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figure of speech in which what is stated is not what is meant. The user of irony assumes that his reader or listener understands the concealed meaning of his statement. Perhaps the simplest form of irony is rhetorical irony, when, for effect, a speaker says the direct opposite of what she means. Thus, in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, when Mark Antony refers in his funeral oration to Brutus and his fellow assassins as "honorable men" he is really saying that they are totally dishonorable and not to be trusted. Dramatic irony occurs in a play when the audience knows facts of which the characters in the play are ignorant. The most sustained example of dramatic irony is undoubtedly Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus searches to find the murderer of the former king of Thebes, only to discover that it is himself, a fact the audience has known all along.



(1) In stylistics, a statement with a double meaning that expresses mockery or cunning. In irony a word or utterance acquires in the context of speech a significance that is opposite to its literal meaning, negates it, or casts doubt upon it.

The servant of influential masters,

With what noble valor

You inveigh with free speech against

All those whose mouths have been stopped.

(F. I. Tiutchev, “You were not born a Pole …”)

Irony is abuse and contradiction under the mask of approval and agreement. A phenomenon is deliberately characterized by a trait that it does not have, but that should have been expected. “Sometimes, pretending, one talks of what should be as if it actually existed: this is irony” (H. Bergson, Sobr. soch., vol. 5, St. Petersburg, 1914, p. 116). Irony is “a cunning dissembling, when a man acts like a simpleton who does not know what he actually does know” (A. A. Potebnia, Iz zapisok po teorii sloves-nosti, Kharkov, 1905, p. 381). Irony is usually considered a type of trope, more rarely a stylistic figure of speech.

The hint at dissimulation, the “key” to irony, is not usually contained in the expression itself, but in the context or intonation, and sometimes only in the situation of the utterance. Irony is one of the most important stylistic means used in humor, satire, and the grotesque. When ironic mockery becomes a malicious, biting taunt, it is called sarcasm.

(2) In aesthetics, irony is a kind of comic, ideological emotional evaluation, whose elementary model, or prototype, is the structural expressive principle of verbal stylistic irony. The ironic attitude presupposes superiority, or condescension, and skepticism, or mockery, which, purposely hidden, still determine the style of an artistic or publicistic work (Praise of Folly by Erasmus) or the organization of the imagery, characterization, or plot line (even of an entire work, such as The Magic Mountain by T. Mann). The concealed character of the mockery and the mask of “seriousness” distinguish irony from humor and especially from satire.

The meaning of irony as an aesthetic category varied significantly in different periods. For example, “Socratic irony” was characteristic of antiquity; it simultaneously expressed the philosophical principle of doubt and the means of revealing the truth. Socrates pretended to hold the same views as his opponent, agreed with what he said, and imperceptibly led him to absurdity, thereby revealing the narrowness of those truths that seem to be obvious to common sense.

The theory of the classical theater’s so-called tragic irony (“the irony of fate”) has been fully developed in the modern period. The hero is self-confident and does not know (in contrast to the spectator) that it is his own actions that are leading to his ruin. (A classical example is Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, and a later one, Wallenstein by Schiller.) Such “irony of fate” is quite frequently called “objective irony” and, when applied to real life, the “irony of history” (Hegel).

Irony was given an explicit theoretical foundation and varied artistic realization during the romantic period. (The theory was developed by F. Schlegel and K. W. F. Solger in Germany and the artistic practice by L. Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann in Germany, Lord Byron in England, and A. Musset in France.) Romantic irony stressed the relativity of all aspects of life that are restrictive in their meaning and significance. The stagnation of everyday life, class narrow-mindedness and the foolishness of self-contained crafts and professions are depicted as something voluntary that people undertake as a joke.

Romantic irony underwent an evolution. At first it was the irony of freedom: life contained no insurmountable obstacles for its free spirits and mocked all those who tried to attribute permanent forms to life. It turned into the sarcasm of necessity: the forces of stagnation and oppression overcame life’s free spirits. The poet soared high, only to be snubbed and crudely jeered at (Byron, Hoffmann, and especially H. Heine). Romantic irony exposed the discord between the dream (the ideal) and real life and the relativity and mutability of earthly values. At times it questioned the objective existence of these values and subordinated art to the goals of aesthetic play. Although exaggerated, Hegel’s opinion of the “negative irony” of the romantics has foundation.

Irony in the conception of the Danish thinker S. Kierkegaard is more negative and subjective in its nature and aim. He broadened it to a life principle—a universal means for the subject to attain inner liberation from the necessity and bondage in which the sequential chain of life situations holds him. In the decadent fin de siècle frame of mind, irony, in the long run, was also “negative” and even “nihilistic,” failing to make the distinction between truth and delusion, good and evil, and freedom and necessity. A number of symbolists subscribed to this view, about which A. A. Blok wrote with bitterness. For many 20th-century artists and aestheticians involved in modernism (the surrealists and Ortega y Gasset), “nihilistic” irony includes the principle of total parody and self-parody of art.

T. Mann developed the original concept of “epic irony” as one of the basic principles of contemporary realism. Proceeding from the universality of romantic irony, he claimed that irony is essential for epic art since it provides a view from the heights of freedom, peace, and objectivity, unobscured by any moralizing. A specific “ironic dialectics” is reflected in Brecht’s theatrical method of estrangement.

The classic Marxist writers, who had a high opinion of “Socratic irony,” also used elements of epic irony (Engels’ letter to M. Kautsky of Nov. 26, 1885, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch, 2nd ed., vol. 36, pp. 333–34) and dialectically revealed the concept of the “irony of history” (F. Engels’ letter to V. I. Zasulich of Apr. 23, 1885, ibid, p. 263).

