ironic by Lindsay Mound

Irony is when something happens that is opposite from what is expected. In literature, it is sometimes used for comedic effect, but it is also used in tragedies. There are many types of irony, such as ‘dramatic irony’ (when the audience knows something is going to happen on stage that the characters on stage do not), ‘Socratic irony’ (when a teacher feigns ignorance to his students), ‘cosmic irony’ (when something that everyone thinks will happen actually happens very differently — as opposed to ‘situational irony’ that only affects a small group or individual), ‘verbal irony’ (an absence of expression and intention or the use of sarcasm), and ‘ironic fate’ (misfortune as the result of fate or chance).

The word ‘irony’ comes from Ancient Greek (‘eironeia’: ‘dissimulation, feigned ignorance’), in specific terms it is a rhetorical device, literary technique, or event characterized by an incongruity, or contrast, between what the expectations of a situation are and what is really the case, with a third element, that defines that what is really the case is ironic because of the situation that led to it. Verbal, dramatic, and situational irony are often used to underscore the assertion of a truth. The ironic form of simile, used in sarcasm, and some forms of litotes (understatement used to emphasize a point by denying the opposite) can highlight one’s meaning by the deliberate use of language which states the opposite of the truth, denies the contrary of the truth, or drastically and obviously understates a factual connection.

Henry Watson Fowler, in ‘The King’s English,’ says ‘any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.’ Also, Eric Partridge, in ‘Usage and Abusage,’ writes that ‘Irony consists in stating the contrary of what is meant.’ The use of irony may require the concept of a double audience (one party in the know and one not). Fowler’s ‘A Dictionary of Modern English Usage’ says: ‘Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more and of the outsiders’ incomprehension.’

The term is sometimes used as a synonym for ‘incongruous’ and applied to ‘every trivial oddity’ in situations where there is no double audience. An example of such usage is: English composer Arthur Sullivan, whose real interest was, ironically, serious music, which he composed with varying degrees of success, but who achieved fame for his comic opera scores rather than for his more earnest efforts. The American Heritage Dictionary ’​s secondary meaning for irony is in fact, ‘incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.’ This sense, however, is not synonymous with ‘incongruous’ but merely a definition of dramatic or situational irony. It is often included in definitions of irony not only that incongruity is present but also that the incongruity must reveal some aspect of human vanity or folly. Thus the majority of the dictionary’s usage panel found it unacceptable to use the word ironic to describe mere unfortunate coincidences or surprising disappointments that ‘suggest no particular lessons.’ On this aspect, the Oxford English Dictionary describes the term as, ‘A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.’

The term ‘irony’ has its roots in the Greek comic character Eiron, a clever underdog who by his wit repeatedly triumphs over the boastful character Alazon. The Socratic irony of the Platonic dialogues derives from this comic origin. According to English rhetorician Richard Whately: ‘Aristotle mentions Eironeia, which in his time was commonly employed to signify, not according to the modern use of ‘Irony, saying the contrary to what is meant’, but, what later writers usually express by Litotes, i.e. ‘saying less than is meant” The word came into English as a figure of speech in the 16th century as similar to the French ‘ironie.’

Verbal irony is distinguished from situational irony and dramatic irony in that it is produced intentionally by speakers. For instance, if a man exclaims, ‘I’m not upset!’ but reveals an upset emotional state through his voice while truly trying to claim he’s not upset, it would not be verbal irony by virtue of its verbal manifestation (it would, however, be situational irony). But if the same speaker said the same words and intended to communicate that he was upset by claiming he was not, the utterance would be verbal irony. This distinction illustrates an important aspect of verbal irony—speakers communicate implied propositions that are intentionally contradictory to the propositions contained in the words themselves. There are, however, examples of verbal irony that do not rely on saying the opposite of what one means, and there are cases where all the traditional criteria of irony exist and the utterance is not ironic. In a clear example from literature, in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar,’ Mark Antony’s speech after the assassination of Caesar appears to praise the assassins, particularly Brutus (‘But Brutus says he was ambitious; / And Brutus is an honorable man’), while actually condemning them. ‘We’re left in no doubt as to who’s ambitious and who’s honorable. The literal truth of what’s written clashes with the perceived truth of what’s meant to revealing effect, which is irony in a nutshell.’

Ironic similes are a form of verbal irony where a speaker intends to communicate the opposite of what they mean (e.g. ‘as soft as concrete,’ ‘as clear as mud,’ ‘as fun as a root canal,’ or ‘as pleasant and relaxed as a coiled rattlesnake’ — from Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Breakfast of Champions’). The irony is recognizable in each case only by using knowledge of the source concepts (e.g., that mud is opaque, that root canal surgery is painful) to detect an incongruity. Because there is some overlap in the two concepts, a fair amount of confusion has surrounded the issue regarding the relationship between verbal irony and sarcasm. Fowler’s states: ‘Sarcasm does not necessarily involve irony and irony has often no touch of sarcasm.’ This suggests that the two concepts are linked but may be considered separately. The OED entry for sarcasm does not mention irony, but the irony entry reads: ‘A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.’ Partridge separated the two forms of speech completely: ‘Irony must not be confused with sarcasm, which is direct: sarcasm means precisely what it says, but in a sharp, caustic, … manner.’

