Irony is a direct contrast between what one says, does, or acts, and what one means to do, say, or act. Thus, irony takes place when a person means to say (or do) something and says the complete opposite―as in the case of rhetorical irony.
Many times, the person who uses irony in a conversation or action expects that his audience knows the actual emotion or thought that he is portraying.
For example, when employees at an office are forced to work in the heat and everyone is having a generally bad day, and an inquiry about their whereabouts generates a response like 'I'm having the best day!' That which is the exact opposite and which is pretty apparent as well―Irony.
Why is irony used in literature? The usage of irony as a figure of speech makes a person think. It adds layers to a piece of literature, not only making it an absolute delight to read, but also giving the reader something to decipher and learn from.
Types of Irony
Verbal irony is the most common form of irony that is used. It is also called rhetorical irony. The reason being that, a speaker who uses verbal irony usually means the opposite of what he says (not to be confused with satire and sarcasm. Though both forms employ irony but in the exaggerated format).
The tone and setting of a book plays the most important role in the success of verbal irony. If the tone is not properly defined and neither are the characters, then the instances of verbal irony might fall flat. The reader will fail to understand that what the character utters, and what he actually means is in fact the exact opposite.
Examples of Verbal Irony
In Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn says "But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable." Joining a band of robbers is not 'respectful'. Thus the irony is pretty apparent.
In William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet the prologue goes "Two households, both alike in dignity, . . .". As the story progresses we realize that neither household is dignified. Thus the writer employs irony to bring forth the situation.
In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says to her nurse "Go ask his name: If he be married. My grave is like to be my wedding bed." This is ironic because she does die because she marries Romeo.
Situational Irony takes place when the end result of a situation is the exact opposite of what was expected. This is also known as the irony of fate or cosmic irony. Like buying a woolen scarf for your boss on Christmas only to find that he's allergic to wool. This form of irony was used brilliantly by O. Henry.
Examples of Situational Irony
In the Gift of the Magi, The husband and wife both sell off their prized possessions to get the other a gift, only to find that the other has done exactly the same thing and now, neither of them can use the gifts.
In After Twenty Years, two friends who had made a pact with the other to meet after twenty years, find that one of them is a robber and the other a cop. So, in spite of being friends, the cop has to arrest the robber that night.
In The Cop and The Anthem, the main character who is a petty thief lies on a bench one lazy day and finally decides that he will turn over a new leaf. Only to find in the next instant to have a cop arrest him for loitering about.
Irony in literature brings about some added meaning to a situation, it makes a work more interesting and forces one to think. No wonder then that irony is so commonly used by authors in their works.