Irony in Russian literature and criticism has taken various forms: the “avenger” and “comforter” in A. I. Herzen, for example, and “mocking criticism” in the revolutionary democrats V. G. Belinskii, N. A. Nekrasov, and M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin. Combined with humor in N. V. Gogol, irony turns into sarcasm in F. M. Dostoevsky, is parodic in Koz’ma Prutkov, and becomes romantic in A. A. Blok.

Soviet literature appreciates irony and is developing it in the traditions of 19th-century Russian realistic literature. Soviet writers using irony include V. V. Mayakovsky, M. M. Zosh-chenko, E. L. Shvarts, M. A. Bulgakov, Iu. K. Olesha, and I. Il’f and E. Petrov. The ironic attitude is realized artistically by means of various techniques, including parody (A. G. Arkhan-gel’skii) and parodic skaz, or first person narration (Zosh-chenko), as well as the introduction of grotesque elements (V. Belov), ironic speech (I. G. Ehrenburg), and the use of contrasting words and situations (A. T. Tvardovskii).


Losev, A. F., and V. P. Shestakov. Istoriia esteticheskikh kategorii. [Moscow] 1965.
Borev, Iu. B. Komicheskoe …. Moscow, 1970.
Kierkegaard, S. ijber den Begriff der Ironie. Diisseldorf-Cologne, 1961.
Strohschneider-Kohrs, J. Die romantische Ironie in Theorie und Gestaltung. Tubingen, 1960.
Muecke, D. C. The Compass of Irony. London [1969]. (Bibliography pp. 260–69.)



See also Last Laugh.
attempt to disarm accidentally causes opponent’s death. [Ital. Opera: Verdi, La Forza del Destino, Westerman, 316]
fight for freedom means opposing new found father. [Ital. Opera: Verdi, Sicilian Vespers, Westerman, 308–309]
presents Caesar with scroll outlining conspiracy; it remains unopened. [Br. Lit.: Julius Caesar]
perishes in trap he set for Turks. [Br. Lit.: The Jew of Malta]
Barnaby Rudge
Dennis, the public hangman, is sentenced to be hanged on his own scaffold. [Br. Lit.: Dickens Barnaby Rudge]
reformed radical; dies accidentally. [Russ. Lit.: Fathers and Sons]
subtitled: “The History of a Scoundrel.” [Fr. Lit.: Bel-Ami]
Bigger Thomas
finds freedom through killing and life’s meaning through death. [Am. Lit.: Native Son, Magill I, 643–645]
Bishop, the
dying in a delirium, he speaks of pomp and luxury rather than salvation. [Br. Poetry: Browning “The Bishop Orders His Tomb”]
Carlos, Don
loves bride he procured for his father. [Ital. Opera: Verdi, Don Carlos, Westerman, 319]
true prophet, doomed to go unbelieved. [Gk. Myth.: Espy, 40]
pleading insanity to leave army indicates sanity. [Am. Lit.: Catch-22]
emperor-scholar in soldier-worshiping nation. [Br. Lit.: I, Claudius]
Così fan tutte
illustrates comically some shortcomings of feminine fidelity. [Ger. Opera: Mozart, Cosi fan tutte, Westerman, 97–98]
victim of his own harsh tyranny. [Gk. Lit.: Antigone]
Defender of the Faith
Henry VIII’s pre-Reformation title, conferred by Leo X. [Br. Hist.: Benét, 258]
Gaigern, Baron
attempts to rob ballerina; becomes her lover. [Ger. Lit.: Grand Hotel]
Gift of the Magi, The
young couple sell their dearest possessions to buy Christmas gifts for one another, discover that the sacrifice made the gifts unusable. [Am. Lit.: O. Henry The Gift of the Magi in Benét, 395]
Harmony Society
embraced communism and celibacy; the latter caused their extinction. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 349]
John of Balue
imprisoned in an iron cage he invented. [Br. Lit.: Quentin Durward]
Magic Mountain, The
sanatorium as escape from “insane world.” [Ger. Lit.: The Magic Mountain, Magill I, 545–547]
Mayor of Casterbridge, The
Henchard dies in care of man he tyrannized. [Br. Lit.: The Mayor of Casterbridge, Magill I, 571–573]
Modest Proposal, A
essay in which Swift advises the Irish to eat their babies or sell them in order to relieve famine and reduce overpopulation. [Br. Lit.: Benét, 677]
Otternschlag, Dr.
attempting suicide, discovers will to live. [Ger. Lit.: Grand Hotel]
clown forced to be funny despite breaking heart. [Ital. Opera: Leoncavallo, Pagliacci, Espy, 339]
Patterne, Sir Willoughby
egoist’s actions lead to self-defeat. [Br. Lit.: The Egoist, Magill I, 241–242]
Point, Jack
jester who must be funny even when events break his heart. [Br. Opera: Gilbert & Sullivan The Yeomen of the Guard]
tyrant of Athens who, renowned for his continual good fortune, is ignominiously trapped and crucified by an envious ruler. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 801]
murderer; hanged for murder he did not commit. [Am. Lit.: Sanctuary]
R. U.R
. robots, manufactured for man’s ease, revolt. [Czech. Lit.: R. U.R.]
executed as Jewess; revealed to be Christian clergy-man’s daughter. [Fr. Opera: Halevy, The Jewess, Westerman, 168]
arranges murder of daughter’s seducer; she dies instead. [Ital. Opera: Verdi, Rigoletto, Westerman, 299–300]
“phony war”; lull between Polish conquest and invasion of France. [Eur. Hist.: Hitler, 815–819]
unaware, engages in single combat with Rustum, the father he had been seeking, and is slain. [Br. Poetry: Sohrab and Rustum in Benét, 943]
War of 1812
Jackson’s New Orleans victory occurred after treaty was signed. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 893]
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