Irony In Pride And Prejudice

How does Jane Austen use wit and irony in Pride and Prejudice?

Jane Austen uses wit and irony throughout Pride and Prejudice to create a comic tone around the serious subject of the marriage market. Ironic utterances like the novel's opening sentence and ironic plot twists keep the reader surprised and entertained.

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Irony, which is when words or situations turn out the opposite of what is expected, permeates Pride and Prejudice.

The first sentence of the novel is frequently cited as the textbook example of verbal irony:

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

What this really means is the opposite of what it says: that women universally wish to marry a man with money. This opening sentence sets the tone for the rest of this novel. In fact, the verbal irony of the first sentence is itself wittily and ironically upset by situational irony when Elizabeth Bennet turns down the wealthy Mr. Darcy's offer of marriage, blowing up at him in rage at his arrogant way of proposing to her and telling him he is the last man she would ever marry.

Other ironies include Elizabeth's blindness to the fact that Charlotte wants to marry the man Elizabeth rejected, Mr. Collins, and the fact that Charlotte makes a decent marriage out of it, which Elizabeth had thought impossible. It is ironic, too, that Mr. Darcy at first insults Elizabeth as a woman not pretty enough to tempt him to dance, then ends up falling in love with her.

Austen, an admirer of the wit of Samuel Johnson, wrote the first draft of this novel in the late 1790s. Eighteenth-century witticisms, based on the juxtaposition of opposites, remain in the revised version. One example is Mr. Bennet's response to Mr. Collins's proposal to Elizabeth:

An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.

Through witty utterances and ironic plot twists, Austen keeps us entertained in this novel that makes comedy out of the serious subject of the marriage market.

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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.

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