Irony (from the Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία eirōneía, meaning hypocrisy, deception, or feigned ignorance) is a situation, literary technique, or rhetorical device, in which there is an incongruity, discordance, or unintended connection with truth, that goes strikingly beyond the most simple and evident meaning of words or actions. Verbal and situational irony is often intentionally used as emphasis in an assertion of a truth. The ironic form of simile, or the irony of sarcasm or litotes may involve the emphasis of one's meaning by deliberate use of language that states the direct opposite of the truth, or which drastically and obviously understates a factual connection.
In fictional dramatic irony, the artist causes a character, acting as a mouthpiece, to speak or act in a way which is intentionally contrary to the truth; this again is a method of highlighting the literal facts by giving the example of a fictional persona who is strikingly ignorant of them.
In certain kinds of situational or historical irony, which occur outside works of fiction, a certain factual truth is highlighted by some person's complete ignorance of it, or belief in the opposite of it—however, this contrast does not occur by human design. In some religious contexts, such situations have been seen as the deliberate work of divine providence to emphasize facts, and taunt or toy with humans for not being aware of them in situations where they could easily have been enlightened (this is similar to human use of irony). Such ironies are often more evident, or more striking, when viewed retrospectively in the light of later developments which make the truth of past situations obvious to all.
Almost all irony involves commentary which heightens the tension naturally involved in regarding the state and fate of a person (in the present, or the past) who badly needs to know a given fact which he or she could easily know, but which he or she does not.
Henry Watson Fowler, in The King's English, says “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."
The word 'ironic' is sometimes used as a synonym for incongruous in situations where there is no “double audience”, and no contradiction between the ostensible and true meaning of the words. An example of such usage:
Ironically, Sir Arthur Sullivan is remembered for the comic operas he found embarrassing, rather than the serious works he hoped would be his legacy.
The American Heritage Dictionary's secondary meaning for irony: “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” This sense, however, is not synonymous with "incongruous" but merely a definition of dramatic or situational irony. The majority of American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel found it unacceptable to use the word ironic to describe mere unfortunate coincidences or surprising disappointments that “suggest no particular lessons about human vanity or folly.”
Modern theories of rhetoric distinguish among verbal, dramatic and situational irony.
Verbal irony is distinguished from situational irony and dramatic irony in that it is produced intentionally by speakers. For instance, if a man exclaims, “I’m not upset!” but reveals an upset emotional state through his voice while truly trying to claim he's not upset, it would not be verbal irony by virtue of its verbal manifestation (it would, however, be situational irony). But if the same speaker said the same words and intended to communicate that he was upset by claiming he was not, the utterance would be verbal irony. This distinction illustrates an important aspect of verbal irony - speakers communicate implied propositions that are intentionally contradictory to the propositions contained in the words themselves. There are, however, examples of verbal irony that do not rely on saying the opposite of what one means, and there are cases where all the traditional criteria of irony exist and the utterance is not ironic.
Ironic similes are a form of verbal irony where a speaker intends to communicate the opposite of what he or she means. For instance, the following explicit similes begin with the deceptive formation of a statement that means P but which eventually conveys the meaning not P:
The irony is recognizable in each case only by using stereotypical knowledge of the source concepts (e.g., that mud is opaque, that root canal surgery is painful) to detect an incongruity.
A fair amount of confusion has surrounded the issue regarding the relationship between verbal irony and sarcasm, and psychology researchers have addressed the issue directly (e.g., Lee & Katz, 1998). For example, ridicule is an important aspect of sarcasm, but not of verbal irony in general. By this account, sarcasm is a particular kind of personal criticism leveled against a person or group of persons that incorporates verbal irony. For example, a woman reports to her friend that rather than going to a medical doctor to treat her cancer, she has decided to see a spiritual healer instead. In response her friend says sarcastically, "Oh, brilliant, what a genius idea, that's really going to cure you." The friend could have also replied with any number of ironic expressions that should not be labeled as sarcasm exactly, but still have many shared elements with sarcasm.
Most instances of verbal irony are labeled by research subjects as sarcastic, suggesting that the term sarcasm is more widely used than its technical definition suggests it should be (Bryant & Fox Tree, 2002; Gibbs, 2000). Some psycholinguistic theorists (e.g., Gibbs, 2000) suggest that sarcasm ("Great idea!", "I hear they do fine work."), hyperbole ("That's the best idea I have heard in years!"), understatement ("Sure, what the hell, it's only cancer..."), rhetorical questions ("What, does your spirit have cancer?"), double entendre ("I'll bet if you do that, you'll be communing with spirits in no time...") and jocularity ("Get them to fix your bad back while you're at it.") should all be considered forms of verbal irony. The differences between these tropes can be quite subtle, and relate to typical emotional reactions of listeners, and the rhetorical goals of the speakers. Regardless of the various ways theorists categorize figurative language types, people in conversation are attempting to decode speaker intentions and discourse goals, and are not generally identifying, by name, the kinds of tropes used
Dramatic 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.