Psychologist Rod A. Martin, in ‘The psychology of humor,’ is quite clear that irony is where ‘the literal meaning is opposite to the intended’; and sarcasm is ‘aggressive humor that pokes fun.’ He has the following examples: For irony he uses the statement ‘What a nice day’ when it is raining. For sarcasm, he cites Winston Churchill, who is supposed to have said, when told by Bessie Braddock that he was drunk, ‘But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly,’ as being sarcastic, while not saying the opposite of what is intended. Psychology researchers Lee and Katz (1998) have addressed the issue directly. They found that ridicule is an important aspect of sarcasm, but not of verbal irony in general. By this account, sarcasm is a particular kind of personal criticism leveled against a person or group of persons that incorporates verbal irony. For example, a woman reports to her friend that rather than going to a medical doctor to treat her cancer, she has decided to see a spiritual healer instead. In response her friend says sarcastically, ‘Oh, brilliant, what an ingenious idea, that’s really going to cure you.’ The friend could have also replied with any number of ironic expressions that should not be labeled as sarcasm exactly, but still have many shared elements with sarcasm.

Most instances of verbal irony are labeled by research subjects as sarcastic, suggesting that the term sarcasm is more widely used than its technical definition suggests it should be. Some psycholinguistic theorists suggest that sarcasm (‘Great idea,’ ‘I hear they do fine work’), hyperbole (‘that’s the best idea I have heard in years’), understatement (‘sure, what the hell, it’s only cancer…’), rhetorical questions (‘what, does your spirit have cancer?’), double entendre (‘I’ll bet if you do that, you’ll be communing with spirits in no time…’) and jocularity (‘get them to fix your bad back while you’re at it’) should all be considered forms of verbal irony. The differences between these rhetorical devices (tropes) can be quite subtle and relate to typical emotional reactions of listeners, and the rhetorical goals of the speakers. Regardless of the various ways theorists categorize figurative language types, people in conversation who are attempting to interpret speaker intentions and discourse goals do not generally identify, by name, the kinds of tropes used.

Dramatic irony is characterized by giving the spectator an item of information that at least one of the characters in the narrative is unaware of (at least consciously), thus placing the spectator a step ahead of at least one of the characters. The OED describes it as: ‘the incongruity created when the (tragic) significance of a character’s speech or actions is revealed to the audience but unknown to the character concerned; the literary device so used, orig. in Greek tragedy.’ Dramatic irony has three stages—installation, exploitation, and resolution (often also called preparation, suspension, and resolution) —producing dramatic conflict in what one character relies or appears to rely upon, the contrary of which is known by observers (especially the audience; sometimes to other characters within the drama) to be true. In summary, it means that the reader/watcher/listener knows something that one or more of the characters in the piece is not aware of.

For example: In ‘North by Northwest,’ the audience knows that Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is not Kaplan; Vandamm (James Mason) and his accomplices do not. The audience also knows that Kaplan is a fictitious agent invented by the CIA; Roger (initially) and Vandamm (throughout) do not. In ‘Oedipus the King,’ the audience knows that Oedipus himself is the murderer that he is seeking; Oedipus, Creon and Jocasta do not. In ‘Othello,’ the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful to Othello, but Othello does not, and the audience also knows that Iago is scheming to bring about Othello’s downfall, a fact hidden from Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Roderigo. In ‘The Truman Show,’ the viewer is aware that Truman is on a television show, but Truman himself only gradually learns this. In ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the audience knows that Juliet is already married to Romeo, but her family does not. Also, in the crypt, most of the other characters in the cast think Juliet is dead, but the audience knows she only took a sleeping potion. Romeo is also under the same misapprehension when he kills himself.

Tragic irony is a special category of dramatic irony in which the words and actions of the characters contradict the real situation, which the spectators fully realize. Ancient Greek drama was especially characterized by tragic irony because the audiences were so familiar with the legends that most of the plays dramatized. Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus the King’ provides a classic example of tragic irony at its fullest. Cultural theorist Claire Colebrook writes: ‘Tragic irony is exemplified in ancient drama … The audience watched a drama unfold, already knowing its destined outcome. … In Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus the King,’ for example, ‘we’ (the audience) can see what Oedipus is blind to. The man he murders is his father, but he does not know it.’ Further, Oedipus vows to find the murderer and curses him for the plague that he has caused, not knowing that the murderer he has cursed and vowed to find is himself.

