Dramatic Irony in The Great Gatsby

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  • 0:00 What is Dramatic Irony
  • 1:07 Nick Carraway and Gatsby
  • 2:10 Tom Buchanan and Gatsby
  • 4:05 Gatsby and Daisy
  • 5:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

What is dramatic irony and what is its purpose? How is dramatic irony used in F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel ''The Great Gatsby''? This lesson seeks to explain the answer to both of these questions.

What Is Dramatic Irony?

Have you ever read a book or watched a television show or movie where some of the characters know more than others? Perhaps you as a reader or viewer know more than the characters as well. This is a common literary device called dramatic irony that authors use in stories and plays. Dramatic irony occurs when the reader is in the know but the characters are not. As a result, the characters may say or do things that are way more significant than they realize.

Authors use dramatic irony to do one of two things: to create a funny scenario for the reader, or to build a sense of suspense. Common examples of funny dramatic irony often include cases of mistaken identity. Meanwhile, suspenseful dramatic irony is meant to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.

F. Scott Fitzgerald uses dramatic irony in The Great Gatsby to engage the reader and create depth in the story. Dramatic irony occurs at various points throughout the novel and involves a number of different characters.

Nick Carraway and Gatsby

One of the earliest instances of dramatic irony occurs when the narrator Nick Carraway meets the infamous Jay Gatsby for the first time. Carraway is at one of Gatsby's epic parties and he appears to be the only person who actually received an invitation to be there. Carraway spends nearly the entire time searching for the host, but has no success. After a couple of drinks, Carraway meets a dazzling stranger.

Carraway and the stranger discuss the involvement in World War I before the man invites Carraway to take a ride on his new hydroplane, a motorboat. Carraway agrees, still not knowing who the man is. Dramatic irony occurs when Carraway explains to the stranger, 'This is an unusual party for me. I haven't even seen the host. I live over there - . . . and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation.' The man responds, 'I'm Gatsby.' While Carraway was searching for the elusive Gatsby, he had been talking to him without even realizing.

Tom Buchanan and Gatsby

If you've read The Great Gatsby, then you know that Gatsby is madly in love with Daisy Buchanan, the wife of the insufferable Tom Buchanan. Early in the novel, Gatsby and Tom meet at a speakeasy in New York City. Shortly after, Gatsby and Daisy begin their affair.

By sheer happenstance, Tom and two others wind up at Gatsby's after a day of horseback riding. Gatsby invites the trio into his home to enjoy a drink or a cigar. Gatsby mentions to Tom that they had just recently met. Tom pretends to remember, but it's clear that Gatsby has very little significance to him. Gatsby turns to Tom again, this time saying, 'I know your wife.' Tom responds, 'That so,' then immediately turns his attention away from Gatsby. The moment is completely lost on Tom, but Nick Carraway and the readers both know that Gatsby more than 'knows' Daisy! It's also lost on Tom that he's actually enjoying the hospitality of a man who's secretly trying to steal his wife!

The two characters are entangled in dramatic irony later in the novel as well. After returning from New York City with Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker, Tom comes upon an accident. The accident is in front of the garage owned by George Wilson, the husband of Tom's mistress Myrtle. Seeing the commotion, Tom exclaims, 'Wreck!. . . That's good, Wilson will have a little business at last.' Tom has no idea that the wreck killed his mistress.

When Tom finds out that it was a yellow car that hit and killed Myrtle, he immediately assumes it was Gatsby, after all it was his car that did the deed. Dramatic irony escalates when Nick Carraway comes to find that Gatsby wasn't behind the wheel driving. Daisy was the one who killed her husband's mistress with the car, and Tom has no idea.

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