Pride and Prejudice is one of the most popular novels written by Jane Austen. This romantic novel, the story of which revolves around relationships and the difficulties of being in love, was not much of a success in Austen’s own time. However, it has grown in its importance to literary critics and readerships over the last hundred years. There are many facets to the story that make reading it not only amusing but also highly interesting. The reader can learn much about the upper-class society of this age, and also gets an insight to the author’s opinion about this society. Austen presents the high-society of her time from an observational point of view, ironically describing human behavior. She describes what she sees and adds her own comments to it in a very light and easy way. She never seems to be condescending or snubbing in her criticism but applies it in a playful manner. This playfulness, and her witty, ironic comments on society are probably the main reasons that make this novel still so enjoyable for readers today. Some rules and characteristics depicted in the story seem very peculiar and are hard to conceive by people of our generation. Nevertheless, the descriptions of the goings-on in that society are so lively and sparkling with irony that most people cannot help but like the novel.
Jane Austen applies irony on different levels in her novel Pride and Prejudice. She uses various means of making her opinion on 18th century society known to the reader through her vivid and ironic descriptions used in the book. To bring this paper into focus, I will discuss two separate means of applying irony, as pertaining to a select few of the book’s characters.
The novel is introduced by an omniscient narrator, unknown to the reader, who describes and comments on the given situations throughout the novel. The narrator serves to represent and speak for Jane Austen, enabling her to aim her criticism not only through the characters, but also in a more direct fashion. She uses this unspecified person, who is outside of all the novel’s action and gives explanations, as a medium of communication to present her own opinion in an allusively open way.
This narrator is the first means of making ironic remarks. Through the narrator a certain mood is created that prevails throughout the novel. The very first sentence of the novel shows this with the following sentence, It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife (Pride and Prejudice, p. 3). The irony of