The Irony Is… The Three Types of Irony

The French writer, Anatole France, once said that “Irony is the gaiety of reflection and the joy of wisdom.” Irony is one of the most famed branches of literature and humour, and an important part of any student’s understanding of rhetorical devices and literary technique.

What is Irony?

In his textbook, The King’s English, the teacher, Henry Watson Fowler defined irony saying, “any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.” Irony, then, has a double meaning, what is said, and a sharply contrasting hidden meaning.

Sarcasm is a kind of irony, but is often insulting, whereas irony is much broader. So for instance, if someone trips you as you walk and you say, “Fantastic!”, that is sarcasm. If someone referred to this as being “ironic”, they would be pulling the word to a more negative usage even though irony is largely positive.

What Kinds of Irony Are There?

There are different main types of irony: verbal, dramatic and situational, and these are typically used to emphasise the truth of something.

What is Verbal Irony?

Verbal irony refers to a contradiction between what is said and what is meant. Verbal irony is different from dramatic and situational irony in that it is intentional on the part of the speaker. So, a person could say, “No, I’m delirious with joy”, even though they mean the complete opposite, and that would be ironic if the speaker intended their audience to know that they were actually upset. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony gives a speech after caesar has been assassinated, in which he seems to praise Caesar’s assassins, especially Brutus, of whom he says, “But Brutus says he was ambitious; / And Brutus is an honourable man”. Yet, the context tells us that Mark Antony actually was condemning these assassins, especially Brutus.

What is Situational Irony?

Situational irony points us to the gulf between the result of an action and the intentions behind that action.

What is Dramatic irony?

Dramatic as well as tragic irony refer to the difference in awareness of what’s going on, between an actor and the audience. In such situations, the audience knows things and understands the significance of words and deeds at a deeper level than the protagonists. So, for instance, a character may misspeak, accidentally revealing a deeper truth that they are unaware of. In tragic irony, the audience is aware that a protagonist is making a grave error, even though that character is entirely unaware of it as they make it.

In the movie, North by Northwest, Cary Grant’s character, Roger Thornhill, is known by the audience not to be Kaplan, although Vandamm (played by James Mason) and his fellow pursuers, do not know this. The audience also knows that there is no Kaplan, rather, he is an invention of the CIA. Initially, Thornhill does not know this, and Vandamm never figures it out.

Teach Students About Irony

Have your students learn more about irony with StoryboardThat, to build their understanding of this important rhetorical device and literary technique. StoryboardThat would allow you to build an online course, tapping into the brain’s preference for visual communication, to guide students in their journey toward an understanding of irony.

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