Situational irony is a relatively modern use of the term that describes a sharp discrepancy between the expected result and actual results in a certain situation. Literary scholar Lars Elleström writes: ‘Situational irony, … is most broadly defined as a situation where the outcome is incongruous with what was expected, but it is also more generally understood as a situation that includes contradictions or sharp contrasts.’ For example: When John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, all of his shots initially missed the President; however, a bullet ricocheted off the bullet-proof Presidential limousine and struck Reagan in the chest. Thus, a vehicle made to protect the President from gunfire instead directed gunfire at him. ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ is a story whose plot revolves around situational irony. Dorothy travels to a wizard and fulfills his challenging demands to go home, before discovering she had the ability to go back home all the time. The Scarecrow longs for intelligence, only to discover he is already a genius, and the Tin Woodsman longs to be capable of love, only to discover he already has a heart. The Lion, who at first appears to be a whimpering coward, turns out to be bold and fearless. The people in Emerald City believed the Wizard to be a powerful deity, only to discover that he is a bumbling, eccentric old man with no special powers at all.

In O. Henry’s story ‘The Gift of the Magi,’ a young couple are too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts. The wife cuts off her treasured hair to sell it to a wig-maker for money to buy her husband a chain for his heirloom pocket watch. She’s shocked when she learns he had pawned his watch to buy her a set of combs for her long, beautiful, prized hair. ‘The double irony lies in the particular way their expectations were foiled.’ In the ancient Indian story of Krishna, King Kamsa is told in a prophecy that a child of his sister Devaki would kill him. To prevent this, he imprisons both Devaki and her husband Vasudeva, allowing them to live only if they hand over their children as soon as they are born. He murders nearly all of them, one by one, but the seventh and eighth children, Balarama and Krishna, are saved and raised by a royal couple, Nanda and Yashoda. After the boys grow up, Krishna eventually kills Kamsa as the prophecy foretold. Kamsa’s attempt to prevent the prophecy led to it becoming a reality. This story is similar to those in Greek mythology. Cronus prevents his wife from raising any children, but the one who ends up defeating him is Zeus, the later King of the Gods. Other similar tales in Greek Mythology include Perseus (who killed his grandfather, Acrisius by accident with a discus despite Acrisius’ attempt to avert his fate), and, more famously, Oedipus who killed his father and married his mother not knowing their relationship, due to being left to die by his father to prevent that very prophecy from occurring.

The expression cosmic irony or ‘irony of fate’ stems from the notion that the gods (or the Fates) are amusing themselves by toying with the minds of mortals with deliberate ironic intent. Closely connected with situational irony, it arises from sharp contrasts between reality and human ideals, or between human intentions and actual results. The resulting situation is poignantly contrary to what was expected or intended. According to Literary scholar Sudhir Dixit, ‘Cosmic irony is a term that is usually associated with [Thomas] Hardy. … There is a strong feeling of a hostile deus ex machina in Hardy’s novels.’ In ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ ‘there are several instances of this type of irony.’ Hardy’s writing often explore what he called the ‘ache of modernism,’ and this theme is notable in ‘Tess,’ which, as one critic noted, portrays ‘the energy of traditional ways and the strength of the forces that are destroying them.’

When history is seen through modern eyes, there often appear sharp contrasts between the way historical figures see their world’s future and what actually transpires. For example, during the 1920s ‘The New York Times’ repeatedly scorned crossword puzzles. In 1924, it lamented ‘the sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern.’ In 1925 it said ‘the question of whether the puzzles are beneficial or harmful is in no urgent need of an answer. The craze evidently is dying out fast.’ Today, no US newspaper is more closely identified with the crossword than ‘The New York Times.’ In a more tragic example of historical irony, what people now refer to as ‘The First World War’ was called by H.G. Wells ‘The war that will end war,’ which soon became ‘The war to end war’ and ‘The War to End All Wars,’ and this became a widespread truism, almost a cliché. Historical irony is therefore a subset of cosmic irony, but one in which the element of time is bound to play a role. Another example could be that of the Vietnam War, where in the 1960s the US attempted to stop the Viet Cong from taking over South Vietnam. However, it is an often ignored fact that, in 1941, the US originally supported them in their fight against Japanese occupation

Historical irony also includes inventors killed by their own creations, such as William Bullock, who invented the rotary printing press and was accidently killed by one—unless, due to the nature of the invention, the risk of death was always known and accepted, as in the case of Otto Lilienthal, who was killed by flying a glider of his own devising. In certain kinds of situational or historical irony, a factual truth is highlighted by some person’s complete ignorance of it or his belief in its opposite. However, this state of affairs does not occur by human design. In some religious contexts, such situations have been seen as the deliberate work of Divine Providence to emphasize truths and to taunt humans for not being aware of them when they could easily have been enlightened (this is similar to human use of irony). Such ironies are often more evident, or more striking, when viewed retrospectively in the light of later developments which make the truth of past situations obvious to all.

