Importance of Irony in Satire
Satire is a literary device that uses irony and humor to ridicule the practices of society, politics and people. Many authors used satire and irony to criticize or condemn powerful leaders and political systems without incurring the wrath and potentially fatal consequences normally associated with criticizing those in power. Shakespeare and Chaucer used irony and satire to poke fun at rulers and regimes as did Jonathan Swift in his famous satire “Gulliver’s Travels.”
Irony in its basic form is the use of words to convey something that's opposite of the literal meaning of the word. Something can also be ironic because of the situation involved. For example, the firehouse burning down is ironic because firehouses are supposed to put out fires, not catch on fire themselves. Situational irony can be found in “Gulliver’s Travels” when Gulliver visits The Country of the Houyhnhnms and finds a race of horses that are rational and refined. They keep humans as their brute force. This reversal of roles is part of the situational irony that Swift uses to poke fun at the society he lived in. Swift lived during the Age of Reason, which was a time where emotionalism was downplayed and rationality was praised. Because Gulliver grew to admire the horses more than humans and was more comfortable around horses than his own family when he returned from his journey, Swift makes an ironic criticism of societal thought.
Types of Irony
In addition to situational irony, dramatic and Socratic irony are often used in literature and education. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something the characters in a book or play do not. Shakespeare used this type of irony in many of his plays. Socratic irony is a method of questioning and teaching based on Socrates' use of feigned ignorance to prove that an idea or argument was erroneous. This type of irony, while used in many law schools, isn't used in literature.
Related Not Synonymous
Although satire uses irony to achieve its goals, it can also use other devices like humor and sarcasm. Therefore, irony and satire are not synonymous. Rather, irony is a satirical device that authors can use to satirize their subject matter. Also, all irony isn’t satirical. Irony is used in everyday conversation to convey sarcasm and subtlety of thought. Although satire, irony and sarcasm are terms that are often used synonymously, they are actually distinct words with subtle differences.
Irony is heavily used in satire and plays a vital role in the success of a satire. In George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” Orwell uses irony to criticize the dictatorship of Stalin’s regime. In the book, the animals revolt to create equality. Once in control, however, the pigs learn to read and start to act like the humans the animals had revolted against. Orwell uses satire and irony to show that although systems of government are overthrown, human nature remains the same. One of the most ironic scenes in the book is the final scene in which the pigs are sitting around a table and start to look less like pigs and more like humans. The irony in this scene illuminates the point that Orwell wanted to make.
Stacy Alleyne is a certified English teacher with a BA in English and graduate work in English, education, journalism and law. She has written numerous articles and her own dining column for the "Gazette."