by Don L. F. Nilsen
and Alleen Pace Nilsen
Irony: A Definition
1. Explain “eiron” and “irony” (3)
2. What is dramatic irony? (5)
3. Who is Chauncy Gardner? (7)
4. Explain the irony of “Being There,” “Don Juan,”
“The Gift of the Magi,” “Mark Anthony’s Speech,” “A
Modest Proposal,” The Rape of the Lock,”
“Screwtape Letters,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The
War Prayer.”
5. Contrast linguistic and situational irony (11)
6. Contrast irony (gallows humor) and satire (10).
7. What is socratic irony (13)?
8. Contrast stable irony and observable irony (14).
9. Explain tragic irony (15).
The word irony is related to the Greek eiron meaning “dissembler in
In modern usage it commonly refers to speech incidents in which the
intended meaning of the words is contrary to their literal interpretation
or to the expected meaning.
In conversations, people are often aware that they are being ironic
when, for example, they want to change the subject and they begin
with, “Not to change the subject, but….”
Similarly, a speaker who wants to emphasize a point he is making
starts with fake humility: “Far be it from me to say, but …..”
Someone with an unproven argument might begin with, “Clearly …”,
or “As is well known….”
(Nilsen & Nilsen Encyclopedia 168)
• Johnny Carson kept a toilet company from using the
“Here’s Johnny” as a trademark.
• They had the slogan, “The World’s Foremost
• The judge decided in favor of Carson not because of
an invasion of privacy, or because of a demeaning of
the plaintiff’s reputation, but because the “Here’s
Johnny” toilets might be confused with the “Here’s
Johnny” clothing and restaurants.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 190)
• Dramatic irony occurs
when the audience
members know things
that the characters do not
• In George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara,
Unterschaft asks Bilton, the foreman, if
anything is wrong, and Bilton responds that
a “gentleman walked into the shed and lit a
cigarette, sir; that’s all.”
• The stage directions are that Bilton is to say
this “with ironic calm.”
• The irony is obvious only when the
audience learns that the shed is filled with
high explosives.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen Encyclopedia 169)
• Jerzy Kosinski’s novel and the movie
Being There. is about a mentally
disabled gardener named Chauncey
• Those around him treat him as though
he is a sage and a great visionary. They
supply grandiose metaphorical
meanings for what are the simple and
sometimes inane observations of an
ordinary gardener. (Nilsen & Nilsen
Encyclopedia 169)
• The period in literary history in which irony
was most developed was the Age of the
Enlightenment, the time of Voltaire, Hume,
Pope, Dryden, Swift, Addison, Steele, and
• However, irony has been included in
literature throughout history. In Chaucer’s
14th-century Canterbury Tales, an unhappily
married merchant grandly praises marriage.
• In William Shakespeare’s 16th-century Julius
Caesar, Marc Antony’s extravagant praise of
Caesar is ironic.
• Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century “Modest
Proposal” that the English begin eating Irish
babies was in no sense modest.
• An additional irony is that some of Swift’s
opponents read his ironic proposal as
legitimate rather than ironic and attempted to
have Swift committed as mentally ill.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen Encyclopedia 169)
• Critic Northrop Frye makes a distinction between satire and
irony. He says that satire is a criticism of society with a clear
understanding in the author’s mind of what society should be
like, but is not.
• The author of a satire hopes to persuade readers to work for
the author’s vision as does C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters.
• Those who create gallows humor and irony do not intend to
point their readers in a particular direction, but instead to leave
them in doubt.
• As Frye says, “Whenever a reader is not sure what the author’s
attitude is or what his own is supposed to be, we have irony
with relatively little satire” (Frye 131-239).
Many modern critics make only the two-way distinction between
linguistic and situational irony.
Linguistic irony requires a sender and a receiver, while situational
irony requires only an observer with a clever mind as when Lily Tomlin
buys a waste basket.
The clerk puts it into a paper sack so she can take it home, and the
first thing Tomlin does when she gets home is to put the paper sack
into the waste basket.
Derek Evans and Dave Fulwiler’s Who’s Nobody in America is filled
with such ironic complaints as the one from James M. Gatwood of San
Ramon, California. In seven visits to his dentist he spent $2,800 and
the dentist still calls him Sidney. Gatwood asks in frustration, “Who
the hell is Sidney?”
• (Nilsen & Nilsen Encyclopedia 168)
• There is double irony in O. Henry’s story “The Gift
of the Magi” in which a husband sells his watch to
buy combs for his wife’s hair and she sells her
hair to buy a gold chain for his watch.
• This is similar to the joke about the two friends,
one a Catholic and one a Protestant, who try to
convert each other.
• They present such convincing arguments that the
Protestant becomes a Catholic and the Catholic
becomes a Protestant.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen Encyclopedia 169).
• Socratic irony occurs when a person
pretends to be ignorant and willing to
learn from another, but then asks adroit
questions that expose the weaknesses
in the other person’s argument.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen Encyclopedia 169)
• Literary critic Wayne Booth uses the term stable
irony to refer to that which humans create to be
heard or read and understood with some precision.
He says that stable ironies allow readers glimpses
into authors’ most private thoughts.
• An example of Observable irony is when a premature
monsoon ruins an army’s invasion plans or lightning
strikes just as a preacher raises his arms to make a
dramatic point about God.
• In such situations, all that is needed is an aware
observer. Writers and dramatists often work such
observable ironies into their plots (Nilsen & Nilsen
Encyclopedia 169).
• Tragic irony is used for
situations where there are
terrible consequences, as in
the Greek drama Oedipus
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