Literary Techniques: Irony

Posted on December 1, 2017 by Patrick Condliffe

Welcome to our glossary of Literary Techniques IRONY post. This post gives a detailed explanation of one of the many techniques you can find in our Glossary of Literary Techniques for analysing written texts.

Students commonly ask the following questions about irony:

  • What is irony?
  • How is irony different to satire or parody?
  • Is there only one type of irony?
  • How do I analyse texts for irony?
  • How do I explain what irony does?

In this post, we explain what irony is. We look at the different types of irony, and explain how they work and differ from one another. We discuss how irony represents meaning and relates to concepts like parody and satire. Finally, we walk you through a step-by-step process for writing about irony in your responses.

 

Table of Contents

1. What is Irony?
3. How Does Irony Work?
3. How to Analyse Irony
4. How to differentiate the Types of Irony – Flowchart
5. How to Analyse Verbal Irony – Step-by-Step
6. How to Analyse Situational Irony – Step-by-Step
7. How to Analyse Structural Irony – Step-by-Step
8. How to Analyse Dramatic Irony – Step-by-Step
9. What Next?

 

 

Literary Techniques: Irony

Irony is a technique that is very commonly used and a powerful technique. Irony is an important part of the humour in parody and satire.

“Without irony, there would be no sarcasm.”

Irony comes in three broad forms:

  • situational,
  • structural, and
  • verbal.

Let’s have a closer look at what irony is and the different forms it takes.

 

What is Irony?

Irony is one of the most important techniques in all literature.

There are four broad types of irony we shall concern ourselves with:

 

Type of Irony
Features of Type of Irony
Example of Irony
Verbal Irony
A form of irony when a statement leads to a sense of irony. When a sentence expresses ideas or feelings that would conventionally mean something else or the opposite. A character says, “Thanks very much!” in response to a waiter spilling a drink on them.

Clearly, they are not happy about this.

Situational Irony
A form of irony that occurs when a situation leads to a sense of irony. When a statement or situation conveys something that is incongruous between what the setting is and what a character would be expected to say or do. A character at sea observes they are surrounded by water before lamenting there is nothing to drink.
Structural Irony
A form of irony that is conveyed by a text’s structure. This is a technique most commonly found onward from nineteenth-century literature and is signified by features like naive or unreliable narrators and ambiguous texts. A character navigates a text thinking and proclaiming that they are really smart and insightful, while their constant mistakes mark them as being very naive.
Dramatic Irony
A form of structural irony particular to dramatic texts. Dramatic irony functions by having the audience become aware of some idea, event, or thing that the character(s) are not aware of. This is a means of developing tension in stage plays, operas, TV shows, contemporary video games, and films. A character informs the audience that they will play the villain in a play, but the rest of the characters are shocked when the character is revealed to be evil.
 Table: The Varieties Of Irony.

Clearly irony is a complex thing. To better understand it and how it works, let’s have a look at the different broad types of irony.

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How Do The Different Types of Irony Work?

There are three main categories of Irony you will encounter. They are verbal, situational, and structural. Verbal irony and situational irony are quite similar, while structural irony is quite distinct.

 

Verbal Irony

When a speaker is ironic, they are expressing ideas and feelings using language that conventionally would mean something quite different or antithetical. A character may be having a horrible day, but when asked they instead state that, “My day is fantastic!” This statement is ironic, more specifically it is being sarcastic. Verbal irony is largely comic because of its timing. Verbal irony is very common, but this doesn’t mean that it is not effective.

For example, one of the most powerful lines from T.S Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” works because of verbal irony. The persona, upon narrating their arrival at Jesus’ birth, states that:

‘Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.’

This is a significant understatement.

This is the site where the Christian messiah was born, this is the purpose of the Magus’ journey. But this ironic understatement is important because it points to the more personal issue that emerges from the birth of Jesus – the alienation of the new Christians from their societies. The irony in this observation draws the reader’s focus away from the Birth and towards the experience of the narrator, which is a more personal and relatable experience.

What is striking about this example is that the verbal irony doesn’t strive to be humorous, but instead conveys the seriousness and gravity of the poet’s concern – the difficulty of maintaining a faith that others do not.

Remember, if you think you’ve worked out an instance of irony, ask yourself whether it’s plausible that the person speaking would mean what they are saying, or whether what they’re saying is likely to be an expression of what they really feel.

