“What is Irony?”: A Guide for English Students and Teachers

As we transition from childhood into adulthood,
we begin to realize that things, people, and events are often not what they appear to be. At times, this realization can be funny, but
it can also be disturbing or confusing. Children often recoil at this murky confusion,
preferring a simple world in which what you see is what you get. Adults, on the other hand, often LOVE this
confusion– so much so that we often tell ourselves stories just to conjure up this
state. Whether we run from it or savor it, make no
mistake: “irony” is a dominant feature of our lives. In simplest terms, irony occurs in literature
AND in life whenever a person says something or does something that departs from what they
(or we) expect them to say or do. Just as there are countless ways of misunderstanding
the world [sorry kids], there are many different kinds of irony. The three most common kinds you’ll find
in literature classrooms are verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony. Verbal irony occurs whenever a speaker tells
us something that differs from what they mean, what they intend, or what the situation requires. Many popular internet memes capitalize upon
this difference, as in this example [display dog fire meme]. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask
of Amontillado” offers a more complex example of verbal irony. In the story, a man named Montresor lures
another man named Fortunato into the catacombs beneath his house by appearing to ask him
for advice on a recent wine purchase. In reality, he means to murder him. Brutally. By walling him up in those catacombs [spoiler
alert]! As the two men travel deeper underground,
Fortunato has a coughing fit. Montresor appears to comfort him in the following
richly ironic exchange: “Come,” I said with decision, “we will
go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved;
you are happy, as I once was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter. We will go back; you will be ill, and I cannot
be responsible…” “Enough,” [Fortunato] said, “the cough
is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough.” “True—true,” I replied.” If we only paid attention to the appearance
of Montresor’s words, we would think he was genuinely concerned with poor Fortunato’s
health as he hacks up a lung. We would also think that Montresor was trying
to be nice to Fortunato by agreeing with him that he won’t die of a cough. But knowing Montresor’s true intentions,
which he reveals at the start of the story, we are able to understand the verbal irony
that colors these assurances. Fortunato won’t die of a cough, Montresor
knows, but he will definitely die. This scene is also a great example of dramatic
irony. Dramatic irony occurs whenever a character
in a story is deprived of an important piece of information that governs the plot that
surrounds them. Fortunato, in this case, believes that Montresor
is a friendly schlub with a terrible wine palette and a curious habit of storing his
wine near the dead bodies of his ancestors. The pleasure of reading the story stems in
part from knowing what he doesn’t—that he’s walking into Montresor’s trap. We delight, in other words, in the ironic
difference between our complex way of understanding of the world and Fortunato’s simple worldview. Finally, the story also includes, arguably,
a great example of situational irony. As its name suggests, situational irony occurs
when characters’ intentions are foiled, when people do certain things to bring about
an intended result, but in fact produce the opposite result. At the start of the story, Montresor tells
his readers that his project will succeed only if he “makes himself felt as such to
him who has done the wrong.” In other words, Fortunato must not only know
that he has been tricked but also why he was tricked and why he must die. If this is Montresor’s intention, however,
he goes about it in a rather strange way, offering Fortunato countless sips of wine
on their trip into the catacombs that gets his antagonist pretty drunk. By the end of the story, Montresor has certainly
got away with the crime, but it’s far from certain that Fortunato (or even Montresor)
knows why he is given such a terrible death. So why does Montresor insist on telling us
that his story is a success? One reason might be that he is anxious about
the situational irony that envelopes his story and wants to cover the reality of that irony
with a simple appearance of triumph. He’s gotten away with it, and Fortunato
knows why he must die. If readers push back against this desired
outcome, testing it against Fortunato’s confusion at being chained to a wall and bricked
into place, they travel further than even Montresor is willing to go into the murky
catacombs of irony.

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