How does Jane Austen use wit and irony in Pride and Prejudice?
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A great deal of Austen's wit is actually seen through the use of irony. In Pride and Prejudice, we see all three types of irony displayed: verbal, situational, and dramatic.
The use of verbal irony particularly expresses Austen's use of wit. Verbal irony is usually recognized as sarcasm. It is the moment someone, such as a character or narrator, says one thing, but means the complete opposite. One perfect example of verbal irony can be seen in the very opening line of the book, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" (Ch. 1). The irony in this line is that, while the women of an English village in Austen's time might "acknowledge" the truth above, the wealthy men the line is referring to actually might not; therefore, the above is not really a "truth universally acknowledged." Instead, this opening line is a perfect example of sarcasm, or verbal irony, and a perfect example of Austen's wit.
Situational irony describes a moment when something occurs and the exact opposite was expected to occur. Either the audience or the characters can have the opposite expectations. One instance of situational irony can be seen early on in the novel at a party that takes place at Lucas Lodge. After Elizabeth is asked to play and sing, the party begins to dance. At the same moment that Sir Lucas is trying to convince Mr. Darcy to join in the dancing, Elizabeth begins walking towards them. Mr. Darcy so adamantly protests dancing to Sir Lucas, even insulting the activity, saying, "Every savage can dance," that when Sir Lucas sees Elizabeth and encourages Darcy to dance with her the reader as well as Elizabeth are very surprised when Darcy "requested to be allowed the honour of her hand" (Vol. 1, Ch. 6). Darcy's behavior in this instant is a true reversal of his earlier behavior, especially at the Meryton assembly. Hence, this is a perfect example of situational irony. In addition, the moment is also amusing due to the sudden change of behavior, also making it another example of Austen's wit.
Dramatic irony occurs when the reader is aware of something that the characters have no idea of. This scene is also a fine example of dramatic irony. The reader has already begun to get the impression that Darcy feels an attraction for Elizabeth, which the reader began to see when she was tending to her sister at Netherfield. Therefore, the reader knows that Darcy's sudden interest in dancing with Elizabeth is actually genuine while Elizabeth still believes that he dislikes her and is merely asking in an attempt to be well mannered. Again the situation is amusing due to both Elizabeth's and Darcy's reactions to the situation. Hence, again, this use of dramatic irony also demonstrates Austen's wit.
As one examines “Pride and Prejudice” one is struck with the fact of the ironic significance that pride leads to prejudice and prejudice invites pride. Both have their corresponding virtues and defects bound up with them. They are contradictory and supreme irony is that intricacy, which is much deeper, carries with it a great danger, unknown to simplicity. This type of irony runs through all of Jane Austen’s novels.
In “Pride and Prejudice” there is much irony of situation too which provides a twist to story. Mr. Darcy remarks about Elizabeth: “tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me.” We relish the ironic flavor of that statement much later when we reflect that the woman who was not handsome enough to dance with was really good enough to marry. Mr. Darcy removes Mr. Bingley from Neitherfield because he thinks it imprudent to forge a marriage alliance with Bennet family, but he himself ends up by marrying second Bennet daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth tells Mr. Collins that she is not the type of girl who rejects the proposal first time and accepts the second. But she does exactly when Mr. Darcy proposes her second time. The departure of militia from Meryton seems to put an end to Lydia’s flirtations but it brings about her elopement. Lydia-Wickham episode may seem like an insurmountable barrier between Elizabeth and Darcy, but is exactly instrumental in bringing them together. Lady Catherine attempts to prevent Darcy’s marriage with Elizabeth, but only succeeds in hastening it. It is interesting to note that ironically, it is the villainous character of Wickham and Lady Catherine who are responsible for uniting the hero and heroine (Elizabeth and Darcy).
Irony in characters is even more prominent than the irony of situation. It is ironical that Elizabeth who prides herself on her perceptions is quite blinded by her own prejudice and errs badly in judging intricate characters. Wickham appears gentle and charming but is ironically unprincipled rouge. Darcy appears to be proud and haughty, but ironically proves to be a true gentleman. The Bingley sisters hate the Bennet’s for their vulgarity, but are themselves vulgar in their behavior.