Tragic 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.
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.
Irony has some of its foundation in the onlooker’s perception of paradox which 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.
Another example is The Boy In Striped Pyjamas where the main character Bruno, dies in a Nazi concentration camp run by his own father.
This is a relatively modern use of the term, and describes a discrepancy between the expected result and actual results when enlivened by perverse appropriateness.
The expression “irony of fate” stems from the notion that the gods (or the Fates) are amusing themselves by toying with the minds of mortals with deliberate ironic intent. Closely connected with situational irony, it arises from sharp contrasts between reality and human ideals, or between human intentions and actual results. The resulting situation is poignantly contrary to what was expected or intended. More recently in English, the mere "coincidental or unexpected" has been called ironic, and this usage appears to be gaining ground. It is still considered a minor usage.
Some examples of situations poignantly contrary to expectation:
When history is seen through modern eyes, there often appear sharp contrasts between the way historical figures see their world's future and what actually transpires. For example, during the 1920s The New York Times repeatedly scorned crossword puzzles. In 1924, it lamented "the sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern." In 1925 it said "the question of whether the puzzles are beneficial or harmful is in no urgent need of an answer. The craze evidently is dying out fast." Today, no U.S. newspaper is more closely identified with the crossword than The New York Times.
In a more tragic example of historical irony, what people now refer to as "World War I" was originally called "The War to End All Wars" or "The Great War." Historical irony is therefore a subset of cosmic irony, but one in which the element of time is bound to play a role.
Historical irony also includes inventors killed by their own creations, such as William Bullock - unless, due to the nature of the invention, the risk of death was always known and accepted, as in the case of Otto Lilienthal.
One point of view has it that all modern art is ironic because the viewer cannot help but compare it to previous works. For example, any portrait of a standing, non-smiling woman will naturally be compared with the Mona Lisa; the tension of meaning exists, whether the artist meant it or not.
While this does not appear to exactly conform to any of the three types of irony above, there is some evidence that the term "ironic art" is being used in this context. This definition could extend to any sort of modern artistic endeavour: graphic design or music (sampling, for example).
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice begins with the proposition “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In fact, it soon becomes clear that Austen means the opposite: women (or their mothers) are always in search of, and desperately on the lookout for, a rich single man to make a husband. The irony deepens as the story promotes his romance and ends in a double wedding.
Comic irony from television sketch-comedy has the distinction over literary comic irony in that it often incorporates elements of absurdity. A classic example is where a shark tries to impress his shark friends by learning to surf. He then surfs so well that his friends mistake him for an actual surfer and eat him.
Metafictions are kinds of fiction that self-consciously address the devices of fiction. It usually involves irony and is self-reflective. Metafiction (or “romantic irony” in the sense of roman the prose fiction) refers to the effect when a story is interrupted to remind the audience or reader that it is really only a story. Examples include Henry Fielding’s interruptions of the storyline to comment on what has happened, or J.M. Barrie’s similar interjections in his book, Peter Pan. The concept is also explored in a philosophical context in Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder.
Notable attempts to sustain metafiction throughout a whole novel are Christie Malry's Own Double Entry by B.S. Johnson, in which none of the characters are real and exist only within the author's imagination, and In The Night Room by Peter Straub, in which the narrator is an author, whose fictional character comes to life and accompanies him through the book.
The text Smoke Now, Pay Later! is ostensibly claimed to be an advertisement for buying cigarettes on credit. This interpretation could rank as both ironic and post-ironic.
There is a tradition that sees irony not as a limited tool in the sense of the three types of irony above, but as a disruptive force with the power to undo texts and readers alike. This tradition includes Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, 19th century German critic and novelist Friedrich Schlegel ("On Incomprehensibility"), Charles Baudelaire, Stendhal, and the 20th century deconstructionist Paul de Man ("The Concept of Irony"). Briefly, it insists that irony is, in Kierkegaard's words, "infinite, absolute negativity". Where much of philosophy attempts to reconcile opposites into a larger positive project, Kierkegaard and others insist that irony—whether expressed in complex games of authorship or simple litotes—must, in Kierkegaard's words, "swallow its own stomach". Irony entails endless reflection and violent reversals, and ensures incomprehensibility at the moment it compels speech. Not surprisingly, irony is the favorite textual property of deconstructionists.
Quotes on the subject of irony.
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Irony is when something happens that is opposite from what is expected. It can often be funny, but is also used in tragedies. There are many types of irony, including: