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Isn’t It Ironic? Well, Is It?

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Alanis Morissette has a lot to answer for. Her 1995 hit song “Ironic” is a melodic list of supposedly ironic events, including “rain on your wedding day” and “a free ride when you’ve already paid.” (Apologies for getting the chorus stuck in your head.)

The song has triggered countless debates since its release. But in order to truly answer Morissette’s probing question, “Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?,” you first have to understand what irony is.

Irony is a misunderstood rhetorical device. As Steve Martin quips in the classic 1987 comedy Roxanne, “We haven't had any irony here since about, uh, '83, when I was the only practitioner of it. And I stopped because I was tired of being stared at.” It doesn’t help that there are actually three flavors of irony: Verbal, Dramatic, and Situational. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Verbal Irony is perhaps the most straightforward of the three types, although even here there is room for debate. When someone says the opposite of what they mean, often for comedic effect, that’s verbal irony. Sarcasm is the most familiar form of verbal irony, but there are other forms. Socratic irony is another, named after the philosopher Socrates’ habit of feigning ignorance in order to expose the true ignorance of his debate partners, as is “playing devil’s advocate,” a gambit where you pretend to hold a contrary position to draw out an opinion or expose a weakness in a debate.

Verbal irony frequently depends on delivery and context for effect. If you’re standing out in the rain and someone offers you an umbrella, an ironic response might be, “No, thanks, I prefer getting soaked.” If the person with the umbrella takes your words at face value, they may shrug and move on, leaving you to get rained on. For this reason, sarcasm is difficult to convey in writing, leading to the development of several as-yet unused punctuation marks to identify it.

Dramatic Irony is a literary device where the reader (or, in the case of theater, the audience) knows something that the characters do not. One of the most famous examples is Romeo and Juliet, where the audience knows that Juliet is not dead but has simply taken a potion to appear so. When Romeo kills himself beside what he believes to be his true love’s corpse, it’s all the more heartbreaking because we know that she’ll wake up soon. Dramatic irony that leads to a sad conclusion is also sometimes called tragic irony.

Situational Irony is the most difficult of the three types to pin down. “There’s a lot of room for interpretation as to whether a particular situation qualifies as ironic or not,” writes Matthew Inman of the popular webcomic The Oatmeal. “It’s subjective, confusing, and depends on the expectations of either the reader or the characters in the situation.”

The oft-satirized O. Henry short story “The Gift of the Magi” contains an example of situational irony. In the story, two lovers, poor as church mice, sell their greatest treasures in order to buy Christmas gifts for each other. Della sells her long, beautiful hair to buy Jim a chain for his pocket watch, while Jim sells his watch to buy a pair of tortoiseshell combs for her hair.

In “The Gift of the Magi,” Della and Jim’s presents to each other are rendered useless by their sacrifices. That’s irony. As for “rain on your wedding day, ten thousands spoons when all you need is a knife, and meeting the man of your dreams (and then meeting his beautiful wife)”—sorry, Alanis, but those are just unfortunate coincidences.

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