Writing

Writing 101: What Is Situational Irony? Learn About Situational Irony in Literature With Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 30, 2019 • 3 min read

Irony: it’s clear as mud. Theorists quibble about the margins of what constitutes irony, but situational irony is all around us—from humorous news headlines to the shock twists in a book or TV show. This type of irony is all about the gap between our expectations and reality, and it can make a memorable and powerful impression when we encounter it.

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What Is Situational Irony?

Irony refers to instances where one thing appears to be the case on the surface, but is quite the opposite in reality. There are many different types of irony, and many different ways for this kind of contradiction to reveal itself.

Situational irony is the irony of something happening that is very different to what was expected. Some everyday examples of situational irony are a fire station burning down, or someone posting on Twitter that social media is a waste of time.

Writers sometimes use situational irony as a literary technique to convey a particular message.

Where Did Irony Originate?

The word “irony” comes from the Ancient Greek “eironeia,” meaning dissimulation or feigned ignorance. The Greeks often used forms of irony in their literature, particularly in their great theatrical tragedies. It also recurred in Greek comedies, which featured a stock character called Eiron who defeated his opponents by underselling his own abilities.

What Is the Difference Between Situational Irony, Dramatic Irony, and Verbal Irony?

Situational irony is one of three main types of irony in literature. The others are:

  • Dramatic irony. This refers to situations where the reader has more information than the character in a text. So, while the character believes a certain thing is true or expects a certain outcome, the observer knows otherwise. A famous and tragic example is in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where the hero drinks poison so he can join his lover in death, even though the audience knows Juliet to actually be alive. Learn more about dramatic irony here.
  • Verbal irony. This refers to situations where the literal meaning of something a character says is very different to the actual meaning they intend to convey—it can even be the complete opposite. Unlike with situational and dramatic irony, the character is aware of the irony and intends to create it. Another example from Shakespeare is in the play Julius Caesar, where Mark Antony calls Brutus “an honorable man” in a speech that actually reveals his flaws. Learn more about different types of irony in literature here.

How Do Writers Use Situational Irony?

Writers employ situational irony as a literary device for various effects, such as:

  • Creating a surprise twist. An example is in the film The Sixth Sense, where a psychologist helping a boy understand his powers as a psychic medium discovers he has been one of the ghosts all along.
  • Communicate a message or moral. For instance, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, all the characters turn out to already possess the traits they seek—courage, love, and so on. It suggests that sometimes all we need to overcome our failings is a shift in perspective.

3 Examples of Situational Irony in Literature

There are many examples of situational irony throughout literature.

  • While Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is full of dramatic irony, there is also a strong example of situational irony in the text. The character stabs out his eyes at a time when he is finally seeing the truth: “For he removed from her garment the golden brooches which she was wearing; he lifted them and struck the sockets of his own eyes, shouting that they would not see either the evils he had suffered or the evils he had done, now only in darkness could they see those whom they must not see, in darkness could they mistake those whom they wanted to recognize.”
  • Situational irony is central to the narrative is O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. In this 1905 short story, a poor young couple give up their most prized possessions to buy each other Christmas gifts—she sells her long locks to a wigmaker to buy her husband a chain for his pocket watch, and he sells his timepiece to buy her a set of combs for her hair.
  • J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series features many examples of situational irony. Voldemort dies after attacking baby Harry, believing it will secure his immortality; later, Harry’s nemesis, Professor Snape, turns out to be his protector.

Learn more about literary devices in Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass.