O. Henry was considered a master of irony. His short stories "The Gift of the Magi" and "A Retrieved Reformation" demonstrate skillful use of irony in the short narrative genre. Irony can work well even in a very short narrative, as long as the writer is adept at setting up the situation and developing toward its unexpected end.
Definition of Irony
Irony is an unexpected outcome, often the opposite of what is expected in a particular situation. In literature, irony may be situational or dramatic. Situational irony sets up an event so that the reader expects a particular ending and then twists the circumstances so that the ending comes as a surprise. Dramatic irony exists in stories and plays when the reader or audience is aware of information that the characters are not. In both cases, irony is used for humor or to emphasize a thematic point.
Definition of a Short Narrative
A short narrative -- sometimes referred to as a short story or short fiction -- is a work of fiction that is more limited than a novel in terms of number of characters and complexity of plot structure. The actual length of a short story may vary from several hundred words to thousands of words. There is no set requirement regarding length.
O. Henry's Use of Irony
O. Henry was a prolific and popular author during the late 1800s and early 1900s. He used situational and dramatic irony to great effect. In "The Gift of the Magi," a young wife sells her beautiful hair to buy a watch chain for her husband's prized possession, his gold watch. When he arrives home and opens his gift, he reacts with laughter. He explains that he has sold his gold watch to buy hair combs for his wife. The irony is that now they both have gifts they cannot use. In "A Retrieved Reformation," the main character used to be a renowned safe-cracker. He falls in love and decides to reform. He assumes a false name and becomes a respected member of a new community. Toward the end of the story, a little girl becomes trapped in a bank vault, and he must use his skill to free her. This is an example of dramatic irony because the reader knows about his past, but the characters in the story do not.
Use of Irony in a Short Narrative
For a writer to succeed in using irony, she must carefully plan the situation and write the story in such a way as to build the reader's suspense. A good method to try is to think of an ironic situation first and then fill in characters and a plot to build up to the unexpected end. For example, a writer might choose to write about a character who fears going to the dentist. He can build the suspense of the situation and then introduce the irony by revealing that the character has no cavities. To compound the irony, the dentist can give the news with a big smile revealing a set of brown, rotten teeth.