What Is Situational Irony? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  December 6, 2023 4 min read
Situational irony is a literary device in which an action has the opposite effect of what is expected or intended. Due to this, the result of a situation comes as a complete surprise for both the audience and the characters in a story. The result can be funny or tragic, but it is always unexpected.

Example of situational irony
A marriage counselor getting a divorce is an example of situational irony: it goes against our expectations that a marriage counselor would have a successful marriage.

Situational irony is common in literature, film, and TV series, but we may also encounter it in everyday life. If you want to explore creative writing, use QuillBot's paraphrasing tool!


What is situational irony?

Situational irony is a type of irony that occurs when the result of a situation is different to what was expected. Situational irony involves a striking reversal between expectation and outcome (e.g., a police station getting burgled).

In literature and film, the purpose of situational irony is to engage the audience. As the narrative unfolds, the audience builds expectations about what is going to happen next. With situational irony, they see characters’ actions have unexpected or unintended results. By subverting the audience’s expectations, writers can create compelling stories that keep the audience in suspense.

Situational irony does not only occur in fiction; it can also occur in everyday life (e.g., an animal rights advocate wearing leather shoes).

3 types of situational irony

There are three types of situational irony most commonly used in storytelling:

Cosmic irony

Cosmic irony occurs when a higher power (e.g., fate, a deity, or the universe) contradicts human expectations. Cosmic irony is also known as “irony of fate” and is used to emphasize that the universe is indifferent to human desires and expectations.

The poem A Man Said to the Universe by Stephen Crane is an example of cosmic irony.

Cosmic irony example in Stephen Crane’s A Man Said to the Universe
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

In the poem, the man desires acknowledgement and recognition of his significance, but the universe does not recognize the man's existence as something that should trigger a response. In other words, the universe is indifferent to human existence.

Structural irony

Structural irony occurs when a character or narrator of a story is unaware of the situation they are in. This type of irony is typically created using a naive character or unreliable narrator, whose views differ greatly from the true circumstances recognized by the writer or the audience. Structural irony runs through an entire work and is not limited to a single instance.

Situational irony example: Structural irony
In the movie Fight Club, the protagonist, referred to as “the Narrator,” is fed up with his mundane life. He forms an underground fight club with Tyler Durden, a soap salesman. Towards the end of the story, the Narrator realizes that he and Tyler Durden are one and the same, and that he is suffering from a split personality disorder. The entire movie is built on this discrepancy between the Narrator’s perspective and reality.

Poetic irony

Poetic irony or poetic justice occurs when characters find resolution or justice for their transgressions through a twist of fate (e.g., a thief’s house is burgled).

Situational irony example: Poetic irony
The scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which one of the antagonists drinks from the Holy Grail and dies is an example of poetic irony.

Here, a character who represents evil and is seeking the Holy Grail for power meets a fitting end. This is ironic because the Holy Grail symbolizes purity and good, but it is actually lethal to those who approach it with impure intentions.

Situational irony examples

In literature, situational irony generates suspense and encourages the audience to reflect on the unpredictability of life.

Situational irony examples in The Cask of Amontillado
“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe contains numerous examples of situational irony. For example:

  • The name of the victim. “Fortunato” means lucky in Italian. This is ironic because the central character, Montresor, kills him. In other words, Fortunato’s name means the opposite of what fate has in store for him.
  • The setting. The story takes place during carnival, a time of fun and lightheartedness. This is in stark contrast to Montresor’s sinister plan to lure Fortunato into the catacombs and entomb him.
  • Fortunato’s costume. Fortunato is dressed as a jester, a figure associated with humor and wit. However, his experiences in the story are grim and dreadful.

With the use of situational irony, Poe subverts the reader’s expectations and creates an eerie atmosphere.


Situational irony is also common in theatrical plays and can help add depth and complexity.

Situational irony examples in Romeo and Juliet
In Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, Juliet takes a potion to appear dead, escape an arranged marriage, and finally be with her love. Romeo, however, is unaware of her plan. When he discovers her, he believes that she is dead and takes his own life. This tragic turn of events is an example of situational irony because Juliet’s actions have the opposite effect to what she intended.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, rhetorical devices, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Common mistakes

Commonly confused words

Rhetoric

Hers or her’s

Aid vs aide

Malapropism

Truely or truly

Advice vs advise

Pun

Beck and call or beckon call

Council vs counsel

Extended metaphor

Jist or gist

Former vs latter

Simile

Despite of

Breathe vs breath

Dramatic irony


Frequently asked questions about situational irony

What is the difference between coincidence and irony?

Coincidence and irony are often used interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same.

  • Coincidence is when two events seem to be connected in a significant way, but they are not. For example, running into a former classmate while on vacation abroad is a mere coincidence.
  • Irony, on the other hand, is when the opposite of what is expected happens. Irony is a literary device or rhetorical device often used intentionally for a humorous or critical effect. For example, running into a former classmate whom you really disliked while on vacation abroad is situational irony: you encounter each other in a place where you would least expect it. The mutual dislike makes the reunion ironic and adds an element of humor.

What is cosmic irony?

Cosmic irony or irony of fate is a type of situational irony that is common in storytelling. Cosmic irony occurs when the universe or fate seems to conspire against a character.

In other words, it occurs whenever there is a difference between what a character expects to happen and how their destiny actually plays out (e.g., when the antagonist in a story gets the ending they deserve). The purpose of cosmic irony is to highlight the lack of control humans have within the grand scheme of things.


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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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