mean what it's saying?

6. Socratic Irony

When characters use this, they act ignorant and ask many innocent questions to expose flaws in their opponents’ views. Good detectives (like TV’s Columbo or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes), lawyers, and even parents use this kind of irony well. We’ve come home late, and our parents know exactly where we were. The questions they ask, however, don’t give us a single clue that they know the truth. “So, when did you leave the movie theater? Uh huh. And how long was the movie? Oh, yes. You did tell me that. And you said that a train stopped your progress on Fifth Street for half an hour? Oh, I see. Quite a long train. You had to wait for the caboose, didn’t you? And you forgot your watch, did you? The clock in your car wasn’t working either? How dreadful. And there were no phones anywhere on your route? Appalling, simply appalling.” Become good at Socratic irony, and you will be able to interrogate anyone like an expert.

7. Cosmic Irony

This is when forces beyond the characters’ control perversely manipulate them. Characters, then, become no more than puppets on strings. Oedipus is doomed from birth to kill his father and marry his mother, and the more he tries to change his fate, the more quickly his fate comes true. Hektor in the Iliad is fated to die upon Achilles’ sword because of his brother’s kidnapping of Helen. The Old Man in The Old Man and the Sea is helpless in bringing home his catch thanks to the cruel realities of the sea--and some hungry sharks. Without explanation, Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphoses wakes up one morning turned into “a monstrous vermin,” and he dies a painfully slow death. Three monster storms converge on the fishermen in A Perfect Storm, and though they try heroically to break through to safety, they are unsuccessful. When cosmic irony attacks characters, they can find no safe harbor. They do their best to try to overcome their fates, and this gives them a kind of nobility.

Final Thoughts

For more ironic reading, examine masters of irony like Chopin, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Poe, Doyle, Homer, Hemingway, and Kafka. They will keep your attention, keep you in the suspense, and keep you nodding long into the night. And if you become an expert on irony and its many uses, your writing will make readers nod their heads.

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