2. Irony: A Definition
• The word IRONY comes
from the Greek eiron
meaning “dissembler in
• In modern English, the
term usually refers to
speech incidents in
which the intended
meaning of the words is
contrary to their literal
HISTORICALLY, IRONY IN LITERATURE developed
during the Age of the Enlightenment—the time of Voltaire,
Hume, Pope, Dryden, Swift, Addison, Steele, and Diderot;
however it has a long history as in these examples.
• In Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales, an unhappily
married merchant grandly praises marriage.
• In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Antony’s
extravagant praise of Caesar is ironic.
• Jonathan Swift’s 18th
-century “Modest Proposal” putting
forward the idea that the English should start eating Irish
babies was ironic.
• A related irony is that some of Swift’s opponents read his
ironic proposal as legitimate and therefore attempted to
have Swift declared insane.
• There is double irony in O. Henry’s 1906 story “The
Gift of the Magi” in which a husband sells his watch to
buy gold combs for his wife’s hair while she sells her
hair to buy a gold chain for his watch.
• This is similar to the joke about the two friends, one a
Catholic and one a Protestant, who try to convert each
other. They presented such convincing arguments
that the Protestant became a Catholic and the Catholic
became a Protestant.
• In the 1980s, Art Buchwald observed about Gary
Trudeau that as with all successful “anti-
Establishment figures, Mr. Trudeau will soon be an
honored member of the Establishment.”
DRAMATIC IRONY IN LITERATURE occurs
when the audience, or one of the characters, knows
something that the other characters do not.
• Jerzy Kosinski’s novel and the movie Being There is the
story of a mentally disabled gardener named Chauncey
Gardner. Because of unusual circumstances, Chauncey
is mistaken for a sage and a great visionary. As he
makes ordinary comments appropriate to a gardener, his
listeners supply grandiose metaphorical meanings.
• In George Bernard Shaw’s play, Major Barbara, one of the
tensest moments for the audience is when they learn that
the shed, just entered by a character who casually lit a
cigarette, is filled with high explosives.
6. Even young children have the skill to
appreciate dramatic irony
• In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, kindergarten children are
amused that while the bears are puzzled, they know what
happened to Baby Bear’s porridge.
• They also like the fun of seeing how the youngest goat, in the
story of Three Billy Goats Gruff, sets out to fool the troll who
lives under the bridge.
• And in the modern picture book, Miss Nelson Is Missing by
Harry Allard and James Marshall, children are amused that by
looking carefully at the pictures, they know—while the students
in the classroom do not—that the horrible, mean substitute
teacher Miss Viola Swamp, is really their kind and loving Miss
Nelson in disguise.
IRONY VS. SATIRE
• Critic Northrop Frye makes a distinction between satire and
irony. He says that satire is a criticism of society with a clear
understanding in the author’s mind of what society should be
like, but is not.
• The author of a satire hopes to persuade readers to work for
the author’s vision as does C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters.
• Those who create gallows humor and irony do not intend to
point their readers in a particular direction, but instead to leave
them in doubt.
• As Frye says, “Whenever a reader is not sure what the author’s
attitude is or what his own is supposed to be, we have irony
with relatively little satire.”
8. One Definition of Irony is That it Inspires the
Receiver of the Message to Ponder its Meaning
• What does the message
on this pickup mean?
• Is the owner saying he
chooses Arizona, NOT
• Or is he saying that he
chooses “Not Arizona,
• Is this irony or just
Many modern critics make only a two-
way distinction between LINGUISTIC
and. SITUATIONAL humor.
• Linguistic irony requires a sender and a receiver, while
situational irony requires only an observer with a clever
mind as when Lily Tomlin buys a waste basket.
• The clerk puts it into a paper sack so she can take it
home, and the first thing Tomlin does when she gets
home is to put the paper sack into the waste basket.
