Is It Ironic? Case 1. You’re walking down the street with a friend. Ahead of you, you see a man stumble on a crack in the sidewalk. Your friend laughs at the man. A moment later, your friend trips on the same crack. “Oh,” you say, “that’s so ironic!” No, it isn’t. That’s not ironic.
Case 2. Later, you go home and turn on the television. You see a news story about a politician getting hauled into court for lying under oath. That same politician had recently accused fellow politicians of being deceitful. “Oh, that’s ironic,” you say, laughing. No, that isn’t irony either.
Case 3. Finally, just before going to bed, you walk through your house, turning off the lights and complaining about your family members who left them on. However, when you turn off the last light, you realize that you have to walk back through the house in the dark. While doing so, you knock your shins on a chair. You rub your shins and say “It’s so ironic that I turned off the lights and made myself walk in the dark!” No, that isn’t ironic either.
In fact, the only thing ironic about these three events is the fact that you thought they were ironic!
What Is Irony?
Irony is several things: Situational, dramatic, and verbal.
Situational irony. Situational irony is a situation or event that is different than what was expected. For example, let’s say you plan a picnic with your sweetheart for Saturday afternoon. You pack a nice lunch, grab a blanket to sit on, and hide some flowers in a basket. As you drive to pick up your sweetheart, you are sure the two of you will have a great time. However, before you get to her house, your car overheats. You call her to pick you up, but she is in the shower and doesn’t hear the phone. You leave a message. An hour later, wondering where you are, she checks her messages, realizes what has happened, and soon drives to pick you up. She drives you to the picnic spot, but by that time, the flowers have wilted, and the food has turned rancid. You both get diarrhea and are generally miserable. That’s situational irony.
Dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is the source of many great story lines. In dramatic irony, a character acts or speaks according to his beliefs about reality. However, the audience knows that the character is mistaken. One of the best examples comes from the story of Oedipus. Oedipus was told that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. What Oedipus didn’t know was that he was adopted. During his journeys, Oedipus kills an old man during an argument. Years later, after becoming king in a foreign land, he seeks the murderer of the previous king. Of course, as the audience knows but Oedipus doesn’t, the old man whom Oedipus killed was the old king…and Oedipus’s real father.
Verbal irony. The words people use don’t always match what they are trying to communicate. When the meaning of the words isn’t the same as the meaning of the statement, you have verbal irony. For example, if someone tells you that your house was robbed, you might say, “Well, that’s just wonderful.” Here, the meaning of the words is different than the message they convey. If someone tries to explain some complicated idea to you, you might say that those ideas are “as clear as mud.” Mud, obviously, isn’t clear, so the meaning of “clear” is different than the definition of “mud.” For a final example, if someone is rude to you, you might say, “Gosh, aren’t you a shining example of politeness?” Again, the idea you are trying to convey is different (the person is rude) than what the words actually mean (the person is polite). In fact, you are being sarcastic, which is a form of verbal irony.
In brief, every type of irony is a difference between what is real and what is thought.
Irony vs. Poetic Justice
Now, let’s look again at our original cases. None of the three cases demonstrate a difference between ideas and reality. They don’t show a difference between expectations and events (situational reality). They don’t reveal a difference in what a person believes and what is true (dramatic irony). And they don’t show a difference between what a message says and what it means (verbal irony).
What are they, then? They are poetic justice. Poetic justice is a reward for virtue and a reward for vice. When good things happen to good people, that’s poetic justice. When bad things happen to people doing bad things, that, too, is poetic justice.
Look at case one again. Your friend is maliciously laughing at someone. That’s bad. Then your friend gets punished by having the same thing happen to him! In case two, an accusatory politician gets caught doing the same thing. In case three, you’re complaining about family members leaving lights on, but then you get hurt in the dark. What makes these cases interesting is that the “punishment” is so similar to the vice. For this reason, they are poetic justice rather than plain justice. But they still aren’t irony.
Calling the events in the three cases ironic is, itself, ironic. Thinking that something is ironic and acting on that false belief when the event is not ironic is, in fact, ironic. It’s a good example of dramatic irony.