Writing With Irony: 15 Examples Of Irony In Literature

People throw around the word “irony” a lot, but its exact definition eludes many.

In their seminal work, The King’s English, the Fowler brothers (aka, the GOATS of grammar) define irony as something in which “the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.” 

As a literary skill, irony adds tantalizing dimensions to plots and characters. Moreover, using it makes for clever and engaging writing. 

So today, we’re examining the nuts and bolts of irony and how to incorporate it into your work.

What Is Irony in Literature? 

The Oxford English Dictionary — reigning monarch of English language usage — defines irony as “a condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.” 

What does all that mean in plain English? 

Simply stated: Irony is when someone says or does something opposite of what you expect. It also applies to situations and audience dynamics.

For example, let’s say you plan a wedding in Chile’s Atacama Desert, with its average rainfall of 0.12 inches a year, and on the day you’re set to run down the aisle, a hurricane barrels through. That’s situational irony. Similarly, dramatic irony occurs when a reader or audience knows something the characters don’t.

Irony’s etymology is rooted in Ancient Hellenistic culture. Similar to the court-jester character of medieval times, Eirōn was a comic archetype of early Greek literature.

A clever underdog, “Eirōns” always triumphed over braggarts by downplaying their wits. Basically, they were the “Colombos” of Greek mythology — a character that presented themselves as one way while really being the other. 

Sometime in the late 1400s, “irony” found its way into the English lexicon via the French word ironie, which loosely translated to “dissimulation” in the usage of the time. (Don’t forget: Words aren’t set in stone; their meanings change alongside social norms.) 

These days, irony also carries an oppositional connotation, not just a difference. 

Types of Irony in Literature 

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics identifies seven types of literary irony:

  1. Classical: As used during the Classical and Medieval periods
  2. Romantic: Self-aware and self-critical
  3. Cosmic: The dissonance between absolute and relative or individual versus communal interests
  4. Verbal: A contradiction between what’s said and intended
  5. Situational: A contradiction between an experiential intent and the ultimate result
  6. Dramatic: An awareness disparity between observers (readers) and actors (characters)
  7. Meta: Layered dissonance in which a person or situation is doubly ironic (i.e., “being ironic about being ironic”)

 Arguably, verbal, situational, and dramatic irony are the most-used types, and each has several sub-categories:

  • Sarcasm, understatement, overstatement, and sardonic irony are types of verbal irony.
  • Dramatic irony is demarcated into two main categories: tragic and timely.
  • Cosmic, poetic, structural, and historical are types of situational irony.

15 Examples of Irony in Literature 

We’ve reviewed the definitional elements. Now, let’s look at some irony examples in literature.

Verbal Irony in Literature

1. Pride and Prejudice

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 

This delicious and teasing opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a stellar example of verbal irony. Is she saying the man in question wants a wife, or is he fortunate because he doesn’t have one? 

2. The Cask of Amontillado

“I shall not die of a cough.” 

Fortunato, a man being led to his death by an acquaintance named Montresor, utters this line in Edgar Allen Poe’s incredible short story, The Cask of Amontillado

Montresor responds by saying: “True, true.” 

Why is this verbal irony? On the surface, it seems like Montresor is acknowledging that a slight cough isn’t enough to extinguish Fortunato’s life. But he’s really saying that he knows the cough won’t kill Fortunato because he will murder him first. 

3. A Modest Proposal

A work of satirical hyperbole, A Modest Proposal, was anonymously published in 1729 to chastise the rich and powerful for turning their backs on poor Irish people, who, at the time, were being persecuted by the British. 

It starts with an apparent plea to help impoverished children. But by the end, readers realize that the author wants kids to be healthy enough to be eaten by the upper classes and clergy.

Since the essay’s message isn’t what you assumed initially, A Modest Proposal qualifies as a work of verbal irony.  

Fun fact: the full name of the essay is A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.

4. An Ideal Husband

“Oh! I am not at all romantic. I am not old enough. I leave romance to my seniors.”

So says the romantic dandy Lord Goring in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. A recidivist Casanova, Goring is perpetually involved in complicated (sometimes scandalous) amorous affairs. As such, claiming he’s not romantic is the opposite of reality, making it an example of verbal irony. 