• Derek Evans and Dave Fulwiler’s Who’s Nobody in
America is filled with such ironic complaints as the one
from James M. Gatwood of San Ramon, California. In
seven visits to his dentist he spent $2,800 and the dentist
still calls him Sidney. Gatwood asks in frustration, “Who
the hell is Sidney?”
STABLE IRONY VS. OBSERVABLE IRONY
• Literary critic Wayne Booth uses the term stable
irony to refer to that which humans create to be
heard or read and understood with some precision.
He says that stable ironies allow readers glimpses
into authors’ most private thoughts.
• An example of Observable (or Situational) Irony is
when a premature monsoon ruins an army’s invasion
plans or when lightning strikes just as a preacher
raises his arms to make a dramatic point about God.
• In such situations, all that is needed is an aware
observer. Writers and dramatists often work such
observable ironies into their plots.
13. Paradox vs. Contradiction
• Because paradoxes appear to be contradictions, they are
ironic in that observers must view the paradox from two
competing points of view. They seem contradictory,
unbelievable, or absurd, but in some sense are true.
• While highlighting breakdowns in our expectations of a
logical universe, they are sources of both delight and
consternation as the human mind works to figure out how
people can in good faith talk about a “large mouse”
running between the legs of a “small elephant,” or can
make sense out of the Yiddish curse, “He should drop
dead, God forbid!”
14. Paradoxes Are Sometimes the Result of
Paradigm Shifts in the History of Ideas
• For example the most basic or earliest meaning of man
may have been in contrast to animal, i.e. human cf. beast.
• But then it took on a meaning man in contrast to woman,
followed by the word acquiring such additional meanings
as “bravery” and “noble behavior.”
• It was in this sense that David Ben-Gurion in the 1970s
called Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir, “The best man in
• DO WE STILL HAVE CONFUSIONS—AND SOMETIMES
HUMOR—REVOLVING AROUND THE WORD MAN?
15. PARADOXES IN CHILDREN’S
From Lewis Carroll
•“Why, sometimes I’ve believed
as many as six impossible
things before breakfast.”
•“The rule is, jam tomorrow and
jam yesterday—but never jam
•“Now here, you see, it takes all
the running you can do, to keep
in the same place. If you want
to get somewhere else, you
must run at least twice as fast
From Lemony Snicket
•“It doesn’t take courage to kill
someone… It takes a severe lack of
•“Assumptions are dangerous
things to make—bombs, for
instance, or strawberry shortcake
—if you make even the tiniest
mistake you can find yourself in
•In The Miserable Mill, when a
worker gets his leg mangled, his
fellow workers give him a coupon
for 50% off at the Ahab Memorial
Hospital in Paltryville.
• Socratic irony occurs when a person pretends to be ignorant
and willing to learn from another, but then asks adroit
questions that expose the weaknesses in the other person’s
• The name comes from the Greek philosopher (c. 470-399 B.C.)
Socrates, who developed the Socratic method of teaching
through asking questions designed to elicit answers from
“inside” his students.
• Along with Aristotle and Plato, he is given credit for laying the
philosophical foundations of Western culture.
TRAGIC IRONY occurs in situations where
there are terrible consequences as in the Greek drama
Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear,
and maybe even Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
So why in a class on humor, should we look at tragic
•One reason is that by recognizing tragic irony in literature,
we will be better able to recognize it in real life and perhaps
do something about it.
•Also by looking at tragically ironic events, we can gain
insights into the kind of dark humor that became
fashionable in the latter half of the 20th
20. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as an example
of Dark Humor
• The title of Heller’s anti-war novel is so intriguing that it is
now in dictionaries as the name for any tricky problem,
especially one for which the only solution is denied by a
circumstance inherent in the problem.
• In the book, Yossarian would be excused from flying
bombing missions if he were declared insane. However
the fact that he is trying to get out of flying bombing
missions proves his sanity. He therefore has to keep
• A second paradox is that the pilots can go home after
flying a number of missions, but the number keeps
21. Real-life Tragedies Growing Out of
• Is this last paradox similar to what some of
today’s soldiers feel about having their time
extended in Iraq or Afghanistan?
