Sarcasm is a type of verbal irony that expresses contempt, mocks, or ridicules.
Sarcasm takes the form of an ironic remark that is rooted in humor, with the intention of mocking and drawing attention to the situation, usually satirizing it. When a speaker is being sarcastic, they can convey their feelings of frustration and irritation without being too outwardly angry. The same can be said for characters in written works. Their true feelings are veiled in humor.
Definition and Explanation of Sarcasm
Sarcasm is created when a speaker makes statements that are clearly the opposite of what they believe. For example, one might say they love something and by using a certain tone, it’s clear to all listening that they actually feel the opposite. Sometimes, depending on the tone one uses, or doesn’t use, it’s easier or harder to understand that someone is trying to be sarcastic. This is often an issue in written correspondence and within the dialogue in a book, short story, or play.
Sarcastic statements are used every day to express feelings of distaste, irritation, and frustration. Often, the phrases include a statement that literally says the opposite of what the speaker means and is followed up by a moderating statement, something to make the phrase feel more humorous and keep the mood fairly light.
Examples of Sarcasm in Literature
The Catcher in the Rye is filled with examples of sarcasm. The novel focuses on the first-person narrator, Holden Caulfield. This troubled teenager spends much of the book reflecting on people and places that have annoyed or disappointed him. He has a very poor view of others, especially adults, and is usually unafraid to express that. In the following excerpt, Salinger uses sarcasm in Holden’s speech.
I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, ‘Sleep tight, ya morons!’
In this passage, Holden’s feelings of loneliness and frustration come out when he tells his fellow students to “sleep tight.” It’s clear from the following word, “ya morons,” that he doesn’t actually wish these young people a good night’s sleep. This example of sarcasm is also a good example of how with sarcasm a speaker, and in turn the writer, can layer on meaning in only a few words.
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
In Shakespeare’s history play, Julius Caesar, there is a good example of sarcasm when Shakespeare depicts Mark Antony speak at Caesar’s funeral. He uses the following lines:
The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
He calls Brutus, the murderer of Caesar, “noble” but when one looks closer at the words, it’s clear that he means the opposite. By using words like “honorable” and “noble” in this speech, he is suggesting that Brutus actually exhibits the opposite traits.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 is filled with examples of sarcasm and irony. The novel focuses on Yossarian, a soldier who spends the novel trying to survive the war and leave with his sanity intact. Here is an example of how Heller used sarcasm in his work:
“Can I do anything at all to help you?” the chaplain asked.
Yossarian shook his head, still grinning. “No, I’m sorry. I have everything I need and I’m quite comfortable. In fact, I’m not even sick.”
In these lines, Yossarian speaks with the Chaplin. He notes sarcastically how he’s “not even sick.” The Chaplin replies, taking what he’s said at face value, stating “That’s good.” He doesn’t question why Yossarian is in the hospital if he isn’t “sick.”
Sarcasm or Verbal Irony
While they can appear similar, sarcasm and verbal irony are different from one another. They are both literary devices, but the latter takes place when the speaker says the opposite of what they mean and it goes against the listener’s expectations in some way. Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, it takes place when a speaker says something different than they mean. But, it may be exactly (in tone and implication) as the listener expects. Sarcasm is used to mock and poke fun at something while verbal irony is focused on creating humor.
Sarcasm or Cynicism
Cynicism is a related word that suggests a life’s philosophy. When one is labeled a “cynic” or as having an issue with “cynicism,” someone is saying that they always expect the worst out of a situation or an individual. These types of people are suspicious of everything. They might use sarcasm to express this. Some other related words are pessimist, narcissist, and sardonic.
Why Do Writers Use Sarcasm?
Writers use sarcasm in order to layer their writing, especially their dialogue, with additional meaning. As a technique, it can be challenging to accomplish, but it’s quite effective when it does. It can complicate a character’s thoughts and speech and allow them to feel more realistic and believable to the reader. When a character’s thoughts and actions are complex, interesting, and even resemble those of the reader, it’s going to make them a better character overall.
Related Literary Terms
- Irony: an outcome is different than expected. It is very possible for one situation to strike one reader as ironic and another not.
- Juxtaposition: a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another.
- Narration: the use of commentary, either written or spoken, to tell a story or “narrative.”
- Parody: created based on an already existing work in order to make fun of it.
- Anecdote: short stories used in everyday conversation in order to inspire, amuse, caution, and more.
- Black Humor: a literary device that’s used in all forms of literature in order to discuss taboo subjects in a less distressing way.