The Alanis Morissette song “Ironic” has spoiled the word “irony” for a whole generation. Rather than the mere misfortunes her song depicts, irony is a very powerful device, one with a rich history in literature and entertainment.
Arguably, irony’s most basic form is sarcasm, where the exaggeration of a word or term implies its opposite: when you ask your friend how her week was, and she says, “Grrreat. It was the best week a person could possibly have. Like, ever,” you know she’s being sarcastic.
A more advanced form of irony is satire, which uses some of the same means of making its points as sarcasm. Through exaggerating a real issue to the point of absurdity, satire reveals an underlying evil. So when Jonathan Swift suggested that we eat the babies of the Irish poor, he was revealing the terrible way the rich were treating the poor in real life.
The cartoon "Beavis and Butthead" used the idiocy of its main characters, who famously sat around and watched MTV all day, to expose the idiocy of kids who sit around and watch MTV all day. Its main irony, though, was that the show aired on MTV, targeting the very kids it skewered.
For dramatic irony, we turn to Oedipus, whose efforts to avoid an awful prophecy only more surely seal his fate, exposing both the futility of denying the gods and the way our most noble characteristics can also be our deepest flaws.
What all ironies have in common, though, is that the true meaning is always inherent in the opposing form of expression, whether word, characterization or plot point. And that’s irony’s power: to bring us closer to facing the deep contradictions we live with every day.