 

Situational Irony

Situational irony occurs when the situation does not reflect the expectations of what is happening. It is a little harder to spot in a written text than verbal irony.

Let’s consider a famous example of situational irony from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In the following dialogue, Symes is discussing the Newspeak Dictionary that he is working on for Big Brother and the IngSoc party. He says:

‘”The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,’ he said. ‘We’re getting the language into its final shape — the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.”‘

In this example, Symes is a linguist working on making a dictionary. This may sound like a boring topic, but it is made interesting by his observation that “We’re destroying words – scores of them, hundreds of them, every day.” This is the exact opposite that we’d expect for a linguist to be celebrating. Nor is this said in an ironic, or sarcastic manner, rather Symes is being very serious. This is an example of situational irony, the practice of the bibliophile is antithetical to the role we ascribe to an editor of dictionaries. It is this incongruity – a disparity between reality and expectation – that makes Nineteen Eighty-Four such an effective dystopia.

 

Structural Irony

Structural irony occurs when the structure of something demonstrates the incongruity between what people think has occurred and what has occurred. This is clear when composers use unreliable narrators or when narrators are particularly naive. Examples of this are JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye or F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Margaret Atwood makes extensive use of irony in the Penelopiad. We know this in part because, as Atwood shows us, it is unlikely that a woman in the position of the narrator would hold the sorts of views she articulates. What her ironic expression suggests is that, due to being a woman in a patriarchal society, she is cautious about voicing her true opinion.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is a specific form of structural irony. It relies on an audience member being aware of something that the characters are not aware of.  Let’s look at an example from Act 1 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1:

Prince Hal: So, when this loose behaviour I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
(I.ii.173–195)

In this soliloquy, Prince Hal, later Henry V, admits that he is playing an act. At this point in the play, he is hanging around an unsavoury group of people – the Boar’s Head Company – and getting up to adolescent mischief.

When Hal states that “when this loose behaviour I throw off / and pay the debt I never promised” he is admitting that he is not actually being mischievous for the sake of being a spoilt and rebellious prince. Rather, he is preparing the circumstances for a narrative of personal reformation that will gain him respect, power, and destroy his rival, Hotspur. Hal is talking about triumphing over his rival when he uses the simile ‘and like bright metal on a sullen ground,/ my reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault, / shall show more goodly and attract more eyes.’

The reason this piece of dramatic irony is so powerful in Henry IV Part 1 is that it forges a pact between the audience and Hal by sharing a secret. The audience now knows something that nobody on the stage knows. This also develops tension for the audience by foreshadowing the action to come in the play.

 

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Image: an example of Dramatic Irony – Bottom doesn’t know he is a donkey in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605)
Edwin LandseerScene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1848-1851)

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How to Analyse Irony:

Now you know what irony is, you need to figure out how to analyse it. What we will do now is break down the process of analysing irony into two step-by-step guides. One guide is for verbal irony and situational irony, and the other guide for structural irony.

Let’s consider the step-by-step process used for identifying and analysing verbal or situational irony:

Situational or verbal Irony

  1. Ask yourself if the character is saying something that matches the situation, mood, or surroundings. If there is no incongruity, that is if things match up – then there is no verbal or situational irony.
  2. See if the statement made by the character conflicts with the setting intentionally or unintentionally.
    1. If the character is using a mocking tone, this is verbal irony and indicates sarcasm.
    2. If the character states this seriously without an ironic or sarcastic intent, then this is situational irony.
  3. See what the irony is emphasising. For example, in Nineteen Eighty-Four when Symes discusses the destruction of words, he is emphasising social control through the manipulation of common language and idiom.
  4. Ask yourself, “how does this develop meaning in the text?”
    1. What does this tell us about the character who utters it?
    2. What does this tell us about the setting of the text?
    3. What ideas does this convey to the reader?
    4. What themes in the text does this use of irony directly relate to?
  5. Now you must relate your insights using a T.E.E.L structure. You should discuss verbal or situational irony in the following manner: ‘The character’s statement that, “oh, great it’s raining again!” is verbal irony. The composer uses the character’s ironic statement about the weather to indicate that they’re tired of constant rain in the text’s setting.’

 

Structural or Dramatic Irony

Now let’s see what steps we need to think about when we analyse structural irony.

Structural irony is a little different so it will require a slightly different approach. The process for analysing structural irony is:

  1. Ask yourself if the structure of the text is antithetical to what is happening inside the text. This is often difficult to uncover during the first reading of the text.
  2. See if there is incongruity between action and structure in a drama or film, or a text like a poem or narrative.
    1. If it is occurring in a dramatic or filmic text, then it is dramatic irony.
    2. If it is occurring in a novel, poem, or narrative text, then it is structural irony.
    3. Some dramatic texts employ structural irony – for example, in Hamlet, the eponymous character often talks of how swiftly and violently he will get his revenge. However, it takes him 3 very long acts before he does any kind of avenging at all. This is structural irony and not dramatic irony.
  3. See what the use of irony does to characterise the events or characters in the text. What things is the use of irony contrasting?
  4. Ask yourself, “how does this develop meaning in the text?”
    1. Why is the irony contrasting the audience’s knowledge of events with a character’s? This is dramatic irony, but what does it tell the audience about the character? How does it develop tension for the viewer?
    2. Is the structural irony telling us about a particular quality of the narrator or character? If the character is unreliable, is it because they are naive, or dishonest, or some other reason – for example, mental health complications.
    3. What qualities of the characters or settings does the irony develop?
    4. What central theme, or themes, in the text is the irony emphasising?
  5. Discuss your insights using a T.E.E.L structure. Remember, structural or dramatic irony should be able to be described in the following way: ‘the composer uses structural irony in their text in their unreliable narrator. The narrator leads the reader to believe that the events in the text are true and accurate when the conclusion to the text suggests quite clearly that the opposite is true.’

If you are unsure of what sort of irony you are trying to analyse and are unsure of which step-by-step guide you specifically need. Use this flowchart:

 

blog-technique-irony-flowchart
Flowchart: How to Identify a Type of Irony (©Matrix 2017)

 

Now you know how to tell your types of irony apart. Let’s have a look at some step-by-step guides. We’ve included a detailed example and response for each type of irony. If you need to jump to a specific form of irony, use the links below:

Afterwards, we’ll look at some specific examples of irony and some written responses discussing it effectively.

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Analysing Verbal Irony – A Step-By-Step Guide

For this example, we will look at the following passage from Authur Miller’s The Crucible. The following lines come from Act 3:

Hathorne: But a poppet will keep fifteen years, will it not?
Proctor: It will keep if it is kept, but Mary Warren swears she never saw no poppets in my house, nor anyone else.
Parris: Why could there not have been poppets hid where no one ever saw them?
Proctor: [furious] There might also be a dragon with five legs in my house, but no one has ever seen it.
Parris: We are here, Your Honor, precisely to discover what no one has ever seen.
Proctor: Mr. Danforth, what profit this girl to turn herself about? What may Mary Warren gain but hard questioning and worse?
Danforth: You are charging Abigail Williams with a marvellous cool plot to murder. Do you understand that?
Proctor: I do, sir. I believe she means to murder

 

Step 1: Decipher if what is said matches the situation

We have to figure out if what is being said matches the situation. In this scene, John Proctor is accusing the main witness in a trial, Abigail, of lying. Abigail has accused Proctor’s wife of witchcraft and has planted a poppet – a little doll – in the house to incriminate her. The members of the court, Danforth and Hathorne, are unwilling to accept this new evidence because it threatens all of the prosecutions that are happening in the town.

Proctor challenges the court’s reluctance to believe this new evidence with the absurd and sarcastic remark that “There might also be a dragon with five legs in my house, but no one has seen it.” Aware that Proctor’s argument challenges the court’s case and his own tenuous position, Parris’ assertion that “We are here… to discover what nobody has ever seen” is stated with a biting tone to undermine Proctor’s argument.

Parris’ statement is incongruous with the setting and situation. Courts rely on evidence and witness testimony. But the court in Salem has begun to rely on invisible evidence to persecute “invisible crimes” to maintain its own authority. Because of this, we can ascertain that there is either verbal or situational irony in the dialogue.

 

Step 2: Does the statement conflict with the setting intentionally?

Clearly, there is irony in this passage. Both Proctor and Parris are utilising sarcasm in their remarks. Proctor’s remark concerning dragons is absurd and mocking. Proctor is suggesting that the court may as well believe in mythical creatures as believe in tenuous testimony. This use of sarcasm is an ironic response to a flawed legal proceeding.

Similarly, Parris – who perceives Proctor as a threat – responds to sarcasm with sarcasm. His reminder to the court that “we are here to discover what nobody has ever seen” is an attempt to refute Proctor. However, it is unintentionally verbally ironic. Proctor doesn’t realise that in accusing Proctor and defending the court he is drawing attention to the absurdity of the court’s processes – the pursuit of charges based on what “nobody has seen.”

Both of these are examples of verbal irony, but they are functioning in different ways.

 

Step 3: See what the irony is emphasising

Now we have to figure out what the composer is using the irony for in this scene. Both Proctor and Parris are making statements that reflect their particular characters and motives, but that also make statements that characterise the court and legal proceeding at the heart of The Crucible.

We take legal systems to be implicit and fair. The symbol of justice wearing a blindfold is demonstrative of this.

The remark by Proctor is intentionally critical of the unfair and, in his view, absurd nature of the trial. He uses sarcasm to convey his anger at the court. While Parris uses his remark to undermine Proctor and challenge his rising authority, he inadvertently draws attention to a key aspect of the Salem Witch Trials. The trials are prosecuting invisible crimes that have had no tangible effect on anybody.

Parris unintentionally points to the fact that the Salem trials were implicitly unjust because they prosecute invisible things relying on evidence that hasn’t been witnessed. Both things that are antithetical to the processes of justice.

This conveys the themes of tyranny, justice, and community dissension.

Step 4: Unpack how meaning is being represented by the usage of irony

Now we know the theme that is being emphasised, we need to develop the ideas being represented by the irony. Based on what we know of the text, the characters, and our understanding of the technique of irony we can deduce the following:

  • Proctor is opposed to the court and is deeply critical of its methods and aims. He uses sarcasm to criticise its reliance on unjust methods. Similarly, this presents Parris as a man who is hiding behind the court to protect his own reputation.
  • This tells the reader that the setting of The Crucible is full of institutional corruption and that the community is riven by distrust and malice.
  • This represents to the audience the dangers of a corrupt judiciary and the collapse of the separation of powers between the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive branches of government.
  • Clearly, the irony in this scene is emphasising the lack of legal process in the Salem Trials and thereby the implicit corruption in the court. This addresses the themes of corruption and tyranny.

 

Step 5:  Discuss the example using a T.E.E.L Structure

It is not enough to present an example of irony, you need to explain how it develops meaning and connects to your text. This means you need to use a T.E.E.L structure to explain what you perceive the metaphor to be saying.

T.E.E.L stands for:

  • Technique: The technique used in the example;
  • Example: The example;
  • Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning;
  • Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.

You can find a more detailed explanation of using T.E.E.L in our post on paragraph structure (this post is part of our series on Essay Writing and shows you the methods Matrix English students learn to write Band 6 essays in the Matrix Holiday and Term courses). Let’s use this T.E.E.L structure to write about this example of a metaphor.

  • The technique being used is Verbal Irony.
  • The examples of this are Proctor’s statement that “There might also be a dragon with five legs in my house, but no one has ever seen it,” and Parris’s response that “We are here, Your Honor, precisely to discover what no one has ever seen.”
  • The effect of this is to emphasise the unjust practices of the Salem Witch trials and the corruption that existed in the court by highlighting the absurdity of the judicial process of prosecuting invisible crimes using invisible evidence.
  • The link to our argument. For the purpose of this response, we are arguing that Miller is representing the collapse of community and rise of tyranny as a consequence of the community’s greed and petty grievances.

Let’s put this together into a complete piece of analysis about this verbal irony:

Miller uses verbal irony in the exchange between Proctor and Parris in act 3 to highlight the growing tyranny in Salem during the trials. Proctor’s sarcastic retort that “There might also be a dragon with five legs in my house, but no one has ever seen it” uses verbal irony to highlight his anger at what he sees to be corrupt and tyrannical practices. While Parris strives to be cutting in his pithy response that “We are here, Your Honor, precisely to discover what no one has ever seen,” he inadvertently highlights the absurdity of the court’s case  – the prosecution of “invisible crimes” using invisible evidence. Proctor’s sarcastic irony and Parris’s naivete allow Miller to highlight how tyranny can develop in a community that allows judicial process and the separation of the powers of the state to subverted.

 

Read through that again, just so you can see exactly how it connects the different components of T.E.E.L into a detailed response.

Now we have gone through the step-by-step process of analysing verbal irony, let’s take a look at the other types.

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Analysing Situational Irony – A Step-By-Step Guide

For this example of situational irony, let’s consider this example from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“One did not know what happened inside the Ministry of Love, but it was possible to guess: tortures, drugs, delicate instruments that registered your nervous reactions, gradual wearing-down by sleeplessness and solitude and persistent questioning.”

Step 1: Decipher if what is said matches the situation

We need to understand what makes the example irony. For this, we need to consider if the statement matches the context and makes sense.

The “Ministry of Love” sounds like a place that is affectionate, caring and friendly. This does not match the description of the Ministry as a place of “tortures, drugs, delicate instruments that registered your nervous reactions, gradual wearing-down by sleeplessness and solitude and persistent questioning.” This doesn’t sound right, does it?

Clearly, there is an incongruity. So there must be some sort of verbal or situational irony.

 

Step 2: Does the statement conflict with the setting intentionally?

The description of the Ministry of Love is ironic. But is it verbal or situational irony? While this isn’t a conversation, it could still be an example of verbal irony from the narrator. In fact, we must use the narrator to figure out what kind of irony this is. In this example, the narrator is using a matter of fact and an unironic tone to describe the Ministry.

This is situational irony. The statement doesn’t match the setting, but the intent is to provide a matter of fact description of the thing being described – The Ministry of Love.

 

Step 3: See what the irony is emphasising

The narrator, in this example, is making a statement about the Ministry of Love. They are stating that what occurs there is antithetical to its name. This says something about the state that rules the people of Airstrip 1 and its citizenry.

Ministries, as government bodies, are meant to protect citizens and look after their wellbeing. The Ministry of Love sounds like this is its purpose, but this description of its actions contrasts starkly with this.

On the one hand, the state is presented as being violent and sadistic because they engage in “tortures, drugs, delicate instruments that registered your nervous reactions, gradual wearing-down by sleeplessness and solitude and persistent questioning.” But on the other hand, the citizenry has become accepting of this. They fear the state but don’t think twice about the incongruity between the Ministry’s name and its behaviour.

Clearly, this disjunction demonstrates that Big Brother’s manipulation of language and people has been successful.

This conveys the themes of language, tyranny, and fear present in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

 

Step 4: Unpack how meaning is being represented by the usage of irony

Now we know the themes present, we need to unpack how the irony in the example conveys these to the audience.

Given what we’ve discussed above, we can state that:

  • Oceania is a dystopic state. The matter of fact tone of this ironic utterance shows that the people are resigned to this state of affairs. The citizens expect their government to practice torture and social tyranny.
  • There is an incongruity between the name of the Ministry and its purpose. This tells us that the context is a dystopia.
  • This demonstrates to the reader that the citizens accept the oppressive state they live in because they have brainwashed so effectively. The Ministry of Love, and its inherent meaning, exemplify the principles of Newspeak and Doublethink.
  • This use of irony demonstrates the dangers of autocratic demagogues like Big Brother. The matter-of-fact use of doublespeak demonstrates the successful subversion of the language to entrench fear in a society that is ruled by a fascist government.

 

Step 5:  Discuss the example using a T.E.E.L Structure

Now we’ve broken these ideas down, we need to use a T.E.E.L structure – as we did in the example above for Verbal Irony – to discuss our understanding of the example. Remember, you can find a more detailed explanation of using T.E.E.L in our post on paragraph structure (this post is part of our series on Essay Writing and shows you the methods Matrix English students learn to write Band 6 essays in the Matrix Holiday and Term courses).

Let’s use this T.E.E.L structure to write about this example of a metaphor.

 

  • The technique being used is Situational Irony.
  • The example of this is the description of the secretive ministry: “One did not know what happened inside the Ministry of Love, but it was possible to guess: tortures, drugs, delicate instruments that registered your nervous reactions, gradual wearing-down by sleeplessness and solitude and persistent questioning.”
  • The effect of this reinforces Big Brother and IngSoc as a fascist entity that employs repressive state controls through the manipulation of language.
  • We will consider this through the lens of Module A: Comparative Study of Texts and Contexts. This means we need to link the text’s concerns to the context of the period.

Orwell was a BBC journalist and radio host who was deeply interested in language. During his time working for the Ministry of Information as a radio host, Orwell had to write and present propaganda. He ultimately resigned because his work went against his principles.

Let’s put this together into a complete piece of analysis about this example of situational irony:

Orwell was concerned with the manipulation of language to control the population. During his time working for the Ministry of Information, Orwell was a radio presenter for BBC. He was responsible for broadcasts to Ceylon and India and was required to include pro-British and pro-monarchy propaganda. This experience is reflected in the observation that “One did not know what happened inside the Ministry of Love, but it was possible to guess: tortures, drugs, delicate instruments that registered your nervous reactions, gradual wearing-down by sleeplessness and solitude and persistent questioning.” Orwell uses dramatic irony to depict the consequence of continued misinformation and propaganda. Here, the citizens of Oceania and Airstrip One have been indoctrinated by Doublethink and Newspeak to such an extent they are unaware that they are living in a fascist state. Big brother’s rule is, thus, absolute, because people don’t realise that they have something to rebel against.

 

This Module A response is longer than others because we need to include detailed contextual information. You will note that in the example above, we have begun with the linking information in the form of contextual background, and then concluded by connecting this with our overall argument about state control.

 

Now we have gotten to grips with situational irony, let’s look at the types of structural irony.

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Analysing Structural Irony – A Step-By-Step Guide

For this example, we will look at an extract from Albert Camus’ The Stranger. This is a quintessential modernist text, and so employs an unreliable narrator – Meursault.

To understand the following example, we need to know a little more about the text. In Camus’ The Stranger, the protagonist is a Frenchman living in Algeria. He is not wealthy, but he lives there with his mother, who he put into a nursing home. At the beginning of the text, Meursault’s mother dies and he goes to visit her body at the home. He quite clearly feels guilty about not visiting his mother in a substantial period of time.

Later Meursault shoots and murders an Arab who he did not know. He is tried in court and sentenced to death by guillotine. Much of the latter part of the novel is his account of the trial and his meditation on life while waiting his execution. The text is a 1st person narrative, and it is hard, at times, to distinguish between Meursault’s perception of events and the reality of things.

At one point in early the text, during chapter 1, Meursault states:

“When [the women] had sat down, most of them looked at me nodded awkwardly, their lips sucked in by their toothless mouths, so that I couldn’t tell if they were greeting me or if it was just a nervous tick. It was then that I realised they were all sitting opposite me, nodding their heads, grouped around the caretaker. For a second, I had the ridiculous feeling that they were there to judge me.”

Then later, in chapter 2, while on a date with Marie he recounts that:

“I told her Maman had dies. She wanted to know how long ago, so I said, “Yesterday.” She gave a little start but didn’t say anything. I felt like telling her it’s not my fault, but I stopped myself because I remembered that I’d already said that to my boss. It didn’t mean anything. Besides, you always feel a little guilty.”

Let’s see what’s happening in the extracts and what they tell us about Meursault and the text.

 

Step 1: Ask yourself if the structure of the text is antithetical to what is happening inside the text

The Stranger is told from the perspective of Meursault. We only have his account of events to orientate ourselves in the text. Usually when we read a text, we read it with the expectation that we will be given an accurate account of things by the narrator. Traditionally, narrators are accurate and do not lie. But people are imperfect and distinctly unlike narrators. Camus reflects this in his character Meursault who is paranoid and self-absorbed. Like other people he is unsure of how others perceive him and he frequently misjudges things.

It is established very early on that Meursault feels guilty about being absent from his mother and tries to reassure himself constantly. He grasps onto others excuses for his poor behaviour as a son. At the same time he projects his emotions onto them. In the examples above, Meursault acts as if he is to blame for his mother’s death. His paranoia and insecurity emerge in his fear that he is being judged by his mother’s friends, and, similarly,  his desire to absolve him from guilt when Marie “gave a little start.” He is relating an experience that is different to the one that is actually happening.

In these scenes, the others are judging him for his behaviour as a son, not on the possibility that he is responsible for her death. The friends are most likely judging him for not visiting his mother, Marie, because he is out on a date the day after her death. Clearly his perception of things does not correlate to what is occurring in the text. This is an example of structural irony.

 

Step 2: Ask yourself if this irony relies on the audience knowing something that the character does not

While dramatic irony mostly occurs in plays, it has become more common in contemporary poetry and prose. The example above doesn’t make one thing clear to the audience that is not clear to the character. In fact, the opposite occurs. The audience becomes uncertain of the accuracy of the narrator’s account of events. Clearly they are either naive, deceptive, or otherwise unreliable. Thus, this is an example of structural irony and NOT dramatic irony.

 

Step 3: See what the use of irony does to characterise the events or characters in the text

Camus was a philosopher and author concerned with representing existential concerns. Camus wrote extensively about the idea of the Absurd. To him, the Absurd was the fact that we constantly try and find meaning in life while often failing to find any. Absurdists felt that discovering such inherent value was essentially impossible.

Make of that what you will.

Meursault’s particular absurd futility lies in his ultimate situation, he is sentenced to death for killing a man he didn’t know for reasons he cannot fathom. This text uses the ambiguity and unreliability of Meursault’s perspective on the world to characterise the inherent difficulty of locating meaning in life. This text would not be as effective or understandable if it were not for the use of structural irony.

 

Step 4: Unpack how meaning is being represented by the usage of irony

We can ascertain the following meaning from the text’s use of structural irony:

  1. Meursault is an unreliable narrator.
  2. The audience has difficulty differentiating between what Meursault perceives to be the state of things, and what is actually occurring.
  3. Meursault’s unreliable perspective is representative of the difficulty individuals face in trying to ascertain meaning in life.
  4. This incongruence is representative of the difficulty of deriving meaning from existence.

Now that we know what we need to talk about, let’s put together a response discussing these examples.

 

Step 5: Use a T.E.E.L structure to compose your response about structural irony

It is not enough to present an example of irony, you need to explain how it develops meaning and connects to your text. For the purpose of this response, we will consider how Camus reflects a modernist concern. Let’s look at how to use a T.E.E.L structure to explain what we perceive the structural irony to be conveying.

  • The technique being used is structural irony.
  • The examples of this are:
    • “It was then that I realised they were all sitting opposite me, nodding their heads, grouped around the caretaker. For a second, I had the ridiculous feeling that they were there to judge me.”
    • “I felt like telling her it’s not my fault, but I stopped myself because I remembered that I’d already said that to my boss.”
    • “Besides, you always feel a little guilty.”
  • The effect of the effect of these examples is to demonstrate the difficulty in finding meaning in existence.
  • The link to our argument is how this reflects Modernist and Absurdist concerns .

Let’s put this together into a complete piece of analysis about this metaphor:

Camus’ The Stranger relies on structural irony to develop much of its meaning for audiences. The text’s protagonist and narrator, Meursault, is an unreliable narrator. He has inaccurate perceptions of how others perceive him, but because he is the narrator this makes it difficult to surmise exactly how he is perceived by others. The first instance of this occurs at his mother’s funeral where he feels that his mother’s friends “were all sitting opposite me, nodding their heads, grouped around the caretaker. For a second, I had the ridiculous feeling that they were there to judge me.” He briefly fears that they feel he is responsible for his mother’s death, when they are mostly likely judging him for being a bad son and not visiting his mother. Similarly, when he is out on a date and mentions that his mother was buried the day previously he takes Marie’s pause as an accusation of complicity in her death and muses that, “I felt like telling her it’s not my fault, but I stopped myself because I remembered that I’d already said that to my boss.” The reality is that she is likely off-put by his desire to date the day after his mother’s death. But his unreliable perspective makes this ambiguous. This reflects Camus’ belief in the Absurd – that is, the innate impossibility for humans to find meaning in life. This perspective is embodied in the inaccurate universal observations that “Besides, you always feel a little guilty.”

 

Take a minute and read that a few times to understand how it works together.

Now we have gone through the step-by-step process of analysing a metaphor, let’s take a look at dramatic irony to completely understand how it differs, and how to write about it effectively.

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Analysing Dramatic Irony – A Step-By-Step Guide

To understand how to analyse dramatic irony, let’s have a look at the first of Richard’s soliloquy’s from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Richard III. This soliloquy is the opening speech of the text. The Duke of Gloucester, who will become Richard III on his coronation, delivers this speech alone on stage.

