What Is Sarcasm? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Sarcasm Definition


Sarcasm (SAR-kahz-um) is a spoken, bitter remark often used to mock or offend. The wording may seem positive, but the speaker’s tone conveys their true intent. Sarcasm can be harsh and meant to hurt someone or said as a joke to amuse others.

Sarcasm arose around the 16th century and derives from the Greek sarkasmos, which means “to tear flesh.”


Types of Sarcasm


The main purpose of incorporating sarcasm in literature is character development. It gives a written work color and personality, making it seem more authentic. There are seven common types of sarcasm writers can employ.

  • Self-deprecating: This kind of sarcasm occurs when someone implies a personal worthlessness by putting themselves down. For example, if someone was invited to karaoke and thought they weren’t talented enough, they might say, “Yeah, because I’m SO good at singing.” Using the right tone, the emphasis on so makes the sarcasm obvious.
  • Deadpan: Deadpan sarcasm can be difficult to detect because the speaker conveys no emotion. Considering someone asking their partner, “Are you ready for a night of romance?”, and getting the response “Well, my secret boyfriend already took me out last night, so I’m kind of all tired out.” The sentence is delivered without any emphasis, but the sarcasm is clear.
  • Obnoxious: This sort of sarcasm is bitter in nature, meant to mock or offend. It’s not so much funny as it is mean. If a generally unskilled person said, “The oven is broken, but I can fix it!”, their sarcastic friend might bitingly say, “Yeah, because you’re so handy.”
  • Brooding: Like self-deprecating sarcasm, brooding sarcasm is spoken by someone who feels sorry for themselves. They make their mopey mood known through a polite comment with a complaining tone. For instance, if a child discovers it’s their turn to clean the bathroom, they might think to themselves, “Great, I’m so lucky.”
  • Polite: Subtle in nature and a bit of an oxymoron, someone being politely sarcastic says something that appears genuine but is really insincere. A tired friend might say “Sure, I’d be happy to watch your kids on my only night off this week” when asked to babysit.
  • Manic: Manic sarcasm is amplified; the speaker can appear crazy because of their unnaturally elated tone. For example: when discussing an upcoming assignment, a student could tell a peer, “YES, I’m just SO excited! I can’t wait to sit down all night and work on my essay until it is the pinnacle of PERFECTION!”
  • Raging: This type of sarcasm can be violent as it depicts exaggerated anger when the speaker is on the edge of a breakdown. It’s known for being used by psychologically unstable characters. If asked to clean, a volatile person might shout, “Oh, you want me to clean the house? Because I don’t already clean up after you EVERY SINGLE DAY? Want me to do your job for you too? Or I can just go put on a maid’s outfit and clean up the mess after I blow your brains out!”


Detecting Sarcasm


Written Sarcasm

People rely on verbal and facial cues to determine spoken sarcastic comments, so it can be more difficult to ascertain when a writer is employing sarcasm. Readers must focus on context and character descriptions. For example, if a character is described as growing annoyed with someone and then compliments them, they’re most likely being insincere.

Occasionally, writers will describe a facial cue to indicate the character is being sarcastic, such as an eye roll or raised eyebrows.

Visual Sarcasm

While sarcasm is generally conveyed through spoken language, some artists are creative enough to express sarcasm through their work—the most popular form being cartoons. For example, there’s a cartoon that depicts an emaciated cow with a Star Wars label on its bell. It has a worried look on its face because Mickey Mouse is approaching with several empty pails he intends to fill with the cow’s milk. This is a sarcastic way of showing that the artist believes Disney sees the Star Wars franchise as its cash cow.

Sarcasm has also made its way into social media trends with sarcastic memes, often in the form of captioned images. For example, an image of a man with a serious, almost expressionless face would have the sarcastic caption “You are hilarious, man! I am laughing so hard.”


Sarcasm and Other Related Terms


Though similar in idea, sarcasm, satire, farce, and verbal irony all have a slight difference that sets them apart from one another.

Sarcasm vs. Satire

Satire is a specific type of sarcasm that focuses on societal issues and addresses them through irony and exaggerated humor. The Importance of Being Earnest is a satirical play that speaks to Victorian values in a humorous manner and is a great example of using satire as entertainment.

Sarcasm vs. Farce

Like satire, farce pertains to over-the-top, slapstick comedy, most often used in entertainment. Home Alone is a great example of a film filled with farce because of the absurd—and often drastically dangerous—tricks Kevin plays on the bandits.

Sarcasm vs. Verbal Irony

Though both express an idea that conveys the opposite of what is said, they have different motivations. Sarcasm is often said with offensive intent, while verbal irony is not. Some frequently used examples of verbal irony are “Big deal” and “Yeah, right.”


How Sarcasm Relates to Comedy


Sarcasm is frequently used in television comedies to depict a character’s personality and make the audience laugh. In the popular sitcom Friends, Chandler Bing is known for his frequent use of sarcasm. The morning after his wedding to Monica Geller, they have this exchange:

Monica: “I’ll never be a bride again. Now I’m just someone’s wife.”
Chandler: “And I’m the happiest guy in the world.”

While Chandler says he’s happy, he’s really expressing despondence because Monica implied she’s not excited to be his wife. To emphasis his intent, he pairs his comment with raised eyebrows and an overly enthusiastic tone.

Stand-up comedy—especially dry comedians—rely greatly on sarcasm to create humor. They will most often use deadpan, self-deprecating, and polite sarcasm to amuse their audience. Kellen Erskine, for example, uses deadpan sarcasm to joke about grocery store etiquette.


Examples of Sarcasm in Literature


1. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Darcy has just proposed marriage to Elizabeth, and in a shockingly blunt manner, she turned him down. She begins to explain all the reasons why she dislikes him, and he fights back when she mentions his quarrel with Mr. Wickham:

“You take an eager interest in that gentleman’s concerns,” said Darcy in a less tranquil tone, and with a heightened colour.
“Who that knows what his misfortunes have been can help feeling an interest in him?”
“His misfortunes!” repeated Darcy contemptuously; “yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed.” [bolded for emphasis]

Austen is using sarcasm to express Darcy’s anger at Elizabeth for her accusations. This kind of obnoxious sarcasm is meant to point out Elizabeth’s foolishness because he knows something she does not: in truth, Wickham is a manipulative liar with a gambling problem. When Darcy says Wickham’s misfortunes have been great, he’s really insinuating the opposite. The exclamation points and description of his tone and color help the reader understand he’s being sarcastic.

2. JoJo Moyes, After You

The protagonist, Louisa, has just run into her ex-boyfriend and his new fiancé. She becomes increasingly uncomfortable, and everything he says tries her patience. Eventually, she breaks down and confronts him about something terrible he did to her in the past, which he denies:

“That was nothing to do with me.”
“Of course not. Nice to see you, anyway, Pat. Good luck with the wedding, Caroline! I’m sure you’ll be the…the…firmest bride around.” [bolded for emphasis]

This example of polite sarcasm further develops Louisa’s character and personality. If the reader didn’t have prior context of Louisa’s anger, they might guess that she’s being genuine. But context proves Louisa does not wish them well at all.


Further Resources on Sarcasm


Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation, and the Evolution of Language by John Haiman argues that sarcasm is embedded into how we speak daily.

There’s a website dedicated to articles on sarcasm, including quotes, memes, jokes, and poems.

Kid Lit addresses the prevalence of sarcasm in young adult fiction.

The Writer’s Cookbook has an article that details how to use sarcasm in writing.


Related Terms


  • Banter
  • Irony
  • Mock
  • Parody
  • Ridicule
  • Satire