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Teaching Irony in Literature: A Review

written by: Jessica Cook • edited by: Trent Lorcher • updated: 1/17/2012

Review the types of irony found in literature in order to be prepared to teach irony in your English lesson plans. Works with middle school or high school literature, in any story, book, or poem containing irony.

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    Isn't it ironic when a teacher can't quite remember the things she's supposed to be able to teach her students? It happens to me all the time - hey, "I'm an English geek, Jim, not a magician!" (That'd be a Star Trek reference, for those of you whose geekery only extends to English topics.) But I digress.

    The topic of this article is irony, particularly the types of irony found in literature. If your knowledge of irony involves humming an Alanis Morisette song in your head, then maybe it's time you gave yourself a refresher. Read on, my friends, and prepare to teach your students all about irony in the next piece of literature you assign. I promise not to tell them you had to look it up first.

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    Verbal Irony

    Verbal irony is my absolute favorite; sometimes it is referred to as sarcasm, though they are not always one and the same. Verbal irony is when someone says the opposite of what they really mean. For example:

    Joey: "Mrs. Cook, you must really love grading papers, huh?"

    Mrs. Cook: "Oh, yes, Joey, it's my number one thrill in life."

    Mrs. Cook gives us an example of verbal irony here, when she sarcastically tells Joey that she loves grading papers, when in reality she loathes it.

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    Dramatic Irony

    In dramatic irony, the audience knows more about what's going on in a story than the characters do. The characters may say things that are ironic to the audience, because of what they know.

    The classic example of this irony occurs in Romeo and Juliet, when the audience knows that Juliet isn't really dead, but Romeo doesn't know. So his suicide becomes an example of dramatic irony since he killed himself for nothing over a misunderstanding.

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    Situational Irony

    Situational irony occurs when the outcome of a situation is the opposite of what you expected it to be.

    An example of this occurs in one of my children's favorite books, Walter the Farting Dog (Try this lesson plan for analyzing humor and irony in literature). Walter is a dog with a huge problem with flatulence. Though the children love him, their parents want to get rid of him, as they are tired of having his stench lingering around the house. In the end, Walter's farts actually save the family from being robbed blind, and he turns out to be a hero so they keep him. It is ironic that the very thing that almost got Walter evicted turned out to be his saving grace.

    Now go, you irony experts, and teach a future generation!

    (If you need help, check out this list of short stories for teaching irony).