Irony is found throughout many works of literature. In the Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, Osterreich Peter describes the use of irony, “Irony’s general characteristic is to make something understood by expressing its opposite.” Irony points out the discrepancy between how things appear to someone and the actual reality of a situation. There are several types of irony that author’s use to give their works more complexity and context; verbal, situational, and dramatic.
Firstly, verbal irony is used to reveal a character’s motives and personality. This can be done through the use of sarcasm, an exaggeration, and an understatement of a situation. In the book Literature Structure, Sound, and Sense, Laurence Perrine defines verbal irony, “Verbal irony, the simplest and, for the story writer is the least important kind, is a figure of speech in which the opposite is said from what is intended.” In order for verbal irony to effective, it must first be detected by the reader. In Christine Gerrard’s article Irony, she explains, “But verbal irony is only effective if the reader picks up some hint along the way that the author’s real meaning is different from that of the surface meaning.”
If this hint is not realized by the reader, then the author’s use of verbal irony has failed. Verbal irony should be used when the reader least expects it. This form of irony can also be used work by playing on the gap between the style adopted and the subject matter. By changing the tone through the use of sarcasm, words, and tone this can be done.
If done correctly, verbal irony can be a successful use of irony. Secondly, situational irony is used to create a more relatable situation or character. Laurence Perrine states, “In a irony of a situation, usually the most important kind for the story writer, the discrepancy is between expectation and fulfillment, or between what is and what would seem appropriate.” Situational irony can make a plot twist more interesting, draw attention to a reader’s unwarranted biases, or show how a character handles an unexpected situation. For this type of irony to occur, there must be something that leads the intended audience to believe that a particular event or situation is unlikely to happen. Lastly, dramatic irony is used to create intense suspense or humor.
In From Ire to Irony, Rosario Ferre defines dramatic irony, “Dramatic irony establishes a secret communion with the reader, that disguises the unveiling of the plot from the characters in the text.” This creates a massive contrast between the immediate situation of the character and the events to follow, and therefore, triggering the reader’s curiosity. Dramatic irony has three stages of installation, exploitation, and resolution. The installation to the irony must have a contrast between image and reality. In Dramatic Irony in Hawthorne’s Romances, Robert Stanton describes this first phase, “[a]ny situation is ironic, to some extent, if it involves a diametrical contrast between appearance and reality, expectation and event, or intention and accomplishment.”
The audience must be informed if something a character is unaware of. The second stage is exploitation, and within that, the introduced information is used to spark the reader’s curiosity. Stanton states, “Irony at this level gives a story structure as well as emphasis.” Exploitation expands the information to the reader and emerges as a greater irony. The third stage of resolution is both the climax and solution when the character discovers the reality of a situation. Stanton describes this stage as, “[w]hen the reader perceives, in addition to the logical connection between the contrasted elements, a moral connection. All these stages come to form dramatic irony, and it is an effective form, creating curiosity and a moral connection with a reader. There is irony in the reversal of stereotypes. An audience expects a character to be a certain way due to a stereotype, and the author uses this to his benefit by making a character the complete opposite of their given stereotype.
For example, women have the stereotype of being subservient, do not speak up for themselves, never take action, and belong in the household. Many authors turn this stereotype around and have women fit into a strong manly stereotype, and this distorts the female norm. Stereotypes are used in reversal to make the reader realize how ridiculous their norms are. In Ironic Drama: A study of Euripides’ Method and Meaning, Philip Vellacott states, “In these dramatic mirrors men and women might learn to recognize what was tragic in their own situation.” This means how tragic men and women stereotypes can be because if you go outside of it you can be suppressed and judged. In Euripides’ Medea, Medea is the complete reversal of a stereotypical Greek woman.
The gender roles for males and females differed in almost every way possible; with women being viewed as fragile and submissive, while men were considered tough and dominant. In “Stereotype and Reversal in Euripides’ Medea,” Shirley A. Barlow argues that the protagonist, Medea, refuses to conform to the stereotypes of Greek women unless she can use it for her own personal gain. Barlow declares, “Women are expected to be domestic creatures, submissive, peaceful instruments rather than initiators of action. Men are held to be adventurous, dominant, aggressive, and to be initiators of action.” Medea is expected to be like a stereotypical greek woman. However, Medea breaks out of her submissive female stereotype and follows the heroic male stereotype.
Medea is furious how women are suppressed and she asserts, “Of all creatures that live and have an understanding we women are the wretchedest breed alive; first, we must use excessive amounts of cash to buy our husbands, and what we get are masters of our bodies’ (230-234). Medea is typically concerned with male beliefs, such as integrity, winning, and going to extreme depths to avoid humiliation. Barlow asserts, “She is concerned with honor, with glory; she is concerned at humiliation by her enemies, and determined to go to extreme lengths, [t]hat her enemies may not laugh at her.” Medea fights the belief that women should be subservient to men, and seeks out revenge when her husband cheats on her; instead of doing what was expected of her, sitting back and doing nothing.
Vellacott states, “A man can find other women when he tires of his wife; a woman has no such escape.” Medea seeks out revenge because she knows she cannot just divorce her cheating husband. Medea proclaims, “He allowed me to remain this day, in which I’ll make three people corpses: father, daughter, and my husband’ (373-375). The protagonist is willing to kill for revenge; going completely against what a typical Greek woman of that time period would do. Medea then has a conflict within herself on whether or not she should kill her children. However, Medea seeks out revenge so much so, that she abandons her role as a mother and ends up killing her own two boys in cold blood. After Medea kills her children she feels like her vengeance has been fulfilled.