5. Dr. Strangelove

Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic Dr. Strangelove includes a scene where military officials gather to discuss strategies. Eventually, a fight breaks out, and one character shouts: “You can’t fight here! This is a war room!”

The line is a succinct example of verbal irony because of the play on words with “fighting” and “war.” Since war is fighting, it’s ironic to forbid men from engaging in the activity that the room is dedicated to. 

Situational Irony in Literature

6. The Wizard of Oz

The premise of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is an example of situational irony. Dorothy et al. travel to see the Wizard to get things they want, only to find they had the power to fulfill their own wishes all along.

7. The Necklace

Mathilde Loisel, the protagonist of Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace, borrows a diamond necklace from a friend to attend a fancy ball because she wants to look wealthier. Ultimately, Mathilde ends up losing the jewels, plunging her and her husband into financial destitution. 

Ironically, at the end, she discovers the jewels she ruined her life to repay were fake. 

8. Convenience Store Woman 

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman tells the story of Keiko Furukura, an awkward introvert who gets a job at a regimented konbini Japan’s version of Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid stores.

She quickly learns to love her job and its rules. 

But after several years, Keiko’s family encourages her to quit and get married, thinking she’ll enjoy life more if she does. She does it and is miserable. Ultimately, she returns to her seemingly mundane job at the shop because that’s where she feels most liberated, secure, and happy. 

Convenience Store Woman is a study in situational irony that forces readers to question society’s norms and assumptions of what is “good” and “normal.”  

9. Antigone

The King Creon arc in Euripides’s Antigone exemplifies situational irony. It’s a complicated story, but suffice it to say that Creon’s disrespect of the dead caused the death of his closest loved ones. In its heyday, Antigone was a clarion call to respect the gods or risk severe punishment. 

10. The Sixth Sense

M. Night Shyamalan’s masterwork, The Sixth Sense, is about a therapist who works with a little boy who can “see dead people.” Throughout the film, it seems like the two main characters are alive. But in the end, you realize that one of them is dead and has been since the beginning. 

It’s situational irony because Bruce Willis’ character’s death is contradictory to the audience’s assumptions about him being alive.

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Dramatic Irony in Literature

11. Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is pregnant with irony, but the death scene is a precise instance of dramatic irony. Ultimately, the audience knows Juliet is drugged, not dead, rendering Romeo’s decision to kill himself heartwrenching. 

Since the audience knows something the character doesn’t, it falls under the dramatic irony umbrella.

12. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

This Brothers Grimm fairy tale tells of an innocent girl who takes a bite of a poisoned apple given to her by an unscrupulous, shape-shifting evil queen. 

The queen thinks Snow White has died, but the audience knows she is alive. Another layer of irony is added when the queen meets an early death instead of her intended target.

13. Oedipus Rex

In Sophocles’s famous work, the audience knows that King Oedipus is ultimately responsible for King Laius’s death. By the end of the play, Oedipus awakens to his culpability, but the dialogue is filled with ironic musings and messaging.

14. My Last Duchess

In Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess, the audience lacks information of which the writer is in possession. The dramatic dialogue tells the story of a duke talking about his deceased wife.

The audience assumes she died of natural causes, but by the end, it becomes evident that the duke murdered her.

15. There’s Something About Mary

Jonathan Richman’s 1998 comedy is packed with dramatic irony. One instance is when the main character, Ted, thinks the police are arresting him for picking up a hitchhiker. But the audience knows the police are questioning him about a murder. 

In this instance, the dramatic irony is the source of many laughs. 

Tips for Using Irony in Your Writing

So how can you learn to incorporate irony into your work? Step one is reading books with irony. In addition to the examples above, here are five more for your irony reading list:

  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  • Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
  • Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour

Generally speaking, try to use irony to infuse your stories with humor and tension. Layering irony also works and adds depth and maturity to a given work.

Study how other authors weave ironic situations and dialogue into their writing. Then practice doing the same. It’s not easy, so don’t get frustrated and give up. The more you try, the better you’ll get. 

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