Other prominent examples of outcomes now seen as poignantly contrary to expectation include: In the ‘Dred Scott v. Sandford’ ruling in 1856, the United States Supreme Court held that the Fifth Amendment barred any law that would deprive a slaveholder of his property, such as his slaves, upon the incidence of migration into free territory. So, in a sense, the Supreme Court used the Bill of Rights to deny rights to slaves. Also, chief justice Taney hoped that the decision would resolve the slavery issue, but instead it helped cause the American Civil War. John F. Kennedy’s last conversation was ironic in light of events which followed seconds later. During the motorcade in Dallas, in response to Mrs. Connolly’s comment, ‘Mr. President, you can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you,’ Kennedy replied, ‘That’s very obvious,’ moments before he was shot. In 1974, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission had to recall 80,000 of its own lapel buttons promoting ‘toy safety,’ because the buttons had sharp edges, used lead paint, and had small clips that could be broken off and subsequently swallowed. Introducing cane toads to Australia to control the cane beetle not only failed to control the pest, but introduced, in the toads themselves, a very much worse pest. This irony is exemplified by the song ‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,’ in which the lady swallows a fly, and then swallows a spider to catch the fly, and so on with larger and larger animals, until she dies. Kudzu is a vine imported to the United States in the 1930s and planted all over the South at the direction of the federal government to prevent soil erosion. Instead of preventing erosion, however, it climbs and chokes native trees and plants, thus causing even more erosion.

Irony is often used in literature to produce a comic effect. This may also be combined with satire. For instance, an author may facetiously state something as a well-known fact and then demonstrate through the narrative that the fact is untrue. Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ begins with the proposition ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ In fact, it soon becomes clear that Austen means the opposite: women (or their mothers) are always in search of, and desperately on the lookout for, a rich single man to make a husband. The irony deepens as the story promotes this romance and ends in a double marriage proposal. ‘Austen’s comic irony emerges out of the disjunction between Elizabeth’s overconfidence (or pride) in her perceptions of Darcy and the narrator’s indications that her views are in fact partial and prejudicial.’

Romantic irony is ‘an attitude of detached skepticism adopted by an author towards his or her work, typically manifesting in literary self-consciousness and self-reflection.’ This conception of irony originated with the German Romantic writer and critic Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel. Referring to earlier self-conscious works such as ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘Tristram Shandy,’ professor of literature Douglas Muecke points particularly to Peter Weiss’s 1964 play, ‘Marat/Sade.’ This work is a play within a play set in a lunatic asylum, in which it is difficult to tell whether the players are speaking only to other players or also directly to the audience. When The Herald says, ‘The regrettable incident you’ve just seen was unavoidable indeed foreseen by our playwright,’ there is confusion as to who is being addressed, the ‘audience’ on the stage or the audience in the theater. Also, since the play within the play is performed by the inmates of a lunatic asylum, the audience cannot tell whether the paranoia displayed before them is that of the players, or the people they are portraying. Muecke notes that, ‘in America, Romantic irony has had a bad press,’ while ‘in England … [it] is almost unknown.’

The Socratic method is ‘The dissimulation of ignorance practiced by Socrates as a means of confuting an adversary.’ Socrates would pretend to be ignorant of the topic under discussion, to draw out the inherent nonsense in the arguments of his interlocutors. ‘The Chambers Dictionary’ defines it as ‘a means by which a questioner pretends to know less than a respondent, when actually he knows more.’ Zoe Williams of ‘The Guardian’ wrote: ‘The technique [of Socratic irony], demonstrated in the Platonic dialogues, was to pretend ignorance and, more sneakily, to feign credence in your opponent’s power of thought, in order to tie him in knots.’ A more modern example of Socratic irony can be seen on the American crime fiction television film series, ‘Columbo.’ The protagonist Lt. Columbo is seemingly naïve and incompetent. His untidy appearance adds to this fumbling illusion. As a result, he is underestimated by the suspects in murder cases he is investigating. With their guard down and their false sense of confidence, Lt. Columbo is able to solve the cases leaving the murderers feeling duped and outwitted.

The 1990s saw an expansion of the definition of irony from ‘saying what one doesn’t mean’ into a ‘general stance of detachment from life in general.’ This detachment served as a shield against the awkwardness of everyday life. Humor from that era (most notably ‘Seinfeld’) relies on the audience watching the show with some detachment from the show’s typical signature awkward situations. The generation of people in the United States who grew up in the 90s (Millennials) are seen as having this same sort of detachment from serious or awkward situations in life as well. Hipsters are thought of as using irony as a shield against those same serious or genuine confrontations.

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