Gloucester (Richard III):

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other

(Act 1, Scene 1, lines 14-37)

In these lines Gloucester sets the scene for the rest of the play’s action. He begins the soliloquy by discussing the recent events in England through the extended metaphor of the seasons becoming summer. He then compares himself, a deformed and unattractive man, to the attractive courtiers trying to woo Lady Anne. He concludes by outlining he has determined to set his brother and father against one another in his pursuit of the throne.

Let’s have a look at why this is dramatic irony and how to analyse it with a step-by-step process.

 

Step 1: Ask yourself if the structure of the text is antithetical to what is happening inside the text.

This text begins with its main character addressing the audience, indirectly, through a soliloquy. While this is not unusual, what he discusses is. Gloucester admits to the audience that he is misshapen and ugly. Rather than lament this, he embraces it and declares that “since I cannot prove a lover, / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain.”

Here the central protagonist is admitting  to the audience, immediately, that he wants to be the bad guy. This is unusual for a tragedy of this period. It also provides the audience detailed information that other characters in the text will not know.

 

Step 2: See if the incongruity between action and structure is occurring in a drama or film, or a text like a poem or narrative

This example is occurring in a play. And it is furnishing the audience with information that the other characters in the text will not know. This is an example of dramatic irony.

Step 3: See what the use of irony does to characterise the events or characters in the text

This soliloquy characterises Gloucester as evil. Gloucester is determined to spoil the serenity and peace England has after its previous conflict because he is jealous of the opportunities that others, like his brother Clarence, possess. This suggests that the final acts of violence were the fault alone of Richard III and not other political forces.

Step 4: Unpack how meaning is being represented by the usage of dramatic irony

This use of dramatic irony is particularly interesting because it characterises Gloucester as evil, but also develops an interesting relationship with the audience. Consider:

  • Gloucester defines himself as one “determined to prove a villain” who will “hate the idle pleasure of these days.”
  • Gloucester embraces his deformity to be a devilish character.
  • Gloucester makes the audience complicit in his malevolent plans.
  • Shakespeare develops the themes of good and evil and fate and free will by characterising Richard in this way

 

Step 5: Set down your insights using a T.E.E.L structure

As you know, you need to explain what you see in an example and its technique to support your argument. Module A studies this text in combination with Al Pacino’s documentary Looking for Richard. For the purpose of this response, we will consider Pacino’s typecasting as a villain or anti-hero in contrast to Gloucester. Let’s look at how to write about this example of dramatic irony in Richard III using a T.E.E.L structure:

  • The technique being used is dramatic irony .
  • The example of this is the opening soliloquy by Gloucester, especially the desire to “prove a villain.”
  • The effect of this is to characterise Richard III’s behaviour as inherently evil, and to depict him as a figure who chose to be evil. It also develops tension in the text by making the audience complicit in his devilish acts.
  • The link to our argument is that Gloucester chooses to be a villain and Pacino sees an affinity in this because he is often typecast as a villain or anti-hero.

Now let’s connect these parts in a full response about dramatic irony:

Al Pacino is often typecast as a villain. Most of his significant roles are of villains anti-heroes – Tony Montana in Scarface, the eponymous Serpico, and Michael Corleone in The Godfather. This history of typecasting informs Pacino’s decision to make a documentary about the contemporary relevance of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Richard III.  He feels an affinity for Gloucester because he feels that they share this fact in common. Gloucester uses the public perception of his character to great effect in his opening soliloquy. Gloucester confesses his plan to take the throne to the audience and proclaims that “since I cannot prove a lover, / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain / and hate the idle pleasure of these days.” This use of dramatic irony makes the audience complicit in his plans, and sets him up as a proto-antihero. While Richard III was widely seen by Elizabethans to be a villain, and Shakespeare does nothing to change this perception, this soliloquy foreshadows his subsequent actions in such a way as to make the audience anticipate and morbidly observe his malevolence. Pacino’s documentary draws attention to the history and our own modern context of cheering on figures like Michael Corleone or more recently Walter White or Frank Castle / The Punisher.

 

Can you see how we’ve developed our argument about the text, with evidence from it, and then connected this to the wider concerns of the module?

This is what you need to do.

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What next?

Now you’ve learned how to analyse the different types of irony, you need to practice this skill yourself. The best way to do this is to read your texts carefully. Irony, in one of its forms, will be present in all of your texts. It is important that you understand how to spot it and discuss it because it is such a powerful and universal technique.

 

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