What Is the Role of Irony in Literature?

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  • Written By: Debra Barnhart
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Irony is a figure of speech in which the meaning intended by the author or speaker is the reverse of what is being avowed. A method for evoking humor, irony in literature is often like a private joke that creates a sense of complicity between author and reader. In effect, the author is saying to the reader, “I know you are smart enough to understand what is really going on here.” Irony in literature is intended to provoke the reader into thinking harder and analyzing a situation. By comparing and contrasting reality with suppositions about reality, the reader is able to arrive at a better understanding of the author’s intent.

The rhetorical device of irony in literature is often far more effective than a direct statement. A classic example of the use of irony in literature can be found in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, an American novel set in a small Alabama town during the 1930s. While teaching a current events class, Miss Gates, the local school teacher, leads the class in a discussion about the rise of Nazism in Germany and the persecution of the Jewish people. Miss Gates told the class that only those who are prejudice persecute people, unlike those where they lived. Smug and comfortable in her support of the Jewish people, she is totally incapable of seeing the irony of her comments in light of her extreme prejudice toward black residents of the town.

Irony is common in everyday speech and is closely related to sarcasm — a harsh or bitter statement that often points out some sort of contradiction. Entertainers and comedians frequently use both irony and sarcasm to incite laughter. Comedian Bill Cosby used irony to great effect in “The Baffling Question,” an essay in which he discussed the serious issues that arise when raising children. The baffling question that the title of the essay refers to is the question of whether or not to have children. Cosby divulges that carrying on the family name was an important reason for his wanting a son, but after the trials and tribulations of raising his son, Cosby confessed to sometimes telling his son to not reveal his true identity.

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Post 4

I love it when authors use irony in their stories. As it says in the article, it is almost like a wink and a nod to the reader and an admission that we are smart enough to get it.

Post 3

@croydon - I think the problem is that there isn't really a good term for what most people mean when they say "ironic". They mean that it's fitting that something like that happened (someone jokes about hitting people with cars and then gets hit by a car). You might call it poetic justice in literature, but that is too much of a mouthful for everyday use.

The irony is that they are basically using the word ironic to mean the opposite of what it does mean.

Post 2

Irony is a term that gets misused these days because people don't really understand what it means. I'm not an expert either, and I'm sure I sometimes get it wrong too, but I think we're getting close to the point where it is going to enter the language as having a different meaning and I think that's a shame.

Irony only happens when something is the opposite of what you might expect. It's not ironic when someone crosses the street without looking and gets hit by a car. It's ironic when someone gets hit by a car while they are sitting at a restaurant.

I think the line might get blurred a little bit in literature, because if a character

jokes about being hit by a car, the last thing you might expect is for him or her to be hit by a car (depending on the kind of book), but even then I think you're pushing the line a bit by calling it ironic.

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