Not to be upstaged by drama, fiction contains a number of the same literary elements. Novels and short stories have memorable scenes, are enriched by authentic dialogue, and can be narrated by someone as omniscient as Wilder’s Stage Manager. While there is a tremendous amount of overlap in the literary terms used to analyze poetry, drama, and fiction, this section will be limited to one of the most difficult and often misused terms, irony. The late comedian George Carlin clarifies its misuse.

A photograph of the comedian George Carlin on stage addressing the audience

Source: . . . coming. Look Busy (George Carlin),
Bonnie, Wikimedia

Irony deals with opposites; it has nothing to do with coincidences. If two baseball players from the same hometown, on different teams, receive the same uniform number, it is not ironic. It is a coincidence. Irony is a state of affair that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result. For instance, if a diabetic, on his way to get insulin, is killed by a runaway truck, he is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering insulin, then he is the victim of irony.

Watch the video below to see how Christopher Warner makes a similar distinction between coincidence and irony.

A photograph of an American Indian’s headdress

Source: playing ... , starsantiques, Flickr

Verbal irony occurs when someone says something and means just the opposite. The setting for O. Henry’s story “The Ransom of Red Chief” is a town named Summit that sits on flat land. Other examples are a giant named Tiny, a hero named Coward, or a guy with no hair named Curly. Sarcasm, a low, crude form of irony, is an insult disguised as a compliment. When you call a clumsy friend “Grace,” a failed chef “Emeril,” or an off-key singer “Beyonce,” you are being sarcastic (and you may hurt a friend’s feelings).

Another type of irony is situational irony. Situational irony occurs when an event happens that is unexpected. Situational irony and coincidence are often confused. A coincidence is an event that happens by accident but it is related to another event. In other words, a coincidence is not necessarily unexpected. Now, try your hand at distinguishing examples of situational irony from coincidence. Read each event and identify it as irony or coincidence.

icon for an interactive exercise

Now, let’s take a look at irony in a work of fiction. Click the link to read Langston Hughes’s short story “Thank You, Ma’am.” As you read the story, watch for reversals of your expectations. When you are finished reading, return to the lesson.

Irony plays a large part in the plot of Langston Hughes’s short story “Thank You, Ma’am.” In the beginning of this story, you most likely expect that a teenager with criminal tendencies will get the best of an older lady, but Hughes reverses our expectations. Instead of cowering, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones takes charge by kicking the teenager “right square in his blue-jeaned sitter.” Next, she reaches down, grabs the boy, and shakes him.

take notes icon Other reversals or ironic twists occur in the story. Let’s take a look at a few by writing explanations of specific ironic examples. Note the plot events listed in the first column. For each event, either write what you expected to happen or write what actually happened using your notes. When you are finished, check your understanding in each row below to see possible responses.

Plot What you expect What actually happened
Mrs. Jones puts a half-nelson around the neck of the teenager and drags him down the street. You expect that someone who commits a crime will be taken to jail or the police department.
Check Your Understanding
Sample Response:

Instead, Mrs. Jones takes Roger to her apartment.
Mrs. Jones tells Roger to wash his face.
Check Your Understanding
Sample Response:

Mrs. Jones has just apprehended a criminal. His hygiene seems kind of trivial now. Roger is still worried that he is going to jail, so washing his face doesn’t seem like a priority. Grooming is expected before going to church, school, or work, but not before going to jail.
Mrs. Jones claims Roger’s face is so dirty, he can’t even be seen in jail. She says, “Not with that face, I wouldn’t take you nowhere.”
Mrs. Jones finds out about Roger’s desire to own blue suede shoes. You expect her to lecture the boy about breaking the law for something so frivolous.
Check Your Understanding
Sample Response:

She offers to pay for the footwear of his dreams.
The boy notices that Mrs. Jones’s purse is sitting on the table.
Check Your Understanding
Sample Response:

Because she held on to the purse so tightly in the beginning of the story that the strap broke, you expect her to lock it up.
Mrs. Jones leaves her purse on the table as a sign of trust.