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IRONY and PARADOX. by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Irony: A Definition. The word IRONY comes from the Greek eiron meaning “dissembler in speech.”

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irony and paradox


by Don L. F. Nilsen

and Alleen Pace Nilsen

irony a definition
Irony: A Definition
  • The word IRONY comes from the Greek eiron meaning “dissembler in speech.”
  • In modern English, the term usually refers to speech incidents in which the intended meaning of the words is contrary to their literal interpretation.

HISTORICALLY, IRONY IN LITERATURE developed during the Age of the Enlightenment—the time of Voltaire, Hume, Pope, Dryden, Swift, Addison, Steele, and Diderot; however it has a long history as in these examples.

  • In Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales, an unhappily married merchant grandly praises marriage.
  • In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Antony’s extravagant praise of Caesar is ironic.
  • Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century “Modest Proposal” putting forward the idea that the English should start eating Irish babies was ironic.
  • A related irony is that some of Swift’s opponents read his ironic proposal as legitimate and therefore attempted to have Swift declared insane.
There is double irony in O. Henry’s 1906 story “The Gift of the Magi” in which a husband sells his watch to buy gold combs for his wife’s hair while she sells her hair to buy a gold chain for his watch.
  • This is similar to the joke about the two friends, one a Catholic and one a Protestant, who try to convert each other. They presented such convincing arguments that the Protestant became a Catholic and the Catholic became a Protestant.
  • In the 1980s, Art Buchwald observed about Gary Trudeau that as with all successful “anti-Establishment figures, Mr. Trudeau will soon be an honored member of the Establishment.”
DRAMATIC IRONY IN LITERATURE occurs when the audience, or one of the characters, knows something that the other characters do not.
  • Jerzy Kosinski’s novel and the movie Being There is the story of a mentally disabled gardener named Chauncey Gardner. Because of unusual circumstances, Chauncey is mistaken for a sage and a great visionary. As he makes ordinary comments appropriate to a gardener, his listeners supply grandiose metaphorical meanings.
  • In George Bernard Shaw’s play, Major Barbara, one of the tensest moments for the audience is when they learn that the shed, just entered by a character who casually lit a cigarette, is filled with high explosives.
even young children have the skill to appreciate dramatic irony
Even young children have the skill to appreciate dramatic irony
  • In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, kindergarten children are amused that while the bears are puzzled, they know what happened to Baby Bear’s porridge.
  • They also like the fun of seeing how the youngest goat, in the story of Three Billy Goats Gruff, sets out tofool the troll who lives under the bridge.
  • And in the modern picture book, Miss Nelson Is Missing by Harry Allard and James Marshall, children are amused that by looking carefully at the pictures, they know—while the students in the classroom do not—that the horrible, mean substitute teacher Miss Viola Swamp, is really their kind and loving Miss Nelson in disguise.
irony vs satire
  • Critic Northrop Frye makes a distinction between satire and irony. He says that satire is a criticism of society with a clear understanding in the author’s mind of what society should be like, but is not.
  • The author of a satire hopes to persuade readers to work for the author’s vision as does C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters.
  • Those who create gallows humor and irony do not intend to point their readers in a particular direction, but instead to leave them in doubt.
  • As Frye says, “Whenever a reader is not sure what the author’s attitude is or what his own is supposed to be, we have irony with relatively little satire.”
one definition of irony is that it inspires the receiver of the message to ponder its meaning
One Definition of Irony is That it Inspires the Receiver of the Message to Ponder its Meaning
  • What does the message on this pickup mean?
  • Is the owner saying he chooses Arizona, NOT California?
  • Or is he saying that he chooses “Not Arizona, but California”?
  • Is this irony or just ambiguity?
many modern critics make only a two way distinction between linguistic and situational humor
Many modern critics make only a two-way distinction between LINGUISTIC and. SITUATIONAL humor.
  • Linguistic irony requires a sender and a receiver, while situational irony requires only an observer with a clever mind as when Lily Tomlin buys a waste basket.
  • The clerk puts it into a paper sack so she can take it home, and the first thing Tomlin does when she gets home is to put the paper sack into the waste basket.
  • Derek Evans and Dave Fulwiler’s Who’s Nobody in Americais filled with such ironic complaints as the one from James M. Gatwood of San Ramon, California. In seven visits to his dentist he spent $2,800 and the dentist still calls him Sidney. Gatwood asks in frustration, “Who the hell is Sidney?”
stable irony vs observable irony
  • Literary critic Wayne Booth uses the term stable irony to refer to that which humans create to be heard or read and understood with some precision. He says that stable ironies allow readers glimpses into authors’ most private thoughts.
  • An example of Observable (or Situational) Irony is when a premature monsoon ruins an army’s invasion plans or when lightning strikes just as a preacher raises his arms to make a dramatic point about God.
  • In such situations, all that is needed is an aware observer. Writers and dramatists often work such observable ironies into their plots.
paradox vs contradiction
Paradox vs. Contradiction
  • Because paradoxes appear to be contradictions, they are ironic in that observers must view the paradox from two competing points of view. They seem contradictory, unbelievable, or absurd, but in some sense are true.
  • While highlighting breakdowns in our expectations of a logical universe, they are sources of both delight and consternation as the human mind works to figure out how people can in good faith talk about a “large mouse” running between the legs of a “small elephant,” or can make sense out of the Yiddish curse, “He should drop dead, God forbid!”
paradoxes are sometimes the result of paradigm shifts in the history of ideas
Paradoxes Are Sometimes the Result of Paradigm Shifts in the History of Ideas
  • For example the most basic or earliest meaning of man may have been in contrast to animal, i.e. human cf. beast.
  • But then it took on a meaning man in contrast to woman, followed by the word acquiring such additional meanings as “bravery” and “noble behavior.”
  • It was in this sense that David Ben-Gurion in the 1970s called Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir, “The best man in government.”
paradoxes in children s literature

