How does Jane Austen imply a different attitude than the essence of her narrative statement by using verbal irony? Not taking verbal irony strictly to imply that the speaker or author means the...

How does Jane Austen imply a different attitude than the essence of her narrative statement by using verbal irony? 

Not taking verbal irony strictly to imply that the speaker or author means the opposite of what is stated even though this is the case at times, but taking verbal irony as having the speaker or writer impling a different attitude other than that of the substance of his/her statements. 

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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I'm not certain your language correctly describes the operation of Austen's verbal irony. You say, in paraphrase, her ironic attitude differs from the attitude of her statement: e.g., the statement is serious; she is laughing. When we analyze this closely, we may find that her ironic attitude accords with her statement because it is the statement that contains the verbal irony, since without the statement we cannot know her attitude is differing and ironic. Analysis might show that, in fact, Austen's ironic attitude, shown by verbal irony, differs from the attitude of the characters, actions, ideas or events she is describing. Let's look at an example, analyze it and see.

Her most famous ironic statement employing verbal irony opens Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Let's analyze this starting from the subject and going to the grammar and syntax. The essential subject is a simple one, in paraphrase: Wealthy single men wish to marry. The particular subject is that an unidentified "someone"--probably "women" since Mrs. Bennet speaks first--believes a wealthy single man's ambition is to marry. These/this subject is itself laughable because wealthy single men often had so much fun being wealthy and single (i.e., Wickham, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy, Bingley) that they didn't give a thought to marriage until forced to. With this in view, we may state that there is no probability of a reasonable author like Austen permitting her reasonable narrator to do anything but laugh at this idea. So certainly, the narrator's attitude must differ from the attitude of the characters and ideas her statement describes.

Now let's analyze the grammar and syntax, or vocabulary and order of words comprising the sentence.    

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

"Truth" is the Subject of the sentence as written since placeholder "it" substitutes "Truth." Next we have some British understatement and redundancy. A truth by nature is universal therefore need not be so stated redundantly: Newton's gravity is a truth. Austen uses the word "acknowledge" rather than the firmer "know" because "acknowledge" carries a sense of recognition or awareness that may include personal observation without reference to facts and reality. This is precisely the case with the subject of the sentence: someone knows without reference to facts or reality. There is more to analyze in her vocabulary, but let's move again to syntax.

Syntactically, her sentence has a deferred Subject in the "that-" clause: "that a single man in possession of a good fortune ...". She has begun her sentence with the Complement of the Subject, which is joined to the Subject "that-" clause by the linking verb {be/is}. The sentence in SVC order, without a deferred Subject substituted by a placeholder dummy "it," is:

  • That a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife is a truth universally acknowledged.

This syntax gives a note of authority to the statement because of the straightforward sentence order. Austen would be hard-pressed to incorporate verbal irony in this syntactical structure. Knowing this (she certainly knew this), she has turned the sentence inside-out and dotted it with understated and inferential vocabulary to produce verbal irony. This seems to certainly prove that her statement accords with her attitude of irony, displayed in verbal irony, while it differs from the characters, events, ideas, actions she is describing.

We have clarified your language and concept while analyzing and illustrating how Austen develops differing attitudes through the use of verbal irony: subject, grammar, syntax. Another example to analyze in this manner is the opening of Persuasion:

Sir Walter Elliot, ... was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, ... by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents;...

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