The way my life has been going lately has set me thinking about one of those slippery concepts we struggle with in school: irony. My life has been full of ironies lately. I recently moved into my dream house, so I finally have a nice office with a mountain view in which to write…. but my old laptop chose this moment to die. I chose this location because it is close enough to walk to downtown Crozet…. but during the move my lumbar stenosis flared up, so I can’t walk comfortably for more than 10 minutes. I finally have a big yard to garden…. but I twisted my knee, so I’m limping. This is the kind of sick humor that is typical of irony: we think we’re in control, but then the Universe laughs at us. “Well, life has a funny way of sneaking up on you,” croons Alanis Morissette in her 1995 song, “Ironic”—which at the time was criticized for not being ironic at all (check out the hilarious remake with James Corden on YouTube).
Not that I’m looking for pity here—I know this, too, shall pass. I will get a new, splendiferous laptop that will allow me to watch live streams without constant buffering. Once I stop dragging furniture, boxes, and hoses around, my back will heal, and I will be able to walk the short distance to downtown Crozet and all it has to offer—even the fantasy Plaza, if it gets built in my lifetime. And the wonderful Charlottesville doctors and physical therapists will fix up my knee in no time. Gardening will be much more enjoyable in the cool, early spring, anyway!
What makes these situations ironic? Irony is one of those words that we often use, but without a clear idea of its meaning. Dictionary.com calls it one of the most abused words in English. Sarcasm, coincidence, and simple incongruity are often mistaken for true irony. Let’s try to pin down this elusive concept.
Simply put, irony occurs when a situation in which something that was intended to have a particular result has the opposite or a very different result (dictionary. cambridge.org). This contrast between expectation and reality is often a source of humor or surprise.According to Encyclopædia Britannica, the term irony has its roots in the Greek comic character Eiron, a clever underdog who by his wit repeatedly triumphs over the boastful character Alazon. He did this by dissimulation, or pretending ignorance when in fact he knew more than his adversary. The word came into English as a figure of speech in the 16th century.
If you’re not sure whether something is ironic, ask yourself whether it reveals a startling contrast between expectation and reality. It is not simple coincidence—like being caught in a traffic jam when you’re already late—or sarcastic, designed to mock or sneer. The tone of irony is not mean, but generally joking or amazed. Was this outcome the exact opposite of what was desired or expected? Does it seem absurd given the circumstances?
In academic circles, there are three main kinds of irony—dramatic, verbal, and situational—but most of the time when we use the word, we are referring to situational irony.
Dramatic irony is a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s actions are clear to the audience while being unknown to the character—i.e. when we, as readers or viewers, have more information about the circumstances than the character does (merriam-webster.com). The subtype of tragic irony occurs when this dramatic irony has tragic consequences.
Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to great effect in many of his plays. For example, in Romeo and Juliet only we know that Friar Tuck’s message failed to reach Romeo, and that Juliet is unconscious but alive when Romeo finds her. This intensifies our horror and pity as we watch Romeo take his own life because he cannot live without her. Only the audience knows what is going to happen, which increases the sense of impending tragedy. O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” also revolves around the central irony that the two lovers destroy the very things their mate was celebrating with his/her gift.
Verbal irony is the use of words to express a meaning that is the opposite of the literal meaning (dictionary.com)—that is, when the speaker says the opposite of what they really mean. “That’s as clear as mud,” we might comment after an especially obtuse presentation. A meteorologist I once knew would come in soaking wet out of a raging storm and declare, “it’s a shame to be indoors on a day like this” and crack us all up. Stanley Kubrick threw in a little verbal irony in Dr. Strangelove when President Merkin Muffley announces, “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”
Situational irony—the most common category, and that to which my foibles belong— involves a striking reversal of what is expected or intended—that is, an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected so extreme as to become ridiculous. For example, the firehouse burns down, or a person sidesteps a pothole to avoid injury and in doing so steps off the curb and breaks an ankle. Someone buys a lottery ticket and dies of a heart attack from the shock of winning. “The whole story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum is a case of situational irony. Dorothy and her friends are in search of external forces to help them get what they need, but discover that they each had what they needed the whole time” (yourdictionary.com). These are all cases where the outcome could and would not have been predicted.
My favorite, cosmic irony, is a subtype of situational irony, where the unexpected outcome is caused by a higher power—fate, chance, or the Gods, for example. The outcomes are the result of an outside force rather than the characters’ actions. Also, these outcomes usually have a greater effect, changing the course of the world’s events, than if they just caused annoyance in one life. The classic example of cosmic irony in literature is in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (c. 420 BC), when Oedipus discovers that, in order to avoid a prophecy of just that, he has unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother. A real-life example is the Titanic, which was built with watertight compartments designed to make it unsinkable, yet sank on its maiden voyage. Or consider such a brilliant musician as Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1826) losing his hearing at the age of 44. As John Nelson wrote in his Mystery Plant column (Daily Progress 8/25/20), “I am a botanist who suffers from hay fever. It is cosmic justice, don’t you think?” I think he was actually referring to cosmic irony—the outside force in this case being genetics.
For some hilarious real-world examples of irony, visit www.indy100.com/article/the-10-most-deliciously-ironic-news-stories-of-all-time.
Irony reminds us to expect the unexpected and often helps us laugh at the ups and downs of life. So, don’t let life’s vicissitudes get you down—just pick yourself up and laugh at the irony of it all!