Definition of Sarcasm

Sarcasm is a remark made mockingly, ironically, or in bitter contempt so as to show some foolishness on the part of the interlocutor. Sarcasm can be quite harsh and biting, or it can be said in teasing jest. Usually sarcastic statements could be construed as being genuine, because they are often appropriate to the situation on a superficial level, but in fact are meant to be taken in the opposite way. The speaker’s vocal or physical cues are usually necessary to signal the sarcasm, such as accompanying a statement by rolling one’s eyes or speaking with a specific tone (this tone is dependent on the language of the speaker; for example, in English we usually convey sarcasm by speaking slower and in a lower tone, whereas Cantonese speakers raise their tone to indicate sarcasm). Some people thus have difficulty understanding sarcasm if they have a hard time reading vocal and physical cues.

Sarcasm examples often employ irony, though this is not a requirement. Note that situations can be ironic, but only people can be sarcastic.

The word sarcasm comes from the Greek word σαρκασμός or sarkasmos, which means “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer.” Thus the original definition of sarcasm was quite negative, while in some cultures and time periods it can be a relatively mild form of taunting.

Common Examples of Sarcasm

There are a few common phrases in English that are clear signs of sarcasm, such as the following:

  • You don’t say.
  • Tell me something I don’t know.
  • Yeah, because THAT’s never happened.

There are also many examples of sarcasm used on television and in speeches for humorous purposes. The character of Chandler repeatedly used sarcasm in the show Friends, such as in the following exchange with Ross, who enters a scene with bright orange skin.

“Oh dear God. Hold on, there’s something different.” – Chandler
“I went to the tanning place your wife suggested.” – Ross
“Was that place THE SUN?” – Chandler

President Barack Obama used sarcasm to mock the rapper Kanye West’s announcement that he wants to run for president. However, he didn’t just mock Kanye; in the following joke, his sarcasm is targeted only at those who said Obama could never be president:

Do you really think this country is going to elect a black guy from the south side of Chicago with a funny name to be president of the US?

Significance of Sarcasm in Literature

Sarcasm only occurs when a person uses it, and thus we can only find examples of sarcasm in literature when one character uses it with another or with a group. The author could also take a sarcastic tone with certain elements of a novel or play if he or she has inserted himself or herself as a character in the narrative who has thoughts and opinions on what is happening in the text. Authors may use sarcasm humorously or to take aim at certain injustices. Sarcasm can also add to character development, as it may help the reader understand what kind of person a character is who chooses to use sarcasm.

Examples of Sarcasm in Literature

Example #1

MARK ANTONY: 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–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

(Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)

After Julius Caesar is murdered by his compatriots, Mark Antony makes a speech in which he repeatedly refers to Brutus as “honourable.” This is a sarcasm example because Brutus has participated in the murder of his friend, and thus Mark Antony thinks him anything but honorable. Calling him that name serves to bitterly criticize Brutus’s actions.

Example #2

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to go,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

(Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll)

This is an interesting example of sarcasm, because a reader may choose to believe that the Cheshire Cat is being perfectly genuine or being sarcastic. Alice is traveling through Wonderland, and the Cat gives her answers that, while being true, are not necessarily helpful. However, they could be read as quite profound because indeed it’s true that you will get somewhere if you “walk long enough.”

Example #3

“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.”
“That’s good.”

(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)

There are many examples of absurdity, irony, and sarcasm in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22. In this example, the character Yossarian is in the hospital and sarcastically notes that he’s not even sick. The chaplain, however, takes this at face value and simply replies, “That’s good,” rather than questioning why he’s in the hospital at all.

Example #4

‘I didn’t make that noise,’ said Harry firmly.
Aunt Petunia’s thin, horsy face now appeared beside Uncle Vernon’s wide, purple one. She looked livid.
‘Why were you lurking under our window?’
‘Yes … yes, good point, Petunia! What were you doing under our window, boy?’
‘Listening to the news,’ said Harry in a resigned voice.
His aunt and uncle exchange looks of outrage.
‘Listening to the news! Again?’
‘Well, it changes every day, you see,’ said Harry.

(Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling)

There are many examples of sarcasm in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Harry himself is sarcastic frequently with authority figures in his life who he doesn’t respect, but there are plenty of other examples between Harry and his friends when one of them says something a bit foolish. In the above quote, Harry is mocking his uncle’s lack of intelligence by noting that listening to the news is not necessarily suspicious because “it changes every day.”

Example #5

“No man threatens His Grace in the presence of the Kingsguard.”
Tyrion Lannister raised an eyebrow. “I am not threatening the king, ser, I am educating my nephew. Bronn, Timett, the next time Ser Boros opens his mouth, kill him.” The dwarf smiled.
“Now that was a threat, ser. See the difference?”

(A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin)

The character of Tyrion Lannister in the recent series Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin is noted for his sarcasm. Tyrion highlights the difference, sarcastically, between “educating” his nephew and threatening him. He makes this sarcasm obvious when he concludes, “See the difference?”

Test Your Knowledge of Sarcasm

1. Choose the best sarcasm definition from the following statements:
A. A kind remark made politely to encourage someone else.
B. An imminent threat.
C. A biting comment intended to mock.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the main characters from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone uses an example of sarcasm in the following exchange?

Hermione: Stop moving! I know what this is – it’s Devil’s Snare!
Ron: Oh, I’m so glad we know what it’s called, that’s a great help.
Hermione: Shut up, I’m trying to remember how to kill it! What did Professor Sprout say? – it likes the dark and the damp –
Harry: So light a fire!
Hermione: Yes – of course – but there’s no wood!

A. Hermione
B. Ron
C. Harry

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following quotes from the recent novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green employs sarcasm?

A. “I didn’t tell him that the diagnosis came three months after I got my first period. Like: Congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die.”

B. “As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

C. “Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.”

Answer to Question #3 Show

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