Finding Irony in Literature: Study Tips

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So, your English teacher wants you to be able to show her examples of the irony you find in the literature you read. If you’re not a pro at finding irony in literature, don’t worry. That’s what this study guide is here for.

Read it over and refresh your memory about all the ways you can find irony in literature. You’ll sound like an expert the next time your teacher calls on you.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is when someone says the opposite of what they really mean. This happens all the time in high school, as I’m sure you’re aware. For example: Scott: “Hey, Allison, do you want to go out with me on Friday?” Allison: “Oh, sure, Scott. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.” (Makes vomit motion with finger in mouth.)

Here, Allison displays verbal irony when she tells Scott she’d love to date him. Her words say one thing, but her actions say another. Also, if you could hear the sarcastic tone in her voice, you’d hear that she doesn’t really mean what she says. Scott will have to keep on lookin’ if he wants a date for this Friday.

Dramatic Irony

In dramatic irony, the audience knows more about what’s going on in a story than the characters do. The audience is able to see the irony in the situation even if the characters can’t, because they know more than the characters know.

An example of this happens in O. Henry’s classic Christmas tale, “The Gift of the Magi.” Perhaps you’ve seen a version of this tale in another movie as well (such as in “Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas”). In this story, Jim wants to buy something special for his wife, Della, for Christmas. Della wants to do the same for Jim.

The only problem is, they’re both flat broke. So Jim decides to sell his gold watch to buy combs for Della’s long hair. Della, in turn, cuts off her hair and sells the locks in order to buy a chain for Jim’s gold watch. The reader gets to see this irony as it unfolds, but the characters don’t find out until Christmas morning when they open their gifts.

Situational Irony

Situational irony occurs when the outcome of a situation is the opposite of what you expected it to be. Perhaps you planned a special date for a girlfriend and she chose that particular evening to tell you she was dumping you, for instance. In literature, this happens when a character hatches a plan and it turns out all wrong (but sometimes ends up right in the end). Or when a character’s flaws turn out to be the cause of his redemption in the end of a story.

Another example might be that a character who seems like a really good guy turns out to be completely evil. I’m sure you’ve experienced this in the hallways of your high school as well. In any case, now you’re all equipped to wow your English teacher with your ironic prowess. Now go, read a book or something!