Structural Irony: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Definition of Structural Irony
  • 1:51 Examples of Structural Irony
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Have you ever read a book and thought the protagonist or narrator must be crazy? Chances are they were actually participating in structural irony, which you'll get to learn all about and see some examples of in this lesson.

Definition of Structural Irony

Do you remember the 90's movie Clueless? The protagonist, Cher, was what many of us might say is your typical spoiled rich girl who has a loose grip on reality when it comes to the people and events around her. As its title implies, Cher's cluelessness is an integral part of how the plot unfolds. This is also a great example of structural irony, which occurs when individuals internal to a narrative express faulty perceptions of reality.

When we refer to 'internal individuals,' we're referencing that structural irony is typically facilitated by a naïve protagonist or narrator. It would be terribly difficult to tell a story without a main character or someone to actually tell it, so these individuals are internal and integral to a narrative's structure. When these people are confused or misguided in their observations of what's really going on - but the author and readers are fully aware of the truth - structural irony happens. For instance, the obliviously naïve Cher must have it spelled out for her why her crush Christian doesn't respond to her advances, while we the audience already know that he's not interested in her gender at all.

Structural irony is particularly prevalent in satire, a genre devoted to comically pointing out society's faults. This genre and the use of irony in general were at their height during the Neoclassical Period - a literary era running between the 18th and early 19th centuries and based heavily on the practices of Greco-Roman literature.

Since that period, prolific use of irony has dropped out of favor, so structural irony, which of course runs through an entire work, has become especially sparse. Here are examples of structural irony from two of the masters of Neoclassical literature, which, though not all that modern, you still may recognize.

Examples of Structural Irony

Candide

The naïve titular protagonist of this satire helps the French author Voltaire point out the many faults he finds in society. Although he comments on everything from operations of the state to prostitution, Voltaire's primary preoccupation is the concept of philosophical optimism, or attempting to view everything through often absurdly understated terms.

Since understatement is a great vehicle for irony, Voltaire uses Candide's misguided faith in the philosopher Pangloss' optimistic ideas to create a solid framework for structural irony. Take for instance the excerpt below, in which Pangloss (and accordingly, Candide) shrugs off an earthquake that has just destroyed three-quarters of Lisbon, Portugal - an event that we readers know should be taken much more seriously.

'This concussion of the earth is no new thing,' said Pangloss, 'the city of Lima in South America experienced the same last year; the same cause, the same effects; there is certainly a train of sulphur all the way underground from Lima to Lisbon.' 'Nothing is more probable,' said Candide. . .'

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