A Guide to Irony

By Vruba, 4 October 2004

It’s fashionable to chew on people for supposedly misusing irony. I’m going to give it a shot anyway. I’d say irony comes in two kinds, dramatic and verbal, each with a popular sub-kind, but every instance is identified by unexpectedness and a sense of working against oneself.

Dramatic or tragic irony

is when the audience watches a character confidently misinterpret the situation and work toward their own harm. This happens a lot in Sophocles and Douglas Adams. But remember that someone coming to harm, even deliberate harm, may be mere horror; irony requires the illusion of control. Someone falling out of a tree is slapstick – coming up with a plan to build a ladder and carefully sawing off their own limb is irony.

Situational irony is a sort of dramatic irony where we think of ourselves as observing real life the way we do fiction. Dying in an ambulance, say, is a simple misfortune with an obvious explanation (people in ambulances are often in ill health). Being hit by an ambulance might be ironic, but it’s probably just a coincidence: it doesn’t have that painful recursiveness to clinch it. An ambulance responding to a 911 call, swerving to miss an uninvolved bystander who immediately dies of a heart attack, and running over the original caller only to find they were trying to dial 411 – that’s situational irony. (If you can think of a better example, please think of that instead.)

Verbal irony

is like sarcasm directed to an audience other than the obvious one. If you pretend to take a Jehova’s Witness seriously in order to amuse other unbelievers, you’re being verbally ironic. It’s regular sarcasm if you mock so obviously that the Witness notices; it’s irony when they think you’re sincere but your friends are laughing up their sleeves. Likewise, carrying on a conversation with a pompous authority while using innocuous-sounding slang for sexual perversions can be ironic. Dry humor and dinner-table wit often use this kind of irony.

Socratic irony is when a wise person pretends to be ignorant and asks questions of an ignorant person as though they were wise, as Socrates did in his dialogs. The aim is to draw the interlocutor out until their argument, expounded upon and taken to an extreme, is obviously absurd. The irony is in the subject’s sense that they’re teaching when they’re actually showing ignorance.

two criteria for irony

  1. Unexpectedness. At the end of the story, a tragic hero shouldn’t just remark golly, I was wrong about that – he should be more like Ah me! ah me! all brought to pass, all true! O light, may I behold thee nevermore! I stand a wretch, in birth, in wedlock cursed, a parricide, incestuously, triply cursed! and poke out his eyes. In classical irony the hero often knew his doom precisely but thought he’d avoided it. Similarly, it’s usually not ironic to die of chemotherapy instead of cancer, because (however pathetic) it’s an obvious risk.

  2. A sense of working against oneself. Something bad happening to you is never ironic by itself – only if you caused it, chose it, or thought you had avoided it. And if something happens that would be ironic if it were bad, but which is actually pleasant or neutral, it’s merely fitting, lucky, poetically just, or something like that. It’s silly to say ironically, after her long and happy life as an explorer of Africa and Antarctica, she died in the Ohio town she grew up in or even she died the year before she was to retire. Mere unpleasant surprises can approach irony, but if they don’t have the sort of sting that an audience would darkly enjoy, they aren’t quite there.

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