Recognizing & Integrating Irony within Text

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

Authors use different forms of irony in their writings for various reasons. In this lesson, we will learn how to recognize irony, and how to integrate it into your own writing.

Engaging the Reader

What makes your readers want to keep turning the page? To make a point, and sometimes to provide a bit of comic relief, authors will use irony to engage their readers. In this lesson, we will look at four different types of irony that you can use when writing to make it more interesting to readers.

Verbal Irony

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne's husband, Chillingworth, , wants to know who fathered Hester's child like everyone else in the town. Chillingworth says,

'Yet fear not for him! Think not that I shall interfere with Heaven's own method of retribution, or, to my own loss, betray him to the gripe of human law.'

In reality, this is exactly the opposite of what Chillingworth intends to do, making it an example of verbal irony.

Verbal irony is when what a character says and what the character mean are completely opposite from one another. Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony. An example of sarcastic verbal irony appears in Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, when Montag argues with his wife, Millie, who is so obsessed with television that she calls it her family. Montag says,

'Does your `family' love you, love you very much, love you with all their heart and soul, Millie?'

As an author, verbal irony might be incorporated into your characters' dialogue in order to add a touch of comic relief during a tense moment or to express cynicism. Verbal irony contributes to the piece through flippant references that are interpreted through the lens of behavior of the characters. In other words, since Chillingworth is an evil character, references about revenge from him are going to be taken as a warning rather than interpreted as being a great idea.

Dramatic Irony

In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the reader knows that John has fallen madly in love with Lenina. The only person that doesn't know is Lenina. She shares her frustrations with her friend, Fanny, saying,

'Sometimes I think he does and sometimes I think he doesn't. He always does his best to avoid me; goes out of the room when I come in; won't touch me; won't even look at me. But sometimes if I turn round suddenly, I catch him staring; and then-well, you know how men look when they like you.'

Dramatic irony is when a character acts or reacts to a situation based on their lack of knowledge about the big picture. Typically, the audience, and maybe some of the other characters know what is happening, but typically not the character that is featured in the scene.

As an author, dramatic irony may be used to engage readers by adding suspense to the writing. The reader is on the edge of their seat wanting to help out the character, which creates the tension you want to keep readers turning the pages.

Situational Irony

After Mama uses her insurance money to buy a new home, Mr. Lindner pays the Younger family a visit in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Mr. Lindner introduces himself, stating that he is there as a representative of the neighborhood association. Mr. Lindner says, '

Well - it's what you might call a sort of welcoming committee, I guess. I mean they, we -I'm the chairman of the committee - I go around and see the new people who move into the neighborhood and sort of give them the lowdown on the way we do things out in Clybourne Park.'

However, the Youngers soon learn that his reason for coming is that the neighbors want to buy them out to prevent a black family from moving into the neighborhood. This is an example of situational irony. Situational irony is when what actually happens is the opposite of what you would expect to occur.

In your writing situational irony can occur within a single scene or over the course of an entire book. Situational irony fights against predictability to make writing more intriguing. It can also be used to help make the point that people rarely behave as we expect them to.

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