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Irony Definition: incongruity between appearance and reality

Literary Irony

Authors use irony to add interest to their work. Audiences who are more informed than the characters are more invested in seeing the outcome; likewise, readers who can see the irony in dialogue will more likely be able to make deeper connections. Irony also allows the author to surprise the reader, which keeps the plot engaging.

For example, in “The Necklace”, Madame Loisel loses her rich friend’s necklace and replaces it at a severe economic cost to her and her husband. After 15 long years of poverty in order to repay the cost of the replacement necklace, Madame Loisel discovers that the original necklace was simply a piece of costume jewelry, and if she had been honest with her friend in the very beginning, she and her husband would not have lost everything. This story is also ironic because Madame Loisel is a very materialistic woman; because of her greed, she becomes nearly destitute, and realizes how good she actually had it when she thought she was poor before. Irony is typically found in three forms: situational irony, verbal irony, and dramatic irony.

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Examples of Irony in Literature

  • In Oedipus Rex, the audience knows that Oedipus is returning to his birthplace and marrying his mother which fulfills the Oracle’s prophecy, even though Oedipus and his mother do not realize it.

  • In “The Necklace”, Madame Loisel discovers that the expensive necklace she replaced was actually a fake.

  • In “The Gift of the Magi”, Della sells her hair for Jim’s watch chain, and Jim sells his watch to get combs for Della’s hair.

  • In “The Story of an Hour”, Mrs. Mallard’s husband survives the train accident, but she believes he is dead. She dies of sadness when she sees he is actually alive, and everyone thinks it was shock.

  • In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Bruno is brought into the gas chamber when he climbs under the fence in order to join his new friend Shmuel, not fully understanding that Auschwitz is a death camp and Shmuel is a prisoner.

Be sure to check out our article, Three Types of Irony!

Learn more about various devices in literature in our Picture Encyclopedia of Literary Elements!
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