S&R Nonfiction: “Irony,” by Michail Mulvey

“Can anyone give me an example of irony in Oedipus the King?”


In the back, where he thinks I can’t see him, the P.E. major in ripped jeans and a t-shirt touting some brand of Tequila texts his girlfriend. The girl to his left checks her iPhone for messages. The kid to her left studies the label on his bottle of Coke Zero.

“OK . . . Can anyone list the types of irony?”


Blank stares. John, the tanned stud-muffin in the third row searches his Facebook page on his laptop. He thinks he’s fooled me into believing he’s taking notes. His buddy rests his head on one arm and doodles in his notebook. The girl behind him sits, cross legged, with arms defiantly across her chest. She glares with a look that says, “Like, I don’t want to be here.”

“Can anyone give me a definition of irony?”

Silence, if you don’t count the sound coming from the mouth of Tattoo-girl—I think her name is Ashleigh—as she chews gum while picking at her LA-style fingernails.



The student-athlete in the third row dozes. Suddenly his head snaps back, his eyes open momentarily, he looks around to see if anyone caught him, then shifts to a more comfortable position and nods off again. Student-athlete, that’s an example of an oxymoron boys and girls. Like jumbo shrimp, congressional ethics, country music, cafeteria food, living wage, and happily married. That last one’s a hoot, ain’t it? But I’d like a definition of irony. Anyone. Anyone at all.

“OK, can anybody give me an example of irony?”


“OK, let me give you a hint. How about . . . at a ceremony celebrating the rehabilitation of seals after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, at an average cost of $80,000 per seal, two seals were released back into the wild only to be eaten within a minute by a killer whale?”

“Ew, that’s sick,” says Tattoo-girl.

Finally a hand goes up. The sophomore psychology major—Joseph is it? Or Jordan? Something with a ‘J’—sitting over by the window:

“Yes,” I say with a hint of enthusiasm in my voice and a glimmer of hope in my heart.

“Like, when a fire station like burns down,” he says, smiling.

Very funny. You better hope your little brother doesn’t play with matches.

“Like, when a cardiologist suffers a heart attack,” says the biology major in the third row.

Like, when you were in the tenth grade and didn’t know the difference between a dangling preposition and a dangling testicle.

“OK. That’s a start. That works. Any other examples of irony?” I ask, hoping to somehow guide the discussion back to Oedipus.

Silence. Blank stares.

Another hand goes up. The business major in the back corner:

“Like, Bill Gates never graduated from college but, like, he’s worth fifty billion dollars.”

“OK. Good.” Bill Gates was born with intelligence, had a keen business sense, taught himself computer programming, and had a work ethic that allowed him to beat out his competitors. He didn’t need a college education. You’ll probably need a college education and a father as rich as Bill Gates to succeed.

“Any other examples of irony?” I ask. Besides the fact that this university accepted most of you.

“Like, when an English professor misspells a word he’s written on the whiteboard,” says the communication major, smiling.

Smirks and smiles from the groundlings. OK, I deserved that. I tried to explain that faux pas away by claiming that I can’t write, lecture and spell ‘accommodation’ all at the same time. Too many ‘C’s and ‘M’s to keep track of this late on a Friday afternoon. Relax. Take a deep breath. Smile. Do the math. This is a sophomore-level English class. Thirty students with one reason for being here. Three credits. Except for the girl in the front row, these are not English majors. It’s late April, Spring is in the air, three weeks left in the semester. They’d rather be somewhere hot and noisy with a cold beer in one hand and a warm body in the other.

“Yes, the height of irony,” I confess. And inexcusable. I smile.

Another hand goes up. The history major over by the door:



“Sorry. Yes, James.”

“Like, when John Hinckley shoots at Ronald Regan, misses and hits the bullet-proof window of his limo. The bullet ricochets and hits the president in the chest.”

“That’s an example of poetic justice,” says the other history major in the class. Slight titters, then a slow slide back into their individual academic comas. Several blank faces suggest that they don’t know who Ronald Regan was.

“Any other examples of irony,”


I give up.

