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

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jane Austen's Emma demonstrates various forms of irony, often with the character of Emma herself. At various points in the novel, Emma and situations in which she finds herself reveal verbal, situational, and dramatic irony.

Verbal irony, which often involves either sarcasm or a verbal pun, can be seen when Emma alludes to how dull Miss Bates is. Miss Bates says, “I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I?” Then the author notes:

Emma could not resist.

“Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”

Although this sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, Emma does not intend it to hurt Miss Bates’ feelings. Emma truly believes that Miss Bates will not pick up on the irony in her comments. When Knightly chides her, she tells him, “I dare say she did not understand me.”

Situational irony is seen in Emma’s relationship with Frank Churchill. Much of their conversation is about Jane Fairfax. Emma, unwisely, is open with Frank about her disdain of Jane. She complains to many people about Jane, probably because she is jealous of her. She specifically tells Frank that she and Jane have known one another since childhood and that they never really took to one another. She adds:

I hardly know how it has happened; a little, perhaps, from that wickedness on my side which was prone to take disgust towards a girl so idolized and so cried up as she always was, by her aunt and grandmother, and all their set. And then, her reserve—I never could attach myself to any one so completely reserved.

Franks responds:

“It is a most repulsive quality, indeed,” said he. “Oftentimes very convenient, no doubt, but never pleasing. There is safety in reserve, but no attraction. One cannot love a reserved person.”

However, this is situational irony, as we learn later in the novel when Mrs. Weston reveals that Frank and Jane have been secretly engaged the entire time.

Emma also shows dramatic irony in which the reader knows or understands something that the character does not. For instance, she tells Harriet that when she is older, she will not marry. She says:

... it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else.

This is ironic because the reader understands just how foolish the comment is. Moreover, although perhaps the reader does not yet know that Emma will finally realize that she loves and wants to marry Mr. Knightly at this early point in the novel, it is fairly clear early on, especially to Jane Austen fans, that Emma will eventually want to be married, despite any protests to Harriet.

Another example of irony that the reader understands, but the character does not is when the author describes Emma's feelings towards Jane and notes that:

Before she had committed herself by any public profession of eternal friendship for Jane Fairfax ... Former provocations reappeared.

The reader understands that Austen is poking fun at Emma through the use of irony.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Jane Austen employ irony at different levels in Emma?

Irony is shown when Emma considers her attraction to Mr. Churchill. She is such a match maker toward Harriet that it is ironic she can't tell when she herself is in love.

This irony is compounded with her indecision in how to respond to the news of Mr. Churchill's secret engagement to Miss Fairfax. She knows she ought to feel wounded by his insincerity, but knows she isn't wounded--and so feels ambivalent. Yet, another irony creeps will society perceive this shift in affection?

Not knowing how to feel due to the concern of the way society interprets the situation is ironic in itself, but this was a concern of great import at the time.

So now that Emma is all grown up, she is ironically still in need of Mrs. Weston's guidance in the matter.

This is one example of the way Austen shifts from personal to intrapersonal and social irony.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Jane Austen, in her novel Emma, imply a different attitude than the essence of her narrative statements using verbal irony?

Austen's technique for imputing two meanings to her narratorial statements through verbal irony--remember that in the text, it is the narrator we hear, not Jane Austen (although one of the charms of Austen's works is that we believe the narrator's voice is identical to Jane's)--is complex and involves syntax, grammar and subject matter. In order to answer your question, an analysis of these three elements in ironic statements is in order. As always, Austen introduces the story of Emma with a brilliantly ironic statement from the narrator: 

The real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.

Let's analyze this to see how Austen uses verbal irony to imply two attitudes. The subject matter of these two statements can reduced to its simplest form and stated as: the evils of Emma's life. This is a serious subject, especially when coupled with the vocabulary word (vocabulary use is a subcategory of grammar: words and word usage) "danger." With this topic looming from the first phrase, "The real evils," we expect a serious danger to obtrude into Emma's life. Instead, we encounter verbal irony as we are told that the dangerous evil of Emma's life is that she is over-indulged, pampered, unguided and spoiled. The technique Austen uses here is juxtaposition of the serious with the ridiculous (though too true) in one statement. When we read that the evil facing Emma is that she is spoiled, we have to laugh and understand the ironic tale about to unfold (or we are confused because we have never encounter a heroine who is maligned and painted in unpleasant shades at the outset).

We've already noted one point in grammar, that being the vocabulary choice, "danger." The phrase "threatened alloy" is a second vocabulary choice that reinforces the verbal irony of the two ideas in unexpected juxtaposition: being spoiled juxtaposed to danger and threat. Aside from some differences between 18th and 19th century punctuation and contemporary punctuation (e.g., the now unneeded commas in "at present so unperceived, that they did not" and "her own way, and a disposition"), Austen's grammar is perfect, thus, grammatically, vocabulary analysis is our best tool for understanding Austen's technique, though it is most likely Austen chose her punctuation to reinforce and emphasize her ironic statements.

Syntax--the arrangements of grammatical parts for style and emphasis of communication--adds strongly to the duality of Austen's ironic technique. Let's analyse part of the above quotation for syntax.

The real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were ...; these were the disadvantages which threatened ...

Austen might have written the above thoughts using this syntax:

  • The disadvantages that threatened were the real evils of Emma's situation which were ....

This is a straightforward statement that combines the subjects of the two semicolon coordinated sentences into one sentence. This syntax takes itself and its communication very seriously; there is no room for verbal irony in this syntax. This is a serious statement, and if Austen had written this instead or her two semicolon coordinated sentences, we would have had a very different image of Emma and our ironic tale of meddlesomeness and love would have been a serious didactic tale about a troublemaker.

Thus, it is through subject matter and unexpectedly juxtaposed subject matter; grammar and vocabulary; and syntax that Austen implies a different attitude than the essence of her narrative statements using verbal irony that she creates with these techniques. To find other examples, apply these steps of analysis to other ironic statements.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Jane Austen, in her novel Emma, imply a different attitude than the essence of her narrative statements using verbal irony?

This novel is notable in the way that it deliberately tries to confuse the reader, echoing the confusion of the various characters as they, and the audience, try to establish who is in love with whom. What is so excellent about Austen's narrative voice is the way that she uses verbal irony so brilliantly to capture this confusion and suggest other attitudes that are perhaps more accurate than the actual words used suggest. A classic example of this is when Emma reflects on her action in trying to bring Harriet and Mr. Elton together after Mr. Elton has actually proposed to her:

The first error, and the worst, lay at her door. It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious--a trick of what ought to be simple. She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more.

As Emma reflects on her faults, she, typically and rather impetuously, "resolved to do such things no more," declaring that she will never try to matchmake again. However, if the reader has understood her character, they will detect a touch of verbal irony in this strong declaration. Emma will find it impossible to stop matchmaking altogether, as her natural sense of arrogance and desire to interfere is so strong that she will find it all but impossible to desist from trying to matchmake again. Her character development will not occur after such a relatively minor misunderstanding. Verbal irony in this example therefore works in the way that Austen records the thoughts of a character in such a way as to mock their resolutions and show them to be rather extreme reactions made in the heat of the moment that they have no intention of following.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on