Medea states, “You were not about to treat my bed with dishonor and spend a pleasant life laughing at me. I’ve fittingly driven my sting into your heart’ (1354-1360). Medea goes so far just to prove herself against the Greek female norm, and that is what makes Medea a truly ironic. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author uses dramatic irony and the reversal of stereotypes. In the article Dramatic Irony in Hawthorne’s Romances, Robert Stanton states, “Hawthorne presents life at its worst in order to isolate and emphasize the real existence of moral values and moral laws. Hester is punished for committing adultery with Dimmesdale, a pastor.
Her punishment is to wear a scarlet letter, meant to represent shame and adultery. However, the narrator describes the letter as being a “mystic thing” that has many meanings. For Hester, the scarlet letter comes to represent grace and pride, and Hester is not ashamed of it. After wearing the scarlet letter for seven years, it has given Hester a new profound sense of confidence. Hester does not let the sin of women committing adultery to suppress her. She shows this confidence when she shares her plan to run away with Dimmesdale to Europe. Hester wants to put her past and sin behind her and exclaims, “The past is gone! Wherefore should we linger upon it now? See! With this symbol, I undo it all, and make it as it had never been!” (188).
Hester removes the letter from her bosom, feeling like she has carried her shame long enough. Hester takes off the letter, and the narrator says, “But there lay the letter, glittering like a lost jewel, which some ill-fainted wanderer might pick up, and therefore be haunted by strange phantoms of guilt, sinkings of heart, and unaccountable misfortune” (189). Once Hester removes the letter, the darkness of the shame brought upon her is removed, and she is allowed to live in happiness. When Hester doesn’t let the letter weigh her down, she sticks up for herself. She is a fierce and brave woman, that is far from being fragile and quiet.
The novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, uses Zeena to portray the reversal of stereotypes. Zeena is a small and frail woman, while Ethan is a gigantic man. Despite Zeena’s apparent physical weakness, she, not Ethan, holds the dominant position in their household. Wharton describes Zeena as, “Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast, while the other held a lamp. The light . . . drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its rings of crimping-pins” (22).
Zeena first asserts dominance over Ethan when she hides the house key so Mattie and he cannot enter the house. Zeena knows that Ethan loves Mattie and she will not allow it in her household. The narrator states, “It was Zeena’s habit when they came back late from the village to leave the key of the kitchen door under the mat” (21). That night Zeena did not put the key under the mat and instead opened the door herself. This symbolizes that she is dominant over Ethan because she is the one that decides who can and cannot enter the home. Also when Ethan attempts to stand up to Zeena he does it weakly and effectively. Zeena wants to seek out new help because she feels like Mattie is inadequate and knows about her and Ethan. Ethan feels as if Zeena is pure evil, as she is pushing away the only option he has for happiness.
Ethan wants to rebel against Zeena and the narrator states, “Confused motions of rebellion stormed in him. He was too young, too strong, too full of the sap of living, to submit easily to the destruction of all his hopes. Must he wear out all his years at the side of a bitter querulous woman?” (74). It is ironic that Ethan does not have control an aspect of his life because Zeena is in charge of it. To Ethan and Mattie, it is logical to commit suicide because they know that they cannot live without each other. Mattie suggests they kill themselves by crashing into a tree, “Right into the big elm. You said you could. So we’d never have to leave each other anymore” (92). Mattie convinces Ethan to commit suicide with her.
However, the attempt fails and Mattie is left paralyzed. Mattie becomes bitter like Zeena and is no longer filled with life. For Ethan, it is a true tragedy, as he is left to take care of two, practically lifeless women. In conclusion, verbal, situational, and dramatic irony is used to create a complex plot and characters within all of these novels. Verbal irony occurs in a conversation where a character’s goal is to be understood as meaning something different to what their words literally mean. Situational irony occurs when the exact opposite of what is meant to happen, happens. Dramatic irony happens when the audience is aware of something that the characters in the story are not aware of. All these types of irony form together to create a tool that can execute a story in which reality is mirrored back to the audience.
- Barlow, Shirley A. “Stereotype and Reversal in Euripides Medea.” Greece and Rome, vol. 36, no. 02, 1989, pp. 158–171., doi:10.1017/s0017383500029739.
- DeMaiolo, James F., and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter. Applause, 1996. Euripides, and Diane J. Rayor. Euripides Medea: a New Translation. Cambridge University Press, 2013. Ferre, Rosario, and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. “From Ire to Irony.” Callaloo, vol. 17, no. 3, 1994, p. 900., doi:10.2307/2931873.
- FitzPatrick, Martin. “To a Practiced Touch.” ATQ, vol. 14, no. 1, 2000. Gerrard, Christine. ‘Irony.’ The English Review, vol. 11, no. 1, 2000, p. 17.
- Literature Resource Center,http://ezproxy.cerrocoso.edu:2081/apps/doc/A79981442/GLS?u=cclc_cerroccc&sid=GLS&xid=4dd8b3af. Accessed 4 Dec. 2018.
- Hutchinson, Emily, et al. Ethan Frome. Fearon Education, 1991. Perrine, Laurence, et al. Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Heinle & Heinle/Thomson Learning, 1974. Sloane, Thomas O. “Irony.” Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, Oxford University Press, 2006. Stanton, Robert. “Dramatic Irony in Hawthorne’s Romances.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 71, no. 6, 1956, p. 420., doi:10.2307/3043161.
- Stavrolakes, Niki. “Ironic Drama, A Study of Euripides’ Method and Meaning by Philip Vellacott.” Comparative Drama, vol. 10, no. 3, 1976, pp. 263–265., doi:10.1353/cdr.1976.0031.