• In July of 2012, news stories revealed that,
ironically, an average of one soldier per day
was committing suicide while serving in an
institution designed to prevent death.
22. Real-Life Catch-22’s illustrate the kind of irony
illustrated by many urban legends and contemporary
novels, films, and plays
• People who can’t get a job until they have experience and
who can’t get experience until they have a job are in a
• So are Authors who can’t get their manuscripts published
until they have an agent but can’t get an agent until they
have been published.
• A newspaper story under the headline “Texas in Catch-
22” told about a Texas State law forbidding the execution
of anyone insane. However, a prisoner on death row
refused to take the medication that would keep him sane
so the State was left in limbo.
23. Ironies in the Attempted Assassination of
President Ronald Reagan
• On a smaller scale, it was ironic that when John Hinckley tried
to assassinate President Reagan, his shots went awry, but one
bounced back from the bullet-proof steel of the President’s
limousine and entered Reagan’s body. This means that in
effect Reagan was shot by his own Presidential limousine,
which was designed to protect him.
• At the time of the shooting, Reagan was leaving the
Washington Hilton Hotel, which local “humorists” now refer to
as the Hinckley Hilton.
• President Reagan gave his a “stamp of approval” to joking
about the assassination attempt when he asked the doctors
treating him if they were “Republicans.” That he could make a
joke while on a stretcher being wheeled into emergency
surgery, relieved tensions around the world. WHY? HOW?
24. IRONY AND PARADOX
ONLY IN AMERICA…
•…do banks leave vault doors open and then
chain the pens to the counters.
•…do we leave cars worth thousands of dollars
in the driveway and put our useless junk in the
•…do drugstores make the sick walk all the
way to the back of the store to get their
prescriptions while healthy people can buy
cigarettes at the front counter.
26. MORE SITUATIONAL IRONIES
DO YOU EVER WONDER...
•WHY the time of day with the slowest traffic is
called “rush hour”?
•WHY they sterilize the needle for lethal
•WHY if flying is so safe, airports are called
•WHY sheep don’t shrink when it rains?
27. Ironic statements are sometimes used as
conversational lubricants—a kind of
•“Not to change the subject,
but . . .”
•Far be it from me to say,
but . . .”
•“I don’t mean to impose my
opinion, but . . .”
•“Clearly . . .” or “It is well
known that . . .”
• Do speakers realize they
are starting out by saying
just the opposite of what
• Do you think the speakers
appear humble or tricky?
• How do these examples
differ from the
contradictory “The King Is
Dead! God Save the
28. IRONY FOR PERSUASION
This turn on the phrase “Will Work for Food” was used
as an attention getter in a serious article.
The author was
protesting how in
students to do work for
free (sometimes paying
tuition for the privilege)
that before the
“downturn” they would
have been paid for.
29. More IRONY FOR FUN. Search “Irony” on the
Internet, to find photos of such real-life ironies as…
• A rusted can of RUSTOLEUM paint.
• A SAFE DRIVING school with a car crashed
through the front window.
• A WEIGHT WATCHERS office sharing a
building with a BASKIN ROBBINS ice cream
• A sign in the midst of a traffic jam reading
LANE CLOSED TO EASE CONGESTION.
• A billboard from Pacific Bell reading PHONE
OUT OF SERVICE? GIVE US A CALL.
Is this Visual Irony “stand-up” or “sit-
Actually, the nuns are sitting on stools with “interesting” legs.
32. On Searching for Answers
Because it is so hard to give definitions and clear-cut
answers to all the possible questions about paradox
and irony, we will end with a few more paradoxical
statements made by famous writers and thinkers.
•When I grow up, I want to be a little boy. Joseph Heller
•Nowadays people know the price of everything and
the value of nothing. Oscar Wilde
•There isn’t any answer. There ain’t going to be any
answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the
answer. Gertrude Stein