Question: Comment on Jane Austen’s Use of Irony in Pride and Prejudice.
The overall style of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1775-1817) is ironic and funny. The irony is a literary instrument where the speaker actually means to say something different or opposite. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen has often taken an ironic tune to make fun of the customs of the landed gentlemen of England in the early 19th century.
Verbal irony at the outset
The narrator often makes comments that may seem to mean one thing but actually mean another. An example of this style is the novel’s famous opening line:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
This is a remark that may seem to suggest to wealthy unmarried men who are interested in getting married. However, the structure of the sentence makes the reader wonder who universally acknowledges this truth and whether this truth is actually true. Another interpretation of the sentence is that Mrs. Bennet believes that worthy bachelors should get married but the men themselves may be quite less interested.
From Darcy’s desire to dance with Elizabeth, we have situational irony, an unexpected change by Darcy, who only moments before was telling Sir Lucas that any savage can dance, and only moments later wishes to dance with Elizabeth. She, in turn, uses verbal irony to describe Mr. Darcy’s gestures to Sir Lucas as “Mr. Darcy is all politeness,” when she feels quite the opposite.
Dramatic irony refers to that the readers know something the characters do not. Speeches by different characters contribute to the ironic style by literally creating gaps between what is being said and what the reader can explain about the reality of the situation. Characters who lack self-awareness make statements that show that they are out of touch with what is happening around them. For example, when Mrs. Bennett is trying to protect living in the country, she insists;
“I believe there are few neighborhoods larger. I know we dine with four and twenty families.”
From the above statement, it is felt that Mrs. Bennett wants to make this comment to strengthen her argument by highlighting her sophistication and the image of the larger social circle, but it actually shows her ignorance. Mr. Collins also makes statements that directly contradict what the reader understands to be happening in the scene. For example, when he confidently said to Elizabeth;
“I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long,”
His speech indicates that he is on his way to persuading Elizabeth for marriage. However, this statement directly contradicts what the reader knows about Elizabeth’s feelings, creating irony and humor about Mr. Collins’ sense of self-importance.
Another instance of dramatic irony shows up when Darcy takes a sincere interest in Elizabeth, although she still believes he does not like her but he does.
Self-conscious verbal irony
More self-conscious characters sometimes deliberately say something that reflects the opposite of what they are actually feeling. Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth are the most frequent contributors to this type of verbal irony. For example, when Mr. Bennett says to his wife;
“If your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness, if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley”.
Here Mr. Bennett means the opposite of what he is saying. He is actually hinting that it is ridiculous for Mrs. Bennet to be so obsessed with Jane’s marriage that she is willing to risk her daughter’s health. The expression of this attitude is meant to show the reader how ridiculous it is. In this instance, when Mr. Bennett, like many others, speaks so sarcastically to his wife that irony is exaggerated because Mrs. Bennet ignores the fact that her husband is joking with her.
Speculative and opaque verbal irony
Elizabeth Bennet, like her father, regularly makes statements that do not reflect true meaning. For example, while discussing Bingley’s sisters, she tells Jane;
“Do clear them too or we shall be obliged to think ill of somebody”.
She doesn’t really expect or want Jane to convince that no one is to blame. In fact, Elizabeth is actually revealing that she has already made up her mind that the events are being discussed and is firmly convinced that the Bingley sisters have behaved badly with her. One of the main differences between Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet’s use of such verbal irony is that Elizabeth’s irony is often understandable and appreciated by those with whom she speaks. Charlotte Lucas, Jane, and even Mr. Darcy realize that Elizabeth may mean the opposite of what she is saying, whereas Mrs. Bennet is usually indifferent to her husband’s irony.
Austen’s ironic style is important to the novel for two main reasons. First, the style adds liveliness and interest to the relatively straightforward plot events. The humorous and ironically satirical way in which “Pride and Prejudice” has been written has always been a major part of its appeal, and so an appreciation of Austen’s style is essential to the appreciation of the novel. Second, the ironic style is associated with the theme of miscommunication and misunderstanding. The characters in the novel often misinterpret events and behaviors, and this confusion exists because of the frequent gaps between literal and real meanings.