We can blame Alanis Morrissette for misleading a generation on its understanding of irony with her hit 1996 song, which erroneously describes examples of the concept: rain on a wedding day, a free ride when you’ve already paid, and good advice that’s refused. While unfortunate and disappointing, none of these scenarios are, in fact, ironic. In its simplest form, irony indicates a discrepancy between what is expected and what actually happens — ensuring plenty of rich opportunities to use this literary device and storytelling tool. Here are just a few favorites, spanning short stories, literature, theater, and film. Sorry, Alanis.
“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
O. Henry became famous for the ironic twist endings he incorporated into his stories—with The Gift of the Magi being his best known. When a young couple sets out to surprise each other with Christmas gifts on a very tight budget, they are each asked to make significant choices — ones that implicate the presents they receive from the other. As a tale that captures the essence of love, devotion, and sacrifice (qualities that inevitably shine during the holiday season), consider this story the ironic gift that keeps on giving.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare was a master of irony — so much so that his works led to the modern-day interpretation of “Shakespearean,” as in a story with an unanticipated (and often tragic) finale. Case in point with Romeo and Juliet (and other modern interpretations of these star-crossed lovers, such as West Side Story). When Romeo discovers Juliet asleep and believes her to be dead, he kills himself. When Juliet awakens, she is bereft to find Romeo dead, and then she, too, commits suicide. Aware of each character’s plight the entire time, the audience sits in suspense as the narrative unfolds, creating a strong example of dramatic irony.
The Wizard of Oz
Situational irony runs through this beloved fantasy 1939 film based on L. Frank Baum’s book, in which a young girl and her dog are on a quest to return home after being swept away to the Land of Oz. They meet our familiar cast, all of whom express a clear desire — a Scarecrow in need of a brain, a Tin Man who wants a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who seeks courage. The irony? The moment at which each of these figures discovers that they already have that which they seek, including Dorothy and her ability to travel home at any point.
“Beauty and the Beast”
This fairytale was originally written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, and Disney’s animated adaptation was released in 1991, featuring a small-town villager who is captured in the castle of a spell-cursed beast. Though the audience is aware of the beast’s former life as a handsome prince, Belle is kept in the dark, adding to the stakes and tension surrounding her eventual love interest in her captor.
Back to the Future
This 1985 film gained fast fans for its memorable cast and compelling plot (and, of course, the winged-door DeLorean car). When a science experiment fails, California teen Marty McFly travels back to the 1950s only to find that … his mom’s teen self is crushing on him? The movie is stuffed with time-keeping problems creating a nostalgia-inducing depiction of irony, with loads of comic relief.