From Lewis Carroll

  • “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
  • “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam today.”
  • “Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

From Lemony Snicket

  • “It doesn’t take courage to kill someone… It takes a severe lack of moral stamina.”
  • “Assumptions are dangerous things to make—bombs, for instance, or strawberry shortcake—if you make even the tiniest mistake you can find yourself in terrible trouble.”
  • In The Miserable Mill, when a worker gets his leg mangled, his fellow workers give him a coupon for 50% off at the Ahab Memorial Hospital in Paltryville.
socratic irony
  • Socratic irony occurs when a person pretends to be ignorant and willing to learn from another, but then asks adroit questions that expose the weaknesses in the other person’s argument.
  • The name comes from the Greek philosopher (c. 470-399 B.C.) Socrates, who developed the Socratic method of teaching through asking questions designed to elicit answers from “inside” his students.
  • Along with Aristotle and Plato, he is given credit for laying the philosophical foundations of Western culture.

TRAGIC IRONY occurs in situations where there are terrible consequences as in the Greek drama Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear, and maybe even Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

So why in a class on humor, should we look at tragic irony?

  • One reason is that by recognizing tragic irony in literature, we will be better able to recognize it in real life and perhaps do something about it.
  • Also by looking at tragically ironic events, we can gain insights into the kind of dark humor that became fashionable in the latter half of the 20th century.
joseph heller s catch 22 as an example of dark humor
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as an example of Dark Humor
  • The title of Heller’s anti-war novel is so intriguing that it is now in dictionaries as the name for any tricky problem, especially one for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem.
  • In the book, Yossarian would be excused from flying bombing missions if he were declared insane. However the fact that he is trying to get out of flying bombing missions proves his sanity. He therefore has to keep flying.
  • A second paradox is that the pilots can go home after flying a number of missions, but the number keeps getting larger.
real life tragedies growing out of paradoxical events
Real-life Tragedies Growing Out of Paradoxical Events
  • Is this last paradox similar to what some of today’s soldiers feel about having their time extended in Iraq or Afghanistan?
  • In July of 2012, news stories revealed that, ironically, an average of one soldier per day was committing suicide while serving in an institution designed to prevent death.
Real-Life Catch-22’s illustrate the kind of irony illustrated by many urban legends and contemporary novels, films, and plays
  • People who can’t get a job until they have experience and who can’t get experience until they have a job are in a Catch-22.
  • So are Authors who can’t get their manuscripts published until they have an agent but can’t get an agent until they have been published.
  • A newspaper story under the headline “Texas in Catch-22” told about a Texas State law forbidding the execution of anyone insane. However, a prisoner on death row refused to take the medication that would keep him sane so the State was left in limbo.
ironies in the attempted assassination of president ronald reagan
Ironies in the Attempted Assassination of President Ronald Reagan
