Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes



related forms: reversal, inversion, subversion, distortion

related genres or styles: satire, wit, sarcasm

"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."—Benjamin Franklin

Most people have a sense of irony—much like a sense of humor—but despite or because of its familiarity, irony may be the hardest figure of speech to define. Why?

Irony is highly contextual.

In contrast to figures of speech like metaphor or metonymy, which function through resemblance or proximity, irony operates on difference, inversion, or contradiction,

In further contrast to metaphor or metonymy, irony usually lacks a visual or sensory aspect—though taste-images like "sour" or "sweet" sometimes characterize irony, or irony may be associated with the "sense" of humor.


Oxford English Dictionary 1. 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. [verbal irony]

Example: When a worker makes a mess of his job, his co-workers say, "Nice work."

2. fig. A state of affairs or an event that seems deliverately contrary or opposite to what was or might naturally be,expected; an outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations.

specifically in Theatre. (freq. as dramatic or tragic irony), 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, originally in Greek tragedy [e.g. Oedipus's mocking of Tiresias's blindness]

definitions from web sources

(mostly regarding "verbal irony") Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs; "the irony of Ireland's copying the nation she most hated" . . . . Characterized by often poignant difference or incongruity between what is expected and what actually is . . . .

Examples: "madness, an ironic fate for such a clear thinker"

"it was ironical that the well-planned scheme failed so completely" A statement that, when taken in context, may actually mean the opposite of what is written literally; the use of words expressing something other than their literal intention, notably as a form of humor; The quality or state of an event being both coincidental and contradictory . . . . In literary criticism, the effect of language in which the intended meaning is the opposite of what is stated. The title of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is ironic because what Swift proposes in this essay is cannibalism—hardly "modest."

Everyday example of verbal irony: Rainy day—people running from parking lot finally gain shelter, look at each other and say, "Nice day!" or "Lovely weather!"

Dramatic Irony

(sometimes referred to as situational irony)

Oxford English Dictionary definition of "irony" 2. . . specifically in Theatre. (freq. as dramatic or tragic irony), 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, originally in Greek tragedy irony that is inherent in speeches or a situation of a drama and is understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters in the play. Dramatic irony is when the words and actions of the characters of a work of literature have a different meaning for the reader (or audience) than they do for the characters. This is the result of the reader having a greater knowledge than the characters themselves.

Example: The original audience for Sophocles's ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus the King knew by legend that Oedipus unknowingly killed his father. Therefore, when Oedipus vows to capture the king's killer, his curse on that killer ironically foretells his own fate: "I decree / that no one in this land, in which I rule / as your own king, shall give that killer shelter / or talk to him,"


Additional Notes on Irony

Hayden White in Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe equates irony as a figure of speech with the ideology of liberalism. Liberal thought can insist on the most enlightened motives and engineer optimal outcomes but must also accept that human error and the resistance of reality will inevitably challenge or subvert any good we might do. Yet tragic heroism requires that we persist in the face of that irony.

see John Buice, The Tragic Irony of Irony in Tragedy

David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. NY: Back Bay Books, Little Brown, 1997. 21-82.

63 As essayist Lewis Hyde points out, self-mocking irony is always “Sincerity, with a motive.” (Lewis Hyde, “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking,” American Poetry Review, reprinted in the Pushcart Prize anthology for 1987.)

63 And to the extent that it can train viewers to laugh at characters’ unending put-downs of one another, to view ridicule as both the mode of social intercourse and the ultimate art-form, television can reinforce its own queer ontology of appearance: the most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others’ ridicule by betraying passe expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability. Other people become judges; the crime is naivete.

67 So then how have irony, irreverence, and rebellion come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today’s avant-garde tries to write about? One clue’s to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after 30 long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It’s not a rhetorical mode that wears well. As Hyde (whom I pretty obviously like) puts it, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” (op.cit.) This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern father s saw it. Bur irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. . . .

Think, for a moment, of Third World rebels and coups. Third World rebels are great at exposing and overthrowing corrupt hypocritical regimes, but they seem noticeably less great at the mundane, non-negative task of then establishing a superior governing alternative. Victorious rebels, in fact, seem best at using their tough, cynical rebel-skills to avoid being rebelled against themselves—in other words, they just become better tyrants.

And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.”


Christy Wampole, ”The Great American Irony Binge.” The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation. Harper, 2016. 27-64.

27 [epigraph] Remember [ . . . ] that women, children, and revolutionists hate irony, which is the negation of all saving instincts, of all faith, of all devotion, of all action. – Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes

31 From ugly-sweater parties to purposely silly-voiced indie bands, from TV news that prioritizes often ironic entertainment over information to middle-class students ironically hanging out at the local dive bar among blue-collar workers, irony is the white noise of our time.

34 The hipster is a sort of self-aware jester . . . . He abhors naivete. By making himself preemptively into a joke, he has shielded himself from all potential critiques.

55 Young children communicate with utmost sincerity, not yet having been indoctrinated into the social. They mean what they say and say what they mean. Up to a certain age, they cannot even detect the irony of adults; they take everything at face value.

58 A woman from Canada named Donna once wrote to me about her son, who has severe cerebral palsy. She explained eloquently how irony is completely absent from his behavior, and that she believes this to be a feature of the character of people with severe disabilities and their caretakers. Such people are bound to rhetorically unembellished existence. She recalled hearing the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks say something like, “People with disabilities are condemned to always being themselves.” . . . He is what he is. What we see is what we get. There is no complex process of deciphering what he could really be meaning. In this way, irony takes us away from the essential. It adds distance between ourselves and the crux of being.

59-60 The word “sincerity” has been offered up as the opposite of, and perhaps the antidote to, “irony.” The name most asso- / ciated with the New Sincerity movement is that of David Foster Wallace. But is it ironic that the voice of New Sincerity committed suicide? I do not make light of this fact, nor am I suggesting that Wallace’s suicide was not the direct result of the deep clinical depression that plagued him for years. But I do believe that a person committed to sincerity may often feel alienated in contemporary America and see no other way out of the ironic loop. As a pop-culture authority, Wallace was constantly exposed to ironic signals. Even his own writerly vocation was not safe; the contemporary writer takes a very big risk in choosing to write without irony. Wallace himself was certainly no stranger to ironic maneuvers in his pages, even if he did crave a more candid expressive economy between people. In short, the pull of ironic living is hard to resist.  If you approach it neutrally, with no conscious will against it, it will likely lure you in. This goes back to my claim about our fluency in Ironese. This is the paradox of being a writer or filmmaker or musician in our time who hasn’t yet passed middle age: if you adopt the language of irony, you can communicate with your own cohort but you can’t change it; if you refuse the language of irony, your words fall upon deaf ears. Your message remains undeciphered and indecipherable.

64 As a brief suspension of faith in whatever, irony gave us a chance to rest a little, to get our bearings. The very act of posing the question, “What do we want next?” should fill us with anticipation, a soft giddiness for what is to come. This could be a collective turn toward sincerity or directness or the natural or the serious. It might involve a conscious self-training against narcissism or a cultivation of empathy. Maybe we will decide together to be temporarily silent. [End]