Irony is a tough concept for many students of literature to understand. This is partly because the definition of what is and what is not ironic has been clouded by incorrect usage of the term over the years. In literary circumstances, irony is the situation in which someone says or does something, but means another thing or intends for something else to happen that would be contrary to thought. In literature, there are three main subtypes of irony. They are verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony.
Verbal irony is the most common type of irony that a reader will come across when examining literature. In this type of irony, a character or speaker in the narrative will say or do something that is the opposite of what he means or intends. For example, in a story, the wife of a thief might tell her husband to, “do the respectable thing and bring back some jewels tonight so that we can have food on the table tomorrow.” This is ironic because she is encouraging her husband to steal jewels in order to sell them for money. This act is far from respectable, thus ironic. Whether or not verbal irony is readily understood by the reader depends on the skill of the writer. It is up to the author to put the irony into context in order for the readers to understand its meaning and use.
Dramatic irony is a type of irony in which the audience is aware of something that is happening in the narrative that a character in the story does not know. An example of dramatic irony may be found in Virgil’s epic tale, the Aeneid. In the Aeneid, Virgil recounts the fall of Troy to the Greeks. The Greeks, having lain siege to Troy for a long period of time devise the Trojan Horse to sneak into the city. The Trojans take the horse into the city as a gift, which leads to their demise. In this example, the audience knows that the Trojan Horse is full of Greek soldiers, but the Trojans do not realize this, which leads to their deaths. Dramatic irony grabs the reader’s attention and can allow them to relate to the plight of the unknowing party, allowing them to empathize with the character or characters.
The final kind of irony is called situational irony. Situational irony is an incongruence in what is expected to happen and what actually takes place. It is sometimes referred to as a twist of fate and usually has tragic consequences in literature. One example of situational irony is a pair of siblings who are separated at a young age, only to find out that they are living next door to one another after one suddenly dies.
Authors can make careful use of irony to make their writing more interesting. Verbal, dramatic, and situational irony are all tools that a writer can use to express emotion, set moods, and evoke a response from their audience.