  • On a smaller scale, it was ironic that when John Hinckley tried to assassinate President Reagan, his shots went awry, but one bounced back from the bullet-proof steel of the President’s limousine and entered Reagan’s body. This means that in effect Reagan was shot by his own Presidential limousine, which was designed to protect him.
  • At the time of the shooting, Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel, which local “humorists” now refer to as the Hinckley Hilton.
  • President Reagan gave his a “stamp of approval” to joking about the assassination attempt when he asked the doctors treating him if they were “Republicans.” That he could make a joke while on a stretcher being wheeled into emergency surgery, relieved tensions around the world. WHY? HOW?
irony and paradox for fun


  • …do banks leave vault doors open and then chain the pens to the counters.
  • …do we leave cars worth thousands of dollars in the driveway and put our useless junk in the garage.
  • …do drugstores make the sick walk all the way to the back of the store to get their prescriptions while healthy people can buy cigarettes at the front counter.
more situational ironies


  • WHY the time of day with the slowest traffic is called “rush hour”?
  • WHY they sterilize the needle for lethal injections?
  • WHY if flying is so safe, airports are called terminals?
  • WHY sheep don’t shrink when it rains?
ironic statements are sometimes used as conversational lubricants a kind of anticipatory apology
Ironic statements are sometimes used as conversational lubricants—akind of anticipatory apology.


  • “Not to change the subject, but . . .”
  • Far be it from me to say, but . . .”
  • “I don’t mean to impose my opinion, but . . .”
  • “Clearly . . .” or “It is well known that . . .”
  • Do speakers realize they are starting out by saying just the opposite of what they intend?
  • Do you think the speakers appear humble or tricky?
  • How do these examples differ from the contradictory “The King Is Dead! God Save the King!”
IRONY FOR PERSUASIONThis turn on the phrase “Will Work for Food” was used as an attention getter in a serious article.

The author was protesting how in today’s economy, companies are increasingly asking students to do work for free (sometimes paying tuition for the privilege) that before the “downturn” they would have been paid for.

more irony for fun search irony on the internet to find photos of such real life ironies as
More IRONY FOR FUN. Search “Irony” on the Internet, to find photos of such real-life ironies as…
  • A rusted can of RUSTOLEUM paint.
  • A SAFE DRIVING school with a car crashed through the front window.
  • A WEIGHT WATCHERS office sharing a building with a BASKIN ROBBINS ice cream shop.
  • A sign in the midst of a traffic jam reading LANE CLOSED TO EASE CONGESTION.
  • A billboard from Pacific Bell reading PHONE OUT OF SERVICE? GIVE US A CALL.
Is this Visual Irony “stand-up” or “sit-down” comedy?Actually, the nuns are sitting on stools with “interesting” legs.
on searching for answers
On Searching for Answers

Because it is so hard to give definitions and clear-cut answers to all the possible questions about paradox and irony, we will end with a few more paradoxical statements made by famous writers and thinkers.

  • When I grow up, I want to be a little boy. Joseph Heller
  • Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Oscar Wilde
  • There isn’t any answer. There ain’t going to be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer. Gertrude Stein
irony web sites
Irony Web Sites


ALANIS MORISSETTE: “Ironic” Song with Lyrics: