Situational irony is the application of irony to an event or series of events in real life or in fiction. It is sometimes called cosmic irony or irony of fate. Irony, a poorly understood term, refers to a disparity between what is expected to happen and what actually happens. Verbal irony, subverting the meaning of a word or sentence by the use of tone or context, is better known as sarcasm. Dramatic irony is a narrative device whereby a character’s actions have the opposite effect from what was intended; this is what most people mean when they refer to situational irony.
The concept of irony was well known to the ancient Greeks, and Greek legends provide some of the earliest examples of situational irony. One legend involves the hero Perseus, grandson of Acrisius, who was king of the Greek kingdom of Argos. A seer predicted Acrisius would be killed by his grandson, so Acrisius did everything he could to avoid this fate, including imprisoning and exiling his daughter. The exiled Perseus became a legendary hero and returned to his grandfather’s kingdom for a sporting event, where he accidentally killed Acrisius with a poorly thrown discus. As with many such tales, the person’s attempt to avoid the predicted fate instead ensured it would occur.
The classic example of situational irony involves the Greek hero Oedipus, who was warned by a seer that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Trying to avoid this fate, Oedipus fled to a new kingdom, where he killed its king after a quarrel and later married the queen. Only later did he learn that he was adopted and that the king and queen were his birth parents. This legend inspired Sophocles to write Oedipus Rex, the famous Greek tragedy. For the Greeks, who believed a person’s destiny was predetermined by goddesses called the Fates, trying to avoid one’s fate was a kind of sin.
To qualify as situational irony, the event should be preceded by actions that were designed to create the opposite effect. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is another classic example; by faking her own death, Juliet accidentally causes the tragic events of the play’s ending. An example from real life was the 1981 assassination attempt against U.S. president Ronald Reagan. The shooter’s bullets actually missed the president. One bullet, however, ricocheted off the bulletproof limousine that was supposed to protect him, and it was this bullet that injured Reagan.
When situational irony leads to a deserving person being punished in an accidental but appropriate way, it is called poetic justice. An example would be a robber who gets mugged. If the robber gets mugged on the way home from a robbery, it would be an example of instant karma. This is when an action has immediate ironic consequences; the term comes from a famous 1970 song by former Beatle John Lennon. Karma is a concept in Hindu spirituality that holds that a person will experience the consequences of his or her good and bad actions, also summed up in the English expression “what goes around comes around.”