Is a veterinarian with allergies an example of irony? Not quite. What about a veterinarian who's allergic to cats? Now that's ironic.
If you're confused by irony, don't worry. Many people are! The fact that we're writing this post proves it. So today, we'll do our very best to define irony, provide some examples, and hopefully demystify it.
What Is Irony?
Since there's a great deal of confusion over irony, we thought we'd go to the New Oxford American Dictionary for help. Here are their three definitions:
"The expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect."
"A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result."
"A literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character's words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character."
These three definitions correspond to three types of irony: verbal, situational, and dramatic.
What is Verbal Irony?
As the name implies, verbal irony is often a form of wordplay. As explained by our first definition, it's an idea expressed in a manner that contradicts the intended message.
The classic animated TV series "The Simpsons" uses verbal irony regularly. For example, when Homer is accepted into Springfield University, he chants, "I am so smart! I am so smart! S-M-R-T! I am so smart!" Homer is claiming to be smart while simultaneously misspelling a simple word, therefore proving he's not especially intelligent.
When your character says something that completely contradicts their meaning, it's probably verbal irony.
What is Situational Irony?
As we see in our second definition, this form of irony is all about subverting expectations. For writers, it's often best used when you engineer a situation that contradicts the outcome your readers expect.
For example, imagine a firefighter smoking a cigarette on his break. He flicks the cigarette away without stomping it out, which ignites a nearby drapery and starts a fire. This is situational irony because the firefighter is supposed to put out fires, yet here he's starting one.
The Roald Dahl short story "Lamb to the Slaughter" presents an excellent example of situational irony (spoiler alert for those who haven't read it). It's a pretty simple story: A wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb. When detectives arrive to investigate, she cooks the lamb and feeds it to them for dinner, thereby disposing of the murder weapon and getting away with the crime.
The situational irony, of course, is that the detectives unknowingly dispose of the very murder weapon they're supposed to find. As mentioned in our second definition, this brings an amusing conclusion to the story.
What is Dramatic Irony?
As noted in our third definition, dramatic irony has existed since the days of the Ancient Greeks, perhaps most notably with Sophocles's Oedipus Rex: Oedipus's efforts to prevent his prophecy from coming true only bring him closer to his fate. When the audience knows something the characters don't, it often creates dramatic irony.
For another example from theater, take William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". In the final scene, Romeo believes Juliet is dead. To join her in the afterlife, he drinks poison. The audience, however, knows Juliet isn't really dead. They saw the scene where Friar Laurence gave her a potion that would only make her appear to be dead. Romeo dies just before Juliet awakens, creating one of the most poignant moments of dramatic irony in literature.
When set up well, this type of irony elicits a visceral response in your audience. Imagine all the people who must've shouted, "Don't do it! She's not dead!" as Romeo raised the poison to his lips.
Why Is Irony so Tricky?
Since there are many forms of irony and many ways to express each form, the exact implementation of the device is controversial. Just ask Canadian singer Alanis Morissette, who in 1996 released a song entitled "Ironic." For those who don't frequent 90s Night at their local bar, here's the first verse:
An old man turned ninety-eight / He won the lottery and died the next day / It's a black fly in your Chardonnay / It's a death row pardon two minutes too late / Isn't it ironic, don't you think?
Many have argued that the situations Morissette describes are not actually ironic. For example, there's not much verbal irony to be found with a bug in your drink. Referring back to our dictionary definition, there's no "language that normally signifies the opposite."
However, others have argued Morissette's song accurately presents several examples of situational irony. It's ironic that you'd die before you could spend money you won from the lottery. When you get a death row pardon, you expect to get it while you're still alive. It would indeed be ironic to receive one after you're already dead.
If you believe these situations aren't ironic, then you could make this point: If a singer releases a song entitled "Ironic" that ostensibly contains ironic situations yet doesn't accurately represent irony, that song in itself is ironic.
See how confusing this gets? The fact that people are still debating this song shows how tricky irony can be.
In fact, James Corden performed a very funny, updated version of Ironic earlier this year when Alanis Morissette was a guest on his show:
Hopefully this post has clarified irony for you. If it's only made you more confused, that would probably be ironic. When in doubt, try connecting your situation to one of the three dictionary definitions listed above.