“OK. Let me list a few types of irony on the board,” and hope I don’t misspell any words. I turn and write:

Verbal irony – a gap between what is stated and what is really meant, which often has the opposite meaning. For example using “his humble abode” to describe a millionaire’s mansion. Also called sarcasm.

Dramatic irony – when the audience is aware of facts that the characters are not. When the reader understands more about what is happening in a story than the character who is telling the story does. For example, Shakespeare’s Othello trusts Iago, but the audience knows better.

Situational irony – a discrepancy between what actually happens and what readers expect will happen.

For example, like the discrepancy between the grade you actually receive in this class and the grade you expect to get.

“Now, can anyone give an example of dramatic or situational irony in Oedipus?”


The elementary education majors in the front row all dutifully take notes but say nothing.

I sigh.

“There are other types of irony, for example, historical irony. What we now refer to as ‘World War I’ was originally called ‘The War to End All Wars,’ or ‘The Great War’.”


“And then there are ironic similes.”


“Clear as mud,” I say as half a dozen stare out into the spring afternoon. The elementary ed major by the window smiles and waves to the squirrel sitting on a branch outside the window.

Clear as mud, like this lecture.

I look out the window and see students tossing a football around the quad. Laughter and hoots waft in. Music blares from car radios in the student parking lot across the street.

Silence. I sigh. Once more …

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

“When Oedipus was first performed circa 428 B.C.E., Greek audiences knew the myth of Oedipus, the myth upon which the play is based. The audience knew what Oedipus didn’t, that he had killed his father and married his mother. Based on the definitions I’ve written on the board, can anyone tell me what type of irony this is, that is, the audience knows but Oedipus doesn’t?”


I glance at the clock. Twenty minutes left.

One more try.

“How about another example. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when King Duncan sees Inverness, the home and castle belonging to Macbeth, he says, ‘This castle has a pleasant seat’— meaning site. Banquo adds, ‘The air is delicate.’ Knowing what happens later that night, what type of irony would you say these remarks are examples of?”


“The irony here is that Duncan is unwittingly entering his death chamber.”


“What kind of irony is this? Anyone? Anyone at all.”


I sigh, take off my glasses, plant my skinny old ass on the desk, glance out the window then turn back to the class. “OK, let’s try again. Another definition of irony is the discrepancy between appearance and reality. Like, this appears to be a college class but in reality . . . “The discrepancy between ignorance and knowledge,” I add.


I continue: “The incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” I expected a class of students eager to learn. Silly me. How long have I been at this? How many decades? Maybe it’s time to retire. Maybe it’s me. “I’d write that on the board but I don’t know how to spell ‘incongruity.’” Smiles. Even the texting P.E. major looks up and smirks.

I sigh, look down at the floor, run my fingers through my gray hair, look out the window at the squirrel sitting on the tree branch looking in; What do you think, my furry-assed little friend? I find it ironic that you seemed more interested in this discussion than my students. What do you say we call it a day and retire to my favorite watering hole next town over? I’m buying. What’ll you have? A Pink Squirrel? Ha, ha ha! But I digress.

“OK, let me give you another example of irony, the difference between what might be expected and what actually happens.”

Stud-muffin chuckles softly at something in Facebook.

“When young men go off to war, what is one expectation?” I ask.

“Like, someone might get killed or messed up,” says the math major by the window.

“Yes,” I reply, “That would be a reasonable expectation based on history. In war people die.”

I’ve got stud-muffin’s attention. Tattoo-girl wonders, What’s this have to do with Oedipus?

“What if I told you I once advised a good friend to go off to war in order to save his life? Would that be an example of irony? Going off to war to save your life?”

“Like, that would be fucked up,” says stud-muffin, frowning.

“Why would you, like, do that?” asks the history major.

I smile. Now I have their attention, or at least most of them. The student-athlete continues to nap and nod. This may not have a lot to do with Oedipus, but maybe I can bridge that gap between ignorance and knowledge. Maybe not.

