What Is Situational Irony?

Oedipus Rex
A famous example of situational irony occurs in the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Oedipus's attempt to avoid fulfilling the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother leads directly to Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother. (Merlyn Severn/Picture Post/Getty Images)

Situational irony is an event or occasion in which the outcome is significantly different from what was expected or considered appropriate. Also called irony of fate, irony of events, and irony of circumstance.

Dr. Katherine L. Turner characterizes situational irony as "a long con––a ruse taking place over time. Participants and onlookers do not recognize the irony because its revelation comes at a later moment in time, the unexpected 'twist.'  In situational irony, the anticipated outcome contrasts with the end result" (This Is the Sound of Irony, 2015).

"The essence of situational irony," says J. Morgan Kousser, "lies in an apparent contradiction or incongruity between two events or meanings, a contradiction resolved when the literal or surface meaning turns out to be one of appearance only, while the initially incongruous meaning turns out to be the reality" (Region, Race, and Reconstruction, 1982).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

 

Examples and Observations

  • "Situational irony, sometimes called irony of events, is most broadly defined as a situation where the outcome is incongruous with what was expected, but it is also more generally understood as a situation that includes contradictions or sharp contrasts. . . . An example would be a man who takes a step aside in order to avoid getting sprinkled by a wet dog, and falls into a swimming pool."
    (Lars Elleström, Divine Madness. Bucknell University. Press, 2002)
     
  • "Not all forms of irony are conscious, intentional or planned. For example, irony also occurs serendipitously through unintended and unexpected circumstances or through the evolution of situations. Situational irony focuses on the surprising and inevitable fragility of the human condition, in which the consequences of actions are often the opposite of what was expected."
    (David Grant, The Sage Handbook of Organizational Discourse. Sage, 2004)

     
  • "[I]magine that a person has invested a large sum of money in an apparently reliable company while mocking others for failing to take the same opportunity. Then, the company turns out to be a failure and all the investor's money is lost. The situation is ironical for two reasons in combination: (1) there is a mismatch between the investor's certainty on the solvency of the company and the real situation; (2) after getting ruined, the investor's unwise mockery of those who did not want to undertake any risk makes the investor look foolish. We may observe that, in situational irony, just like in verbal irony, there is incongruity between intention and effect or between belief and reality."
    (Francisco José Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez and Alicia Galera Masegosa, Cognitive Modeling: A Linguistic Perspective. John Benjamins, 2014)

     
  • Situational Irony in A.E. Housman's Poem "Is My Team Ploughing?"

    “Is my team ploughing,
    That I was used to drive
    And hear the harness jingle
    When I was man alive?”

    Aye, the horses trample,
    The harness jingles now;
    No change though you lie under
    The land you used to plow.

    “Is football playing
    Along the river shore,
    With lads to chase the leather,
    Now I stand up no more?”

    Aye, the ball is flying,
    The lads play heart and soul;
    The goal stands up, the keeper
    Stands up to keep the goal.

    “Is my girl happy,
    That I thought hard to leave,
    And has she tired of weeping
    As she lies down at eve?”

    Ay, she lies down lightly,
    She lies not down to weep:
    Your girl is well contented.
    Be still, my lad, and sleep.

    “Is my friend hearty,
    Now I am thin and pine,
    And has he found to sleep in
    A better bed than mine?”

    Yes, lad, I lie easy,
    I lie as lads would choose;
    I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
    Never ask me whose.
    (A.E. Housman, "Is My Team Ploughing?" A Shropshire Lad, 1896)

     

  • Situational Irony in Creative Nonfiction
    "Situational irony abounds in fiction, but it's also a major component to many non- fiction narratives—if you think about the popular 'storm' books from a couple of years ago, Sebastian Junger's Perfect Storm and Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm, both accounts of these terrible hurricanes deal with the all-too-human disinclination to take nature seriously. 'Hey, how bad can some wind and rain be? Not going to stop me from raking in the dough.'"
    (Ellen Moore and Kira Stevens, Good Books Lately. St. Martin's Press, 2004) 
     

  • The Irony of War
    "Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends."
    (Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press, 1975)
     
  • Incongruity in Situational Irony
    "Situational irony entails a certain incongruity between what a person says, believes, or does and how, unbeknownst to that person, things actually are. [In Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Rex] Oedipus vows to discover Laius' murderer, unaware that Laius was his father and that he himself is guilty of patricide. Whatever the precise nature of the incongruity involved in situational irony, verbal and situational irony loosely share a conceptual core of incongruity, often tending toward polar opposition, between two elements, such as a semblance of things and reality.

    "Dramatic irony may be further distinguished as a type of situational irony; it is simply when situational irony occurs in a drama. The incongruity is between what a dramatic character says, believes, or does and how unbeknownst to that character, the dramatic reality is. The example in the preceding paragraph is, then, specifically of dramatic irony."
    (David Wolfsdorf, Trials of Reason: Plato and the Crafting of Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2008)
     
  • "A Wimbledon commentator may say, 'Ironically, it was the year he was given a wild-card entry, and not as a seeded player, that the Croatian won the title.' The irony here refers, like linguistic irony, to a doubleness of sense or meaning. It is as though there is the course of events or human intentions, involving our awarding of rankings and expectations, that exists alongside another order of fate beyond our predictions. This is an irony of situation, or an irony of existence."
    (Claire Colebrook, Irony. Routledge, 2004)
     
  • The Lighter Side of Situational Irony
    Sheldon: So this is how it ends: with cruel irony. Just as I make the commitment to preserving my body, I am betrayed by my appendix, a vestigial organ. Do you know the original purpose of the appendix, Leonard?
    Leonard: No.
    Sheldon: I do, and yet I am doomed while you live on.
    Leonard: Funny how things work out, isn't it?
    (Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki in "The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification." The Big Bang Theory, 2010)

     

    Also Known As: irony of situation, irony of events, irony of behavior, practical irony, irony of fate, unintended consequences, irony of existence