Generally speaking, irony is a reversal of expectation or discrepancy in understanding. In literature, irony helps to explain what is and what seems to be. Here are five common types of irony:

1. Verbal (or Communicative) Irony: This irony comes from saying or communicating the opposite of what is truly meant; sarcasm is the most common example, but verbal irony isn't always sarcastic.

  • It's pouring rain outside. You remark, “Nice day.”
  • You see a 7 foot tall person, and say, “Hi, Shorty!”
  • Juliet: "I will not marry yet; and, when I do, I swear it shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate, rather than Paris". Well, she's already married Romeo.
  • A person hits a home run. You comment that it's “not a bad hit.” [This kind of verbal irony, called understatement, was a favourite of my father!]
    • A type of understatement that uses pleasant words and phrases to cover up the harsh reality of existence is the euphemism.
  • "I could eat a horse!” [This kind of verbal irony, called hyperbole, is a favourite of my children!]
  • Related to communicative irony is paradox. Here's Orwell's famous example: "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." It seems contradictory, but it does make sense if you think about the context of the narrative.

2. Situational Irony: This occurs when surprising details, often revealed near the end of a narrative, are unexpected or contradictory.

  • A fireman’s house burning down
  • An uncoordinated dance instructor
  • An Olympic swimmer who drowns.
  • A marriage counselor who's been divorced three times
  • Alanis Morissette: "It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife."

3. Dramatic Irony: It's the contrast between what one character says and what the reader or viewer knows to be true. For example, in a horror movie, you should never go to the bathroom yourself. The effect is to help the reader know the truth.

  • Little Red Riding Hood - Red Riding Hood does not know who she’s talking to, but the reader does.
  • The 2 stepsisters don’t know what happened to Cinderella at the ball, but their subsequent insults contrast strongly with what we know.

4. Cosmic Irony (i.e. Irony of Fate): It is the discrepancy between personal desires and the harsh limits of a predestined world.

  • Romeo and Juliet are destined - as "star crossed lovers" - to experience a brief and tragic marriage. When Romeo shouts out "I defy you stars," you know he's in trouble.
  • Existentialists like Camus point to the meaninglessness of human existence; against the absurdity of seeking meaning in a meaningless world, one must overcome this irony with the courage to make meaning, not find it.

5. Visual Irony: Photographers know that by framing contrasting elements within an image (via juxtaposition), they can create a highly ironic effect.


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