Why is the first sentence in Pride and Prejudice ironic?

The first sentence of Pride and Prejudice is ironic because what it says, that "a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife," is contradicted in the next sentence—really, it is women and their families who are seeking rich husbands and have the agency in this situation. Furthermore, though Mr. Darcy is a rich man, his disposition makes it difficult for him to find a wife, and he isn't actively seeking one.

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Pride and Prejudice begins with the iconic sentence:

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

However, with the very next sentence (in the following paragraph), we observe a bit of situational irony at play:

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Situational irony ultimately entails a reversal of expectations. Reading these two sentences together might provide a sense for how this literary device tends to function.

In the book's opening sentence, Austen describes a wealthy gentleman who represents the apex of the society Austen depicts, one divided strictly along lines of class and gender that expects rigid conformity to various social norms. It is a highly sexist and patriarchal society in addition to a classist one, and in all these respects, it could be expected that, when it comes to matters of matrimony, power and agency would rest with the males.

But this is where Austen's clever and ironic wordplay comes into effect, because in the very next paragraph she introduces the contrasting idea that, due the very predictability of this society, these most powerful and esteemed men are instead viewed by "the surrounding families ... as the rightful property of ... their daughters." In this way, the expected power dynamics appear to have been flipped, with the wealthy and influential gentleman losing agency. Chained by the the customs and expectations of the very same society he dominates, he has been reduced to the status of quarry, pursued by the women and their families.

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Pride and Prejudice is a novel written by Jane Austen. It was first published in 1813 and deals with the love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. According to the first sentence of the novel, "a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." In order to explain the irony within this statement, you might want to stress the point that a reader of the novel would consequently expect Mr. Darcy, who is very rich, to be desperate to find a wife. The reason why this statement is ironic, however, is the fact that Mr. Darcy is very much portrayed as a cold, arrogant and offish character in the novel. This is in total contrast to a man who is keen to find a wife, as the reader would expect someone looking for a wife to behave in a much friendlier and warmer manner compared to the attitude which Mr. Darcy displays.

Mr. Darcy's arrogance stems from the fact that he comes from a well-established family who has a lot of money. You could therefore argue that Mr. Darcy's main concern is not to find a wife in order to get married at all, but instead he is mainly interested in maintaining his social status and protecting his family's wealth. You could therefore interpret the opening statement as ironic, as it clearly does not apply to Mr. Darcy at all.

The fact that the statement opens with the words "it is a truth universally acknowledged," makes this opening line even more ironic, as a man's desire to get married clearly is not a "truth," nor is it "universally acknowledged." It is merely what society expects a man to do, but not necessarily what a man actually wants to do.

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This is an oft-repeated, very famous example of irony in English literature:

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

Irony is saying the opposite of what is meant. What is actually being "universally acknowledged" in this sentence is that everyone in the village wants either themselves to marry or have their daughters or female relatives wedded to well-off men. Everyone, in other words, wants a well-to-do husband (having a fortune didn't necessarily mean wealth at that time, but having a comfortable income) or a well-to-do husband in the family.

This desire, this universal running after the well-to-do man as desirable husband material, is then projected onto these prosperous men as what they must want. Since other people want them to marry, it's decided that they must want wives.

Austen is making fun of the way people assume others must share their own desires.

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The first sentence in the novel Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, reads as follows:

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

We can sense a tone of irony in this sentence considering how Jane Austen personally felt about the social expectations bestowed upon women, which mostly reduced them to the roles of subservient wives.

Additionally, we can see irony in the phrase "a man of good fortune in want of a wife" because it is an obvious play on words that indicates that the wife would be one of the "objects" or "goods" that such fortunate man would be able to get with his money.

Moreover, the phrase is also suggestive of the assumption that   a woman would only want to marry a man who comes across a fortune. In other words, women will always be subservient because they will always aim to "marry well", thus becoming dependent on the wealth of their husbands.

Conclusively, the phrase carries within it a wealth of innuendos which imply that money can basically buy everything, including the love of a woman. Conversely, it also implies that marriage is an expectation rather than a choice, and that it has better chances of succeeding when "a good fortune" is present.

 

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