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Historical Irony

Irony is a very important tool in literature. With the many different types of irony available to writers, writers can manipulate ordinary ideas and make them sound unique or interesting to their audience. We are going to particularly look at historical irony.

The definition of historical irony

What comes into your mind when you hear the words 'historical irony'? I know your first guess is that this type of irony has something to do with the past. You are right about that. Historical irony refers to the type of irony in which “hindsight provides an ironic perspective on an action or stance made in the past.” In historical irony, the characters in the story find themselves in an ironic situation, based on historical events. These events are usually real. The writer can also develop a fictional historical background in his or her narrative, which he or she will use to create a situation or instance of historical irony.

Examples of instances of situational irony

These examples are of real historical events which turned out to be ironic.

(Example one)

Karl Wilhelm Otto Lilienthal, after conducting successful flights with his glider in the late nineteenth century, claimed that the glider was one of the safest ways for people to travel. Otto Lilienthal, later on, crashed in his glider and died.

Historical irony occurs where the glider that made Karl Otto Lilienthal claim that the glider was the safest way to travel, was the same glider that killed him.

(Example two)

Before going to Dallas, President J. F. Kennedy had answered Governor John Connally's wife with the words, “That’s obvious” when she had said to him, “Mr. President you can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you,” on the phone. Then, later on, J. F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas.

The historical irony, in this case, comes from J. F. Kennedy’s statement that it is obvious the people of Dallas loved him, only to end up being assassinated in Dallas.

(Example three)

During the Kalgoorlie gold rush in the late nineteenth century in Australia, huge amounts of calaverite were discovered. They used the mineral for street repairs and building materials because they mistook the mineral for fool’s gold (pyrite). But then a few years later, people were excavating the town’s streets after realizing the gold content of calaverite.

It is ironic how the people assumed calaverite to be of no value, then a few years later the same mineral led to another gold rush in Australia’s Kalgoorlie town.

How to use historical irony in literature

Historical irony deals with ironic instances or situations that are historical. You can develop a fictional historical background for your characters and then create an ironic situation that relates to the characters' history.

The uses of historic irony

To create humor

The writer can use historical irony humorously. This is especially possible when the context of the historical irony is fictional. For instance, a man having a firm stand on interracial marriage being invited to one of his children’s weddings which is an interracial marriage.

To make a narrative more interesting

You can use historical irony to keep your readers entertained and therefore more interested in your work.


Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Keith Mbuya