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How to Teach Irony

    how to teach irony

    Irony is often a concept that is confusing to students. The fact that there are three different types of irony doesn’t help! 

    Irony is a contradiction of an established reality (or realities established by an author); it is an instance which reveals a reality that is different from what it appears to be. Irony done well can artfully reveal contradictions, depth, and nuances of the various subjects we write about as humans. 

    In literature, there are 3 types of irony: situationaldramatic, and verbal. Each functions differently to produce various effects such as suspense, tension, humor, or surprise.

    Teaching students irony means teaching them to recognize irony when it happens in a narrative or in reality. It also means teaching them to analyze the irony to see how it affects meaning within the text.

    Follow these general steps: 

    – Directly instruct students by defining each type with examples from meaningful or well-known texts.

    – Ask students to identify examples of irony they see in their life. With the class, try to parse these examples into each type of irony. Have some examples to use if the class is too quiet or needs some ideas to start the brainstorming process. 

    – Have students identify types of irony as they appear in the texts you read throughout the year. This might mean teaching irony towards the beginning of the year and briefly reviewing it every time meaningful or important irony shows up in assigned texts. More frequent review will result in more students mastering recognizing irony. There are great activities and options to give students practice through cooperative learning!

    – After identifying the irony, asking students to make connections by analyzing how the irony creates or affects the themes, messages, meaning, etc. of a narrative. 

    – One way to get students thinking is to frame an analysis by asking “What would have happened if this ironic event is not the case.” 

    Don’t know what the irony is? Don’t know what it ultimately means? That’s okay! Ask your students to try to figure it out! If they press you for an answer, remember that it’s always okay to say “I don’t know” and to give your best guess. Students need to see that it’s okay to stretch their thinking, especially when learning about the nuances of meaning, language, and style. 

    Situational Irony

    Situational irony involves a situation in which a character’s actions have an effect that is opposite to the intended effect. The outcome of the situation is thus contrary to what is expected by the characters or by the audience. 

    The purpose, or perhaps effect, of situational irony is to reveal some unique flaw or aspect about a situation through the use of contradiction. This contradiction forces readers to consider the difference between appearances and reality. Often, situational irony reveals important themes or ideas in a literary work. 

    General Examples of Situational Irony

    – A pilot who is afraid of heights.

    – A pet owner who is allergic to their pets.

    – A large dog named “Tiny.”

    Literary Examples of Situational Irony

    – Short Story: “The Necklace” by Guy De Maupassant.

    In this short story, the main character and the audience learn that the necklace for which this story is named and which is the cause of the main conflict isn’t exactly what it appears to be… it’s a fake! 

    – Drama: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

    The eponymous characters of this play fall prey to situational irony. Romeo, believing Juliet to be dead, takes his life. Juliet wakes, sees Romeo, laments, and takes her own life. The irony comes from the mistaken assumption of the other’s death, resulting in tragedy instead of a celebration of love. Because the audience knows Juliet is not dead to begin with, this is also an example of dramatic irony. 

    – Poem: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

    “Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” This is a quintessentially popular example of situational irony. When sailors are surrounded by the waters of an ocean, salty and non-potable as they are, lament upon the lack of drinking water, they are noting the inherent irony of the situation. 

    Dramatic Irony

    Dramatic Irony is a type of irony that occurs when the audience knows more information than the characters of a story. What kind of information creates dramatic irony? When the audience knows more than the characters, for example, the cause of a plot’s conflict or the identity of a secretive character, the audience begins to build expectations for the knowledge they now possess. This knowledge contradicts the words, actions, and motives of the story characters who do not know what the audience knows, and this creates the irony of dramatic irony. 

    Generally, dramatic irony is used to affect the audience’s expectation for the conclusion of a story by generating humor or tension. When we know something the characters don’t, especially something scary or dangerous, we generally want to yell out in warning or intervene, though of course we can’t. We know something humorous that the characters do not know, building up to that point can also build gleeful suspense. 

    Dramatic irony is most effective in dramatic or theatrical works; it is a very popular plot device used in plays, movies, and television. However, dramatic irony can also be present in other forms of literature, such as in novels or poems. 

    General Examples of Dramatic Irony

    – Titanic, the unsinkable ship, sank after hitting an iceberg in 1911. 

    – Seeing the monster before the characters in a horror film. 

    – Knowing the identities of Batman or Superman when most characters do not know. 

    Literary Examples of Dramatic Irony

    – Drama: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

    The Prologue of Romeo and Juliet lays out the entire plot of the play, right at the beginning. The audience knows from the beginning that a “pair of star-cross’d lovers [will] take their life,” yet the main characters of course do not know their fates. Knowing the fate of Romeo and Juliet right from the beginning builds suspense and tension, and generally increases the emotional investment as these characters fall in love with each other, only to find ruin in the end. 

    – Film: Mulan by Disney

    This popular Disney animated film centered itself on the notion of the female protagonist circumventing the gendered laws and social mores of Imperial China by impersonating her father in an all-male army. Since the audience knows Mulan is a woman, and because other characters do not know this, hilarious and serious scenarios are created around this irony that add meaningful depth to this cartoon. 

    – Film: The Truman Show directed by Peter Weir

    The Truman Show features the protagonist, Truman, who is unaware that his entire life has been recorded as a popular TV show. As he begins to see the cracks in his life, he begins to learn what the in-world audience and cast knows: that his life has been scripted and restricted. This dramatic irony certainly produces a very dramatic and existential conflict concerning fate, free-will, and the purpose of being. Technically, this is a second layer of dramatic irony, as the first comes from the fact that we, the true audience, knows that Truman is not in charge of his own life. 

    Verbal Irony

    Verbal irony occurs when a person or character says something different from what is meant. Generally, verbal irony is recognized as an intentional effect on part of the speaker with the purpose that the listener or audience recognizes the irony. It is also most often found in dialogue with narratives. 

    Verbal irony is not lying; lying is the intentional deception through falsehoods whereas the difference in meaning produced by verbal irony is meant to be noticed. Also, verbal irony is sometimes confused with sarcasm. It is not right to say that verbal irony is sarcasm, but rather that sarcasm is a subtype of verbal irony that occurs with attitude, usually to joke, mock, or hurt someone. 

    Verbal Irony is used to create humor or levity in tense situations, or it can be used to identify the contradictions or absurdities of a given situation. 

    General Examples of Verbal Irony

    – Sarcasm: Watching someone doing an action poorly and saying “Well, good job!”

    – Overstatement: Saying “I am starving” to indicate general hunger. 

    – Understatement: Saying “What a cute little puppy!” to a large, full-grown dog.

    Literary Examples of Verbal Irony

    – Short Story: “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe 

    When the protagonist, Montresor, asks about the health of Fortunato, his rival replies that “I shall not die of a cough.” This is verbally ironic because Montresor is leading Fortunato to his death, so Montresor cleverly replies with “True, true.” When the audience finds out about Fortunato’s impending death, this quote takes on even more meaning!

    – Novel: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

    In this Jane Austen novel, Mr. Darcy comments upon Elizabeth by saying, “She is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me.” The opposite becomes true as he falls for Elizabeth, which produces the verbal irony in these lines. 

    – Film: The Wizard of Oz directed by Bancroft and Cook

    This popular early film includes the well known quote by Dorothy to her little dog: “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” This is an example of understatement, as her chaotic arrival in Oz clearly shows that she is not in Kansas anymore.

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