How does Jane Austen's Emma demonstrate the various forms of irony?

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scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Like Jane Austen's other social satires, Emma relies heavily on irony, especially situational irony. Listed below are examples of the novel's use of the major types of irony.

1. Situational Irony (coincidence; disparity between what one thinks and what actually is)--Emma views herself as an excellent matchmaker with keen skills in observation. However, she is too naive and imperceptive to be orchestrating others' private affairs. In every instance--including her own love life--when Emma tries to assert her opinions on whom someone should or should not marry, she fails miserably. She discourages her friend Harriet from accepting George Martin's proposal; in the end, Mr. Martin is the best match for Harriet. When Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill arrive in town, Emma completely misses the tension between them and is flabbergasted when she discovers that they are secretly engaged. Throughout most of the novel, Emma is unaware of her own feelings for Mr. Knightley (until Harriet shows interest in him), and does not observe that he also has romantic feelings for her. One of the most significant examples of situational irony is Emma's fixation on Harriet's portrait. The portrait shows Emma's version of Harriet, but not who Harriet truly is. It symbolizes Emma's idealistic view of the world around her, and she is often surprised when the real world reveals itself to be completely different from her imaginary one. 

2.Dramatic Irony(the audience or reader has knowledge of important information to which one or more than one characters are not privy)--InEmma,much of the situational irony mingles with dramatic irony. The reader can tell early on that Emma's faith in her power of observation is misplaced and, thus, predicts that Emma's meddling in others' love lives will not go well. Similarly, the reader knows before Emma that Harriet is truly in love with Mr. Martin and that he is a better match for her socially and economically than are any of Emma's picks for her friend.

3. Verbal Irony (sarcasm, understatement, play on words)--Although Emma does not rely upon verbal irony as much as does Pride and Prejudice, Austen still demonstrates her skill with understatement in this novel. When Emma is fallaciously evaluating her relationship with Frank Churchill, she continues "to entertain no doubt of her being in love him" (264). However, as Emma vascillates in regards to whether her feelings are actually love, Austen plays around with the definition of love. Emma might love Frank because she is constantly thinking of him and likes to have letters from him, but Austen uses these thoughts to demonstrate the fickle nature of many young women of her day, especially in regards to words such as love and marriage.