“I have a good friend who’s in the Army Reserve. We were in the Regular Army once, stationed together in some shithole Army base down south. He was a platoon leader in my company. We’ve known each other for over twenty years now and have followed each other’s lives for all that time. He lives in another state so we only get together every other year or so, but we keep in touch. We both have wives and families and jobs. We’re both in education. He’s a school administrator and I’m . . . here.” I smile.

“To put it simply, I married well, he didn’t. After fifteen years of marriage he discovered his wife was having an affair with her boss. Had been for some time. He was devastated. Unlike some people, he believed that marriage was for life and he trusted his wife to keep her marriage vows. In Othello, the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful but Othello thinks she’s strayed. That’s an example of what kind of irony?”


“Like I said, when he found out, he was devastated to the point that one night he drank a quart of Scotch and downed a bottle of pills. He recovered physically but not emotionally.”

Stud-muffin closes his laptop.

“His wife threw him out of their house, the home they’d lived in for almost fifteen years and raised three children. He began to drink heavily and it affected his work. His boss took him aside and said he understood what he’d been going through but that he had to pull himself together. My friend began to see a change in his three children. They were angry and began to ask questions. They told him they thought this breakup was his fault. He despaired, drank even more, missed work, contemplated suicide again. I know all this because we talked and emailed each other back and forth.”

The P.E. major stops texting.

“One day he emails me that he’s thinking of volunteering for duty in Iraq. He asks me if he should go. I ask myself, does he want to commit suicide by war? What should I tell this friend of mine? ‘No, stay home? You have children to think of. Stay home, you’re not in your right head now?’ I wanted to ask him, ‘How will you function in the state you’re in? Will you cause the deaths of fellow soldiers because your head’s not in the game?’”

The student athlete wakes up.

“He’s a Lieutenant Colonel in military intelligence—an oxymoron if there ever was one—so he wouldn’t be kicking in any doors. He wouldn’t be driving a Hummer down the Baghdad to Basra highway hunting for IEDs. He told me the position would be with an MI unit that collects, collates, and interprets intelligence and then briefs units that move around the countryside searching for insurgents or guarding convoys. Still . . .”

The math major shifts in his chair.

“He told me the unit would be stationed at Balad, a former Iraqi Air Force base now used as a headquarters for coalition forces. I thought about it for awhile and wondered what to say to this friend of mine, a junior officer who once served under me and who occasionally still looked to me for guidance. I thought back to my tour in a war zone in a previous century, in another part of the world. I was only nineteen at the time, no wife or children, thought it was all a game, this war, a big adventure, at least until the green tracers started cracking over my head, my vehicle hit a mine, my friends started dying. There were others, many others, who sat fat and happy—safe, they thought—behind the wire in basecamp, who died during mortar and rocket attacks. Others died in accidents. What do I say to him, I asked myself? Young men die in war. Some suffer horrible wounds. Some suffer life-long damage that can’t be readily seen but comes back to haunt these young men years afterward. What do I tell my friend?”

The student with the bottle of Coke Zero, no longer staring at the label, shifts in his chair.

“Well, and this is where the irony comes in, I told my friend he should volunteer for the tour of duty in Iraq. You may be wondering how I, someone who has seen war first hand, could advise my friend to go off to war? A moral dilemma some might call it. And ironic.”

I shift position on the desk.

“It’s true, men die in war. Or at least there’s a chance of dying. But I was sure that if my friend didn’t go to Iraq he would die here, at home. He would die of grief at not being with his three children. He would die in an automobile crash after a night of drinking, or suffer irreparable damage to his internal organs from long-term alcohol abuse. Or he would get a DUI and be fired from his job. Or he would try to do himself in again. He was inconsolable. I knew it was only a matter of time. He was a weightlifter, a former football player, and in many ways, a strong man, but he was unable to deal with this breakup of his marriage and the possible estrangement from his children. He cried when he told me how much he missed seeing them off to bed at night and off to school in the morning. I was sure he would die one way or another if he stayed home, so I told him he should go to Iraq. I did the math and came to the conclusion that his odds at surviving were better in a war zone.”

Questioning looks from some. A shifting in chairs. Nobody’s staring out the window now. Nobody’s checking emails or texting.

“Can you see the irony in advising someone, a friend, to go off to war in order to save his life?”