Jane Austen’s ironic tone is established in the very first sentence of the novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Actually a man with a good fortune does not need a wife nearly so much as a single woman is greatly in need of a wealthy husband.
There is much verbal irony in the witty utterance of Mr. Bennet. He tells Elizabeth, “let Mr. Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow and would jilt you considerable………’’ in the word pleasant fellow there is hidden a dramatic irony at the expenses of Mr. Bennet. For Wickham is the man, who has been destined to make a considerable dent on Mr. Bennet’s complacency.
Austen did not any bitterness in using irony in her novel, to draw satirical portraits of whims and follies. Rather her irony can be termed as comic. It implies on her side, an acknowledgement of what is wrong with people and society. Austen used her irony to shake her major figures of their self-deception, and to expose the hypocrisy and pretentiousness, absurdity and insanity of some of her minor figures. It is definitely possible to deduce from her work, a scheme of moral vision. Andrew Wright rightly points out that irony in her hand is an instrument of a moral vision.
In 'Pride and Prejudice', the author uses a great deal of wit and irony. Sometimes one hears it in the authorial voice, as in the opening lines of the novel "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife". Authorial comments intrude very little into the story, but when they do, they are often ironic and almost always witty.
Then there is wit and irony as employed by the characters in the novel. Elizabeth and her father are the most witty characters in the novel. Elizabeth, in fact, is noted for her "sparkling wit". Her father's comments are witty and often ironic and the exchanges between the two add much to the enjoyment of the reader. (See for instance the conversation between Elizabeth and her father after Jane had been jilted by Mr. Bingley).
Apart from verbal irony that is apparent in conversations between Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet, there are ironic characters. Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine and Mrs. Bennet fall into this category. They are ironic because there is a discrepancy between the way they see themselves and the way they appear to the reader.
Then there are ironic situations - as when Fitzwilliam Darcy unwittingly reveals to Elizabeth that Mr. Darcy had been instrumental in separating Jane and Mr. Bingley. This episode is closely followed by the appearance of Mr. Darcy who offers his hand in marriage to Elizabeth - at the precise moment when she is furiously angry with him.
In chapter 14 ofPride and Prejudice,Mr. Collins is asked by the Bennets to read a passage from a book to the family. The book the Bennet sisters choose, however, raises little delight on Mr. Collins’ part. The girls choose a novel, and, of course, he never reads novels. Instead, he decides to read a chapter from Fordyce’sSermons to Young Womento the ladies, since he agrees with Fordyce’s impression that “there seem to be very few, in the style of a Novel, that you can read with safety, and yet fewer that you can read with advantage.”1In Jane Austen’s time, the late 18thand the beginning of the 19thcentury, most Englishman shared Mr. Collins’ and James Fordyce’s opinion. Novels were regarded as useless pieces of literature. They posed a risk to the virtuousness and decorum according to which the members of the English society, especially the female ones, were expected to behave. Writing a novel was regarded as an even worse thing to do than reading one. Hence, in particular the female writers of Austen’s time stressed the educational character of their novels, thus meeting the society’s expectations. The consequence of this was that most of the novels were riddled with didactic comments and attempts at moral indoctrination, lucidly expressing the religious and virtuous end of their pieces of literature.2In contrast to the obtrusive morality of the majority of novels at that time, Austen’s pieces of work are strongly marked by an ironic tone, a subtle humour and highly ambivalent statements. This ambivalence and high use of irony makes it, even today, difficult to determine Austen’s attitudes towards society and the question whether her novels are to be interpreted as conservative, modern or feministic pieces of literature. Romantic novel, Bildungsroman, comedy of manners and comedy of character are some examples for the various terms Austen’s novels have been labeled.3
In particular inPride and Prejudice,an ironic tone is predominant throughout the novel. As Klingel Ray states, Austen is “first and foremost a satirist. And for a satirist, irony is the major tool of language.”4In order to analyse the novel thoroughly and adequately, it is thus of paramount importance to study Austen’s use of irony and her intentions and motives behind the ironic statements and events in the book.
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