From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- "Irony is best known as a figure of speech in which there is a gap or incongruity between what a speaker or a writer says, and what is understood. It can also be considered a twist of fate where an eventual event relates back to a particular quote (see poetic justice). All the different senses of irony, however, revolve around the notion of incongruity, or a gap between our understanding and what actually happens."
- "Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware, both of that “more” and of the outsider’s incomprehension." --Modern English Usage H. W. Fowler
Irony, from the Greek εἴρων (eiron), is a literary or rhetorical device, in which there is a gap or incongruity between what a speaker or a writer says, and what is generally understood (either at the time, or in the later context of history). Irony may also arise from a discordance between acts and results, especially if it is striking, and seen by an outside audience.
More generally, irony is understood as an aesthetic valuation by an audience, which relies on a sharp discordance between the real and the ideal, and which is variously applied to texts, speech, events, acts, and even fashion. All the different senses of irony revolve around the perceived notion of an incongruity, or a gap, between an understanding of reality, or expectation of a reality, and what actually happens.
There are different kinds of irony. For example:
- Tragic (or dramatic) irony occurs when a character on stage or in a story is ignorant, but the audience watching knows his or her eventual fate, as in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet.
- Socratic irony takes place when someone (classically a teacher) pretends to be foolish or ignorant, in order to expose the ignorance of another (and the teaching-audience, but not the student-victim, realizes the teacher's ploy).
- Cosmic irony is a sharp incongruity between our expectation of an outcome and what actually occurs.
Irony has some of its foundation in the onlooker’s perception of paradox which arises from insoluble problems. For example, in June 2005, the State of Virginia Employment Agency, which handles unemployment compensation, announced that they would lay off 400 employees for lack of work, because unemployment was so low in the state. Although this outcome could have been logically anticipated (solving the problem would be expected to re-created a minor version of it again, as a result), the reader’s perception of a disconnection between common expectation, and the application of logic in an unexpected outcome, both contain an element of irony.
The connection between irony and humor is somewhat revealed, when the surprise at what should have expected, startles us into laughter. However, not all irony is humorous: “grim irony” and “stark irony” are familiar.
This type of irony is the device of giving the spectator an item of information that at least one of the characters in the narrative is unaware of (at least consciously), thus placing the spectator a step ahead of at least one of the characters. Dramatic irony has three stages—installation, exploitation, and resolution (often also called preparation, suspension, and resolution)—producing dramatic conflict in what one character relies or appears to rely upon, the contrary of which is known by observers (especially the audience; sometimes to other characters within the drama) to be true. In summary, it means that the reader/watcher/listener knows something that one or more of the characters in the piece is not aware of.
- In City Lights the audience knows that Charlie Chaplin's character is not a millionaire, but the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) believes him to be rich.
- In North by Northwest, the audience knows that Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is not Kaplan; Vandamm (James Mason) and his accomplices do not. The audience also knows that Kaplan is a fictitious agent invented by the CIA; Roger (initially) and Vandamm (throughout) do not.
- In Oedipus the King, the reader knows that Oedipus himself is the murderer that he is seeking; Oedipus, Creon and Jocasta do not.
- In Othello, the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful to Othello, but Othello does not. The audience also knows that Iago is scheming to bring about Othello's downfall, a fact hidden from Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Roderigo.
- In The Cask of Amontillado, the reader knows that Montresor is planning on murdering Fortunato, while Fortunato believes they are friends.
- In The Truman Show, the viewer is aware that Truman is on a television show, but Truman himself only gradually learns this.
- In Romeo and Juliet, the other characters in the cast think Juliet is dead, but the audience knows she only took a sleeping potion.
- In Forrest Gump, the audience knows the historical significance of the characters and scenarios Forrest Gump finds himself in, but he often does not.
Tragic ironyTragic irony is a special category of dramatic irony. In tragic irony, the words and actions of the characters contradict the real situation, which the spectators fully realize. The Oxford English Dictionary has:
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, orig. in Greek tragedy.Ancient Greek drama was especially characterized by tragic irony because the audiences were so familiar with the legends that most of the plays dramatized. Sophocles' Oedipus the King provides a classic example of tragic irony at its fullest. Colebrook writes:
Tragic irony is exemplified in ancient drama ... The audience watched a drama unfold, already knowing its destined outcome. ... In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, for example, 'we' (the audience) can see what Oedipus is blind to. The man he murders is his father, but he does not know it.
Irony has some of its foundation in the onlooker’s perception of paradox that arises from insoluble problems. For example, in the William Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo finds Juliet in a drugged death-like sleep, he assumes her to be dead and kills himself. Upon awakening to find her dead lover beside her, Juliet stabs herself with a dagger thus killing herself.