In the 1993 film Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin Williams’ character—disguised as an old English woman—mentions that her fictional husband passed away early. “He was fond of the drink,” says Mrs. Doubtfire. “It was the drink that killed him.” Sally Fields’ character is heartbroken, making the natural assumption that Mrs. Doubtfire meant alcoholism must be responsible for the fictional husband’s death.

“No,” replies Mrs. Doubtfire. “He was hit by a Guinness truck.”

A bit on the macabre side as jokes go, but here we see an example of cosmic irony—when someone’s fate contrasts against expectations. In Mrs. Doubtfire, the joke is written for laughs, but there’s far more that goes into cosmic irony. And if you’ve ever felt like the universe was out to get you, here’s why you may have a pronounced sense of cosmic irony, yourself.

What Is Cosmic Irony?

Just as irony occurs when you make a statement directly contradicting your meaning, cosmic irony occurs when your fate is in direct contradiction to your expectations. 

What happens when a firehouse burns down? Situational irony. The cosmic part comes from our attribution to circumstances. When the universe itself seems to reach down and flip our circumstances in an unexpected way, we call it cosmic irony. You might also think of it as the “irony of fate.”

For the ancient Greeks, this was the realm of the Fates, who were the personification of destiny. The Fates were three old women named Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, who the Greeks believed spun the threads of our lives. When Atropos cut the Thread of Life, that was the end for you. Time for the underworld. In line with cosmic irony, many regarded the Fates as having fickle natures.

Cosmic Irony Examples

As a literary device, cosmic irony can shift to dramatic irony. Used this way, it becomes a plot twist—highlighting the flaws or strengths of a character by weaving the story into their destiny. 

What does it look like? Let’s look at some examples from both history and literature:

  • Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the U.S. and avid opponent of both national banks and paper currencies, is now on the $20 bill.
  • In Dante’s Divine Comedy, souls met their fates with upside-down versions of their sins. For example, in Purgatory, the poet encounters a group of formerly-corpulent souls who have starved and exercised themselves to skin and bones. To Dante, this was the appropriate repentance for gluttony.
  • Queen Elizabeth I, one of the strongest and longest-reigning monarchs in English history, was the daughter of Henry VIII, who tried desperately to have a male heir.

Spinning Threads of Cosmic Irony Into Your Life

Understanding this literary device can help you spin plots for novels, highlight characteristics of your portraits, or even navigate your own world with a better sense of humor. After all, you may just learn to stay clear of Guinness trucks.

Put Your Literary Devices to Use

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Written by:

Dan Kenitz