20 Irony Examples from Classic Literature

Defining irony and studying irony examples can make your writing more impactful.

Irony is a type of figurative language or literary device that happens when the speaker or writer uses words to express something that is the opposite of the literal meaning. It gets the reader to stop and take a closer look at what the writer said. Irony happens often in real life as well, and strong writers need to understand how to use it.

To better understand this literary device, writers can look at irony examples in popular works of literature. 

Best Grammar Checker
Grammarly
$30

Grammarly is a top spelling, grammar and plagiarism checker. It'll help you find and fix errors fast, and it works everywhere. The free trial is useful too.

Become a Writer Today is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Irony Examples Highlighting Three Main Types of Irony

Irony can show up in literature in many ways. If the author has an incongruity between the written word and the intended meaning, it is likely an example of irony. Still, irony tends to fall into one of three main categories:

  • Situational irony – This occurs when the opposite of what is expected to happen occurs, such as taking an umbrella on a day that ends up being sunny and bright.
  • Verbal irony – This occurs when what a speaker says is the exact opposite of what the speaker means, such as when someone says “it's such a beautiful day” on a rainy day.
  • Dramatic irony – This occurs when the audience or reader knows what is ironic in the situation, but the character does not, such as when Snow White innocently eats an apple the reader knows is cursed.

Examples of Irony in Literature

To further understand the different types of irony, take a look at these examples of irony in classic literature.

Examples of Situational Irony

Situational irony is a common literary device used to make writing more interesting, as these examples show:

1. Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling

Throughout the Harry Potter books, Professor Snape expresses his dislike of the main character because of popularity and fame. This is situational irony because it was Snape's actions before the start of the books that jump-started the boy's fame.

Sale
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
  • Philosopher's Stone
  • Hogwart's
  • Dumbledore
  • Magic
  • School Days

2. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

This short story is a classic example of tragic irony that is also situational. When the main characters lovingly sell their most treasured possessions to buy something for their lover, only to discover that the item they bought is unusable because of that sale, the reader is left to ponder what sacrificial love looks like.

Sale
The Gift of the Magi (Holiday Classics Illustrated by P.j. Lynch)
  • Hardcover Book
  • Henry, O. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 40 Pages - 09/09/2008 (Publication Date) - Candlewick (Publisher)

3. “Messy Room” by Shel Silverstein 

In this classic children's poem, the speaker waxes eloquently about how messy a child's room is. At the very end, the poet reveals that it is, in fact, the speaker's room in an example of situational irony.

4. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Throughout this classic children's book, the characters show situational irony. Dorothy travels to see the Wizard to get home, only to find she had the power to do so on her own, while the other characters ask for character qualities, like courage or brains, that they already had. 

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  • Baum, L. Frank (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 143 Pages - 02/05/2021 (Publication Date) - East India Publishing Company (Publisher)

5. The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin

This ironic tale tells of the main character who hears that her husband has died. She starts to imagine what her life of freedom will look like. When she returns home in just an hour, she finds him alive and well, shocking herself and the reader.

Sale
The Story of an Hour (Tale Blazers)
  • Chopin, Kate (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 32 Pages - 01/01/2000 (Publication Date) - Perfection Learning (Publisher)

6. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

In this story, the audience and Pip do not know who the benefactor is, and the story makes it seem that Miss Havisham is the benefactor. When the true benefactor, Magwich, is revealed, it clashes with the beliefs of the audience and main character in a classic example of situational irony.

Great Expectations
  • Dickens, Charles (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 328 Pages - 12/04/2020 (Publication Date) - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (Publisher)

7. The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant

Here, the main character borrows jewelry from a wealthy friend, only to lose the necklace. She spends a fortune to replace the jewels, putting herself in a destitute situation. in the end, she learns the jewels she replaced were actually fake costume jewelry.

The Necklace and Other Short Stories
  • Guy de Maupassant (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 119 Pages - 02/05/1992 (Publication Date) - Dover Publications (Publisher)

Examples of Verbal Irony

Verbal irony comes in the form of written or spoken statements that have a completely different meaning. This can often be similar to sarcasm. Here are some examples: 

8. A Modest Proposal by Johnathan Swift

This essay shows an example of verbal irony when the author starts by earnestly pleading for the plight of destitute children in America, only to twist the writing to imply that children should be healthy enough to be cooked and eaten. Though the author was not actually advocating for cannibalism, this use of verbal irony gets the attention of the reader to make them think about the social issue at hand. 

A Modest Proposal
  • Swift, Jonathan (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 25 Pages - 11/20/2020 (Publication Date) - East India Publishing Company (Publisher)

9. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

In her iconic novel, Jane Austen opens with a verbally ironic statement, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Austen specifically structured the sentence to make the reader think about whether or not the man wants a wife, or he has a fortune because he does not have one.

Sale
Pride and Prejudice
  • Great product!
  • Jane Austen (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 480 Pages - 12/31/2002 (Publication Date) - Penguin Books (Publisher)

10. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In the famous line “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” Coleridge provides use of irony that is one of the most iconic in literature. While the character is dying of thirst, he is surrounded by water he simply cannot drink.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Other Poems: (with an Introduction by Julian B. Abernethy)
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 100 Pages - 10/01/2018 (Publication Date) - Digireads.com Publishing (Publisher)

11. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

In this play, Mark Antony says, “But Brutus says he was ambitious, And Brutus is an honorable man.” In fact, Antony is implying that Brutus is not ambitious nor honorable with this sneaky statement. 

Julius Caesar (Annotated by Henry N. Hudson with an Introduction by Charles Harold Herford)
  • Shakespeare, William (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 110 Pages - 02/22/2016 (Publication Date) - Digireads.com (Publisher)

12. “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe

In this poem, unsuspecting Fortunato is being led to his death by an acquaintance, Montresor. Montresor comments on Fortunato's cough, to which he replies “I shall not die of a cough.” This is true, but also ironic because Montresor intends to kill Fortunato at the end.

13. Lemony Snicket: An Unauthorized Autobiography by Lemony Snicket 

Lemony Snicket is a master at using verbal irony. One statement from this book says:

Today was a very cold and bitter day, as cold and bitter as a cup of hot chocolate if the cup of hot chocolate had vinegar added to it and were placed in a refrigerator for several hours.”

Obviously hot chocolate is neither cold nor bitter, and that is what makes this statement so ironic.

Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography (A Series of Unfortunate Events)
  • Snicket, Lemony (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 240 Pages - 05/06/2003 (Publication Date) - HarperCollins (Publisher)

14. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

In Pygmalion, Professor Higgins says, “I swear! I never swear. I detest the habit. What the devil do you mean?” In this statement, immediately after saying he hates swearing, he says, “What the devil,” which at the time was considered a swear word.

Pygmalion (Dover Thrift Editions)
  • George Bernard Shaw (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 96 Pages - 10/20/1994 (Publication Date) - Dover Publications (Publisher)

Examples of Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience is aware of a plot twist the characters are not, and this drives the plot along. Here are some examples:

15. Romeo And Juliet By William Shakespeare

Shakespeare was excellent at weaving dramatic irony into his plays, and Romeo and Juliet is a classic example of dramatic irony. When Romeo poisons himself, thinking Juliet is dead, the audience knows the tragic reality that she is just drugged. This is also a form of tragic irony as the end result is heartbreak.

Romeo and Juliet: The Tragical History Deluxe Club Edition (Shakespeare's Original)
  • Shakespeare, William (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 92 Pages - 02/15/2021 (Publication Date) - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (Publisher)

16. Macbeth by William Shakespeare 

In Macbeth, Duncan expresses his complete trust in Macbeth, even though the audience knows that witches prophesied that Macbeth would kill the king to take his place. When the king says:

“He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust”

The audience knows better.

Macbeth (Folger Shakespeare Library)
  • Great product!
  • Shakespeare, William (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 304 Pages - 07/01/2003 (Publication Date) - Simon & Schuster (Publisher)

17. Othello by William Shakespeare

Another example from the great English playwright, Othello shows dramatic irony when Iago manipulates the main character, even though the audience knows about the deception. Othello's trust in the deceptive friend drives the drama forward.

Sale
Othello
  • Great product!
  • William Shakespeare (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 314 Pages - 07/01/1993 (Publication Date) - Simon & Schuster (Publisher)

18. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

In Oedipus Rex, the main character attempts to solve a riddle by exposing the murderer of King Laius. Unbeknownst to him, but known to the audience, Oedipus himself is the killer. 

Oedipus Rex (Dover Thrift Editions)
  • Dover Publications
  • Sophocles (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 64 Pages - 10/01/2008 (Publication Date) - Dover Publications, Inc. (Publisher)

19. A Doll's House by Henrick Ibsen

In A Doll's House, Nora, the main character, is striving to pay her debt to attain freedom. Yet the audience quickly sees that the freedom she craves is actually a type of bondage, and that is the irony of the story.

A Doll's House (Dover Thrift Editions)
  • Dover Publications
  • Henrik Ibsen (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 80 Pages - 02/21/1992 (Publication Date) - Dover Publications (Publisher)

20. “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning

In this poem, a duke describes his former wife who died of what the reader believes to be natural causes. However, throughout the poem, he reveals clues that he actually murdered her out of jealousy.

My Last Duchess and Other Poems (Dover Thrift Editions)
  • Robert Browning (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 128 Pages - 12/23/1993 (Publication Date) - Dover Publications (Publisher)

A Final Word on Irony Examples

Looking at examples of irony in high school or college literature class can help you become a better writer. By incorporating irony in your own fiction writing, you can improve the impact of your writing. This literary technique gets people to think, and that makes writing work.

FAQs About Irony Examples

What is the definition of irony?

Irony is defined as “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning.”

What are some other forms of irony?

In addition to verbal, situational, and dramatic irony, writers may use:
1. Socratic irony – This form of irony occurs when a character feigns ignorance in order to get the other person to reveal their knowledge.
2. Cosmic irony – Common in Greek plays, this irony occurs when a god figure intervenes to create an ironic situation.
3. Tragic irony – This is a form of dramatic irony when the ironic situation creates a tragedy.

Join over 15,000 writers today

Get a FREE book of writing prompts and learn how to make more money from your writing.

Powered by ConvertKit

Author

  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.

Scroll to Top