Distinguishing Three Types of Irony in Literature

Many of our greatest works of literature are filled with examples of irony, and seeing how authors use irony to challenge our expectations will help you understand and appreciate these classic books and plays. Here are definitions of three commonly recognized types of irony:

The examples in this exercise come from three well-known American novels: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884), and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925); and one familiar American play, The Crucible by Arthur Miller (1953).

Here are synopses of the works from Wikipedia to help you remember the stories or introduce you to them if you have not read them:

Photo of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Source: Nathanial Hawthorne Grimshaw Origins and History

The Scarlet Letter: Set in seventeenth-century Puritan Boston, it tells the story of Hester Prynne, who bears a child through an adulterous affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. Throughout the book, Hawthorne explores themes of legalism, sin, and guilt.





Photo of Mark Twain.

Source: Mark Twain, A.F. Bradley, Wikimedia Commons

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Considered one of the Great American Novels, the work is among the first in major American literature to be written in the vernacular, characterized by local color regionalism. It is told in the first person by Huckleberry "Huck" Finn, a friend of Tom Sawyer and narrator of two other Twain novels (Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective). The book is noted for its colorful description of people and places along the Mississippi River. Satirizing a Southern antebellum society that had ceased to exist about twenty years before it was published, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an often scathing look at entrenched attitudes, particularly regarding race.




Photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Source: F. Scott Fitzgerald, noteablebiographies.com

The Great Gatsby: First published on April 10, 1925, The Great Gatsby is set on Long Island's North Shore and in New York City during the summer of 1922. It is a critique of the American Dream. The novel takes place following the First World War. American society enjoyed having prosperity during the "roaring" 1920s as the economy soared. At the same time, Prohibition, the ban on the sale and manufacture of alcohol as mandated by the Eighteenth Amendment, made millionaires out of bootleggers.




Photo of Arthur Miller.

Source: Arthur Miller, The Book Den

The Crucible: A dramatization of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Province of Massachusetts Bay during 1692 and 1693. Miller wrote the play as an allegory to McCarthyism, when the US government blacklisted accused communists. Miller himself was to be questioned by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956 and convicted of “contempt of Congress” for failing to identify others present at meetings he had attended.



Examples of Types of Irony from the Above Works


Type of IronyExamplesExplanation

Situational



A literary technique for implying, through plot or character, that the actual situation is quite different from that presented

Prynne from the Scarlet Letter on the scaffold with Pearl.

Source: Hester Prynne, Project Gutenberg



Scarlet Letter: Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, is trained as a healer and is very good at it, yet he dedicates his life to destroying another person. People expect doctors and healers to make people well. Chillingworth does everything he can to destroy his rival both physically and emotionally.
Huckleberry Finn: Huck and Jim’s escape to freedom up the river is destroyed when they miss the fork in the river in the fog (Ch. 15) and travel the wrong way on the river back into the Deep South, back into slave country. No one expects Huck and Jim to end up back in slave country when they have gone through so much to get to the free states.
Great Gatsby: Hundreds of people attended Gatsby’s lavish parties; only a handful attend his funeral. After appearing so popular, it seems surprising that Gatsby’s funeral is sparsely attended. His popularity was based on superficiality rather than friendship.
The Crucible: Rebecca Nurse, one of the most respected older members of Salem, is arrested “For the marvelous and supernatural murder of Goody Putnam’s babies” (Act 2, 69). In the play (and the historical records), it is shocking that a pillar of the community such as Rebecca Nurse, always a fine model for others, can be arrested and executed for a crime no one can even prove happened.

Dramatic



A dramatic device in which a character says or does something that he or she does not fully grasp but is understood or strongly suspected by the audience

Drawing of Huck Finn.

Source: Huckleberry Finn with rabbit, Edward Winsor Kemble, Wikimedia Commons




Scarlet Letter: [Early in the novel when Hester is being punished and questioned by the authorities, Governor Bellingham directs Dimmesdale to demand that Hester name the man who is her co- sinner.] “'Good Master Dimmesdale,' said he, 'the responsibility of this woman’s soul lies greatly with you” (Ch. 3, 47). Even a first-time reader of this novel by this point should be strongly suspicious of the minister and knows that he is the “co-sinner” and father of the infant—responsible for much more than Hester’s soul.
Huckleberry Finn: [Huck is at the circus, watching a “drunk” trying to ride a horse. Everyone in the audience except Huck knows this man is an expert rider and only pretends to be drunk to entertain the crowd.] “It warn’t funny to me, though; I was all of a tremble to see his danger. But pretty soon he struggled up astraddle and grabbed the bridle, a-reeling this way and that; and the next minute he sprung up and dropped the bridle and stood! And the horse a-going like a house afire, too. He just stood up there, a-sailing around as easy and comfortable as if he warn’t ever drunk in his life. . . ” (Ch. 22, 206). The circus audience, as well as readers of the novel, understand what Huck cannot because Huck isn’t familiar with this kind of circus act. The “drunk” is not really drunk, and Huck can’t understand why people in the crowd react the way they do.
Great Gatsby: Jay Gatsby has built his great wealth through criminal activity but believes it’s okay because his goal is based on pure love. The reader learns fairly quickly that the object of Gatsby’s love, Daisy, is not worthy of such devotion, that she, too, is corrupt.
The Crucible: John Proctor’s faithfulness to his religion is being questioned. Asked to list the Ten Commandments, he names nine of them, forgetting the commandment against adultery; his wife Elizabeth gently reminds him of it (Act 2, 64–65). The reader knows by this time that Proctor has committed adultery—he forgot the commandment that he has defied. His wife, instead of raging at him for his unfaithfulness, provides the answer, trying to protect him.

Verbal



The use of words in which the intended meaning is contrary to the literal meaning (e.g., I could care less)

Picture shows a young woman in Salem, MA, on trial for being a witch.

Source: "The Witch No. 1," Joseph E. Baker, Wikimedia Commons


Scarlet Letter: “Into this festal season of the year . . . the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far dispelling the customary cloud, that, for the space of a single holiday, they appeared scarcely more grave than most other communities at a period of general affliction” (Ch. 21, 155). Hawthorne says that these people, even when they are celebrating, still appear to be suffering, that their happiest day is like another community’s worst day.
Huckleberry Finn [at a funeral]:
“And every woman, nearly, went up to the girls, without saying a word, and kissed them, solemn, on the forehead, and then put their hand on their head, and looked up towards the sky, with the tears running down, and then busted out and went off sobbing and swabbing, and give the next woman a show. I never see anything so disgusting” (Ch. 25, 227).
Huck’s description of the women’s behavior at first seems sympathetic, but his comment at the end forces the reader to reconsider. The women’s behavior is not sincere; it is more to prove who is the best at putting on a “mourning” show.
Great Gatsby: [At a dinner party early in the novel, Daisy is telling her cousin Nick a story. Nick came to see Daisy’s cousin and her husband.] “‘I’ll tell you a family secret,’ she whispered enthusiastically. ‘It’s about the butler’s nose. Do you want to hear about the butler’s nose?’ [Nick replies.] ‘That’s why I came over tonight’” (Ch. 1, 14). Nick’s response to Daisy’s absurd story is the opposite of why he came to the dinner party at Daisy’s house; of course, he did not come to hear anything about the butler’s nose. He came because Daisy is a cousin, and he has just moved from the Midwest to Long Island and wants to start meeting people.
The Crucible: [Stage Direction] Enter Mercy Lewis, the Putnams’ servant, a fat, sly, merciless girl of eighteen (Act 1, 14). Mercy Lewis proves to be anything but merciful—as Miller’s stage direction notes. She’s a “fat, sly, merciless girl” as she will prove later in the story.

To make sure you understand the three types of irony in the chart, read the exercise that follows and determine which type of irony best represents each passage. You should be able to decide the type of irony even if you haven’t read the work. (Note: Some of these examples could represent more than one, but choose the most appropriate answer.) Use your notes to write your answers. When you’re finished with each one, check your understanding.

1. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester makes a public confession of her sin and bears her punishment gracefully as the community scorns her; Dimmesdale, her co-sinner, grows increasingly popular in the community.

  1. Verbal
  2. Dramatic
  3. Situational
Check Your Understanding

The correct answer is C, situational, because Hester and Dimmesdale commit the same sin. Hester suffers ostracism; Dimmesdale attains a status almost as high as a saint’s. There is no verbal irony here because nothing means the opposite of what is said. It is not dramatic irony because it’s not about reader knowledge or character ignorance. It’s an observation about the situations of the characters.

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2. Near the end of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer forces Huck and Jim into a ridiculous scheme to set Jim free. Tom gets shot in the leg in the process. When Huck gets Tom to the doctor, the doctor asks how he got shot. Huck replies,"He had a dream, and it shot him." The doctor says, "Singular dream."

  1. Verbal
  2. Dramatic
  3. Situational
Check Your Understanding

The correct answer is A, verbal. When the doctor says “singular dream,” he is most obviously remarking on the unique nature of the dream that shot Tom—as if such a thing could actually have happened. Although the doctor really knows this isn’t the case (because no dream could shoot someone), he speaks as if he takes Huck at his word. The doctor resigns himself to verbal irony probably because he is unsure of the circumstances and doesn’t want to appear nosy about what happened. It isn’t dramatic or situational irony because the readers and the characters, other than the doctor, know what is going on.

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3. In The Crucible, the primary purpose of the Salem theocracy was to maintain community stability, but during the witch trials, Salem descended into utter disarray.

  1. Verbal
  2. Dramatic
  3. Situational
Check Your Understanding

The correct answer is C, situational, because the expectation is that a society governed by religion will not succumb to hysteria and allow innocent people to be killed based upon nothing but outrageous accusations. There is no verbal irony here because nothing said is the opposite of what is meant. And there is no dramatic irony here because everyone knows what happened. It is the situation itself that is incongruent with people’s expectations.

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4. In The Great Gatsby, after Gatsby and Daisy have finally met again after five years, Nick comments, “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.”

  1. Verbal
  2. Dramatic
  3. Situational
Check Your Understanding

The correct answer is B, dramatic, because the reader knows that another person cannot make another person perfectly happy, least of all Daisy; it is humanly impossible because all people are flawed. Gatsby has pinned all his hopes on a flawed woman and the perceptive reader knows it. It isn’t verbal irony because the speakers mean what they are saying. And it isn’t situational because the reader expects Gatsby will find that reality isn’t the same as a dream.

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5. In The Great Gatsby, Daisy tells Nick, “‘I’m p-paralyzed with happiness.’” (Nick has just spent time with Daisy’s husband Tom and has already decided that Tom is harsh, cruel, and arrogant.)

  1. Verbal
  2. Dramatic
  3. Situational
Check Your Understanding

The correct answer is A, verbal, because Daisy is not happy. It’s not dramatic because Nick has already figured out what a brute Tom is, and it’s not situational because Daisy’s situation is not the opposite of our expectations.

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6. In The Crucible, John Proctor is desperately trying to save his wife Elizabeth from being hanged as a witch. Their maid Mary Warren could tell the truth and save her. He says to her, “’Do that which is good, and no harm will come to thee.’” (Many people who have done “good” have already been arrested.)

  1. Verbal
  2. Dramatic
  3. Situational
Check Your Understanding

The correct answer is B, dramatic. Just because people have been good throughout their lives, their good behavior does not protect them. Mary Warren might save Elizabeth, but she will call down the wrath of the vengeful, spiteful girls who have been accusing anyone they don’t like of being witches. It’s not verbal irony because nothing Proctor says is the opposite of what he means. And it’s not situational because events are unfolding as expected.

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7. In Huckleberry Finn, the Shepherdson and Grangerford families, who have been feuding for generations and have murder in their hearts, sit in the same church and listen sympathetically to a sermon about brotherly love.

  1. Verbal
  2. Dramatic
  3. Situational
Check Your Understanding

The correct answer is C, situational, because both sides of the feud sit together in church and agree with the sermon that they should love one another, yet they leave and then keep murdering one another. They don’t even remember why they are feuding in the first place.

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