Irony (Greek: “feigned ignorance,” “dissimulation”)
Much has been said about how language can be used in a positive capacity to create imaginary worlds and new ideas. Often, though, literature says something about life through the act of negatively stating the opposite of what is really meant.
Let us reiterate. Simply explained, representation has to do with creating the illusion of a world through some form of verbal description; simile works through comparisons; metaphor combines two elements without asserting comparison and yet somehow creates something greater than the sum of its parts; metonynmy is a different form of approximation based on contiguity of experience; and, finally, synecdoche relies on one part stading in for the whole or vice-versa.
Irony, by contrast, is usually defined as some sort of incongruence between what is being stated and what is really meant. But there are many ways of creating such a contrast, many reasons for doing it, and many possible outcomes.
Types of irony
There are numerous types and sub-types of irony; these very few examples are merely provided to give a taster of how irony functions in works of literature.
Verbal irony is where the meaning is sharply different from its expression. Verbal irony is intentional on behalf of its speaker, and its purpose is often to be sarcastic. “No, it’s fine, I love doing the dishes!” could be an example of this in a given context where the speaker actually hates washing up.
M. H. Abrams provides an example of verbal irony used to humorous effect:
A more complex instance of irony is the famed sentence with which Jane Austen opens Pride and Prejudice (1813): “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possesion of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”; part of the ironic implication is that a single woman is in want of a rich husband.
More precisely, this is irony used in the service of satire. Austen pretends that there are rich men everywhere looking for wives, whilst in reality women’s situation in the early nineteenth century was one without financial or personal freedom or agency. So, it’s not just that the opposite of the literal meaning of the sentence is true, but that this is also an injustice and a societal problem. The ironic effect is clearly intentional, and we don’t have to ask Jane Austen for confirmation (her passing in 1817 would make it very difficult to do so). We merely need to look at what is stated and compare it to what must surely be true: that women need rich husbands because society will not allow them any private means of income.
Structural irony is when an entire work of literature relies on an ironic incongruence to create its effect. In order for structural irony to work, three elements need to come into play: an author (or, more precisely, implied author) who intends the irony; a reader, who understands it; and a speaker who has no clue that irony is at play and does not intend it. A naïve and ignorant third person narrator might completely misrepresent what is going on in the story, to comically ironic effect, as long as the reader understands what is going on. Abrams gives the example of ‘Swift’s well-meaning but insanely rational economist who writes the “Modest Proposal” (1729) to convert the excess children of the oppressed and poverty-stricken Irish into a financial and gastronomical asset’. Here we have three elements: Jonathan Swift, who wrote the work and who intended for it to be ironical; the fictional economist who suggests that it might be a financial and practical benefit to eat the children of the poor Irish; and the reader who understands that the narrator is bonkers and that the real purpose of ‘A Modest Proposal’ is a critique of English enlightenment politics.
Related to structural irony is dramatic irony in which, simply put, the readers or audience know something that the characters of the play, novel, film or TV show do not. For example, if we read in a book a pronouncement by the narrator that ‘things would not end well,’ before we see one of the characters in the novel stating that ‘I am sure everything will be fine,’ we know that this character is wrong and that dramatic irony has been activated.
Or when we have seen – for example in a horror movie – that the monster is waiting inside a closet, we will scream out in frustration when a character says ‘let’s hide in the closet – it can’t find us in there,’ because we know something they do not. Dramatic irony is often tragic, because a tragic hero by definition always on a trajectory towards an unhappy ending even though they themselves are not aware of it.
Dramatic irony has to do with what happens in a story, whereas structural irony has to do with how the story is being told.
In sum, irony is not limited to making short, sarcastic quips. In fact, irony might permeate and determine the tone and meaning of a literary work as a whole, from beginning to end.
This concludes the section on tropes and imagery. Our penultimate port of call is a short account of how we may summarize the ways in which works of literature address central issues and topics, in other words, themes and the motifs that buttress them. Alternatively, you may head back to the overview page.
Next: Theme and Motif