“What if he dies?” asks the girl with the iPhone.

“Well, nobody wants to die, but we’re all going to die someday. If given a choice—and this question went through my mind at the time—how would I want to die? By my own hand? In a car crash? A drunk, unemployed, hated by my children, alone? Or in uniform, given a hero’s welcome back home, mourned by all, remembered by co-workers, maybe even a building or road named after me.”

“What difference does that make? Dead is dead,” says psych major.

“You’re right, but I advised my friend to go off to war because I thought he had a better chance of surviving in a war zone. Can you understand my choice, but more importantly—and this is the point to the story—can you appreciate the irony?”

Silence. A shifting in seats.

“Did you see The Hurt Locker?” asks one of the history majors.

“Yes, but my friend isn’t in EOD, he’s in MI and would be working in a fortified bunker,” I replied.

“Running away from your problems to solve them. That’s counter-intuitive,” says one of the education majors in the front row.

“And ironic,” I say, trying to work the discussion back to Oedipus.

“What happened to him?” asks the girl who had been glaring at me in defiance.

I smile. “He survived.”

Smiles from several others.

“He survived and after twelve months in Iraq came home healthy, sober, clear-headed, and with a medal for a job well done. While he was there he worked twelve-hour days, lifted weights, and dried out. More importantly, he got away from his wife. He kept in touch with his children via cell phone, letters, and two R&R trips back home. He and his kids—with the help of counseling—came to an understanding. He stopped feeling sorry for himself and got his life together.”


“And his ex-wife was dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job,” I add.

“That’s called irony,” says stud-muffin.

“No that’s called payback. That bitch got what she deserved,” says Tattoo-girl.

“In short, the war saved his life. That ladies and gents, is irony,” I say. “Now, can anyone give me an example of irony in Oedipus the King?”


7 replies »

  1. God. What a simple-assed answer. Oedipus put out his eyes, right? They were probably made of iron.

    What a bunch of morons.

  2. By the way, subject matter aside, this was extraordinarily well written, and I greatly appreciate the time you took to write it for us.

    A couple of tangential stories of my own (not as frustrating as yours):

    1. A young lady I know was in her sixth week of a Shakespeare course in the Honors English program at the University of Colorado. During a lecture, a young man sitting behind her raised his hand and asked, “I forget. Is Shakespeare Greek or Roman?”

    2. A young man was looking for a college to call home, so he did a college tour, including a West Coast swing where he spent almost an entire day with a local tour and attending classes at a very prominent liberal arts college where the median SAT score is around a 1340. This particular institution was founded by the young man’s great-great-great grandmother and grandfather, so naturally, they were quite interested in having him matriculate at the place.

    In one of the classes he attended, he described much the same student behavior: a girl doing her nails, someone online, someone texting. That, by itself, turned him off. Then the teacher asked a question about what some Roman writer (probably Suetonius) had written: “He says that the Roman soldier was once more virtuous than the Roman soldiers of his time. What do you think of that? Was he right or wrong?”

    Naturally, no one so much as raised an eye to the teacher. There was the girl popping gum, the guy sacked out on his desk — you know, the usual stereotypes. Feeling sorry for the teacher, this junior in high school raised his hand. Though startled and amused, the teacher recognized him, and he proceeded to launch into the effect of the Marian reforms on the Roman infantry, the transition to a professional army, and some of the depredations perpetrated both pre- and post-Marius. His final point was that, while it was quite possible, and even likely, that the Marian reforms had made Roman soldiers more likely to have come from a criminal class, the pre-Marian soldiers were hardly angels.

    Naturally, the teacher was flabbergasted, and the students in the class looked at this young man like he’d grown a third head.

    A few weeks later, the young man received a personal email from the teacher with a very strong appeal to attend this college. He also received personal notes from the president of the college and the head of the department in his chosen field.

    He politely declined to attend that school.

    • I wish to hell the student you describe here were the rule instead of the exception. And I especially feel sorry for the prof. One or two kids like that in your class can almost, on some days, make up for the rest. He’d have probably driven over to the kid’s house and helped him move if he’d been willing to attend….