I. What is Irony?
Irony (pronounced ‘eye-run-ee’) is when there are two contradicting meanings of the same situation, event, image, sentence, phrase, or story. In many cases, this refers to the difference between expectations and reality.
For example, if you go sight-seeing anywhere in the world today, you will see crowds of people who are so busy taking cell-phone pictures of themselves in front of the sight that they don’t actually look at what they came to see with their own eyes. This is ironic, specifically, situational irony. This one situation has two opposing meanings that contradict expectations: (1) going to see a sight and prove that you were there (2) not enjoying the thing you went to see.
Irony is often used for critical or humorous effect in literature, music, art, and film (or a lesson). In conversation, people often use verbal irony to express humor, affection, or emotion, by saying the opposite of what they mean to somebody who is expected to recognize the irony. “I hate you” can mean “I love you”—but only if the person you’re saying it to already knows that! This definition is, of course, related to the first one (as we expect people’s words to reflect their meaning) and in most cases, it can be considered a form of sarcasm.
II. Examples of Irony
A popular visual representation of irony shows a seagull sitting on top of a “no seagulls” sign. The meaning of the sign is that seagulls are not allowed in the area. The seagull sitting on the sign not only contradicts it, but calls attention to the absurdity of trying to dictate where seagulls may or may not go, which makes us laugh.
Another example is a staircase leading up to a fitness center, with an escalator running alongside it. All the gym patrons are using the escalator and no one is on the stairs. Given that this is a fitness center, we’d expect that everyone should be dedicated to health and exercise, and so they would use the free exercise offered by the stairs. But instead, they flock to the comfort of the escalator, in spite of the fact that they’ve come all this way just to exercise. Once again, our expectations are violated and the result is irony and humor.
Aleister Crowley, a famous English mystic of the early twentieth century, who taught that a person could do anything if they mastered their own mind, died of heroin addiction. This is ironic because the way he died completely contradicts what he taught.
III. The Importance of Irony
The most common purpose of irony is to create humor and/or point out the absurdity of life. As in the all of the examples above, life has a way of contradicting our expectations, often in painful ways. Irony generally makes us laugh, even when the circumstances are tragic, such as in Aleister Crowley’s failure to beat his addiction. We laugh not because the situations were tragic, but because they violate our expectations. The contrast between people’s expectations and the reality of the situations is not only funny, but also meaningful because it calls our attention to how wrong human beings can be. Irony is best when it points us towards deeper meanings of a situation.
IV. Examples of Irony in Literature
In O. Henry’s famous short story The Gift of the Magi, a husband sells his prized watch so that he can buy combs as a gift for his wife. Meanwhile, the wife sells her beautiful hair so she can buy a watch-chain for her husband. The characters’ actions contradict each other’s expectations and their efforts to give each other gifts make the gifts useless.
Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amantillado is full of verbal and situational irony, including the name of the main character. He’s called Fortunato (Italian for “fortunate”), in spite of the fact that he’s extremely unlucky throughout the story.
Water, water everywhere, nor any a drop to drink.
This line from Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” describes the dark irony of a sailor dying of thirst on his boat while he is surrounded by water.
V. Examples of Irony in Pop Culture
Alannis Morisette’s popular song “Ironic” contains such lyrics as:
Rain on your wedding day
A free ride when you’ve already paid
Good advice that you just didn’t take
These are not examples of irony. They’re just unfortunate coincidences. However, the fact that her song is called “Ironic” and yet has such unironic lyrics is itself ironic. The title contradicts the lyrics of the song. It isn’t, so your expectations are violated.
In Disney’s Aladdin, Aladdin wishes for riches and power so that he can earn the right to marry Princess Jasmine. Thanks to the genie’s magic, he gets all the wealth he could ask for and parades through the streets as a prince. But, ironically, this makes him unattractive to the princess and he finds himself further away from his goal than he was as a poor beggar. In this case, it’s the contrast between Aladdin’s expectations and results which are ironic.
Sarcasm is a kind of verbal irony that has a biting or critical tone, although it can be used to express affection between friends It is one of the most common forms of irony in fiction and in real life. We’ve all heard people use verbal irony to mock, insult, or poke fun at someone or something. For example, here’s a famous sarcastic line from The Princess Bride:
Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.
In the scene, Wesley is insulting the intelligence of Vizzini the Sicilian using verbal irony (the word “truly” makes it even more ironic, since Wesley is reassuring Vizzini of the truth of an untrue statement). The line is both ironic and mean, and therefore it’s sarcastic. One needs to be a little careful with sarcasm, since you can easily hurt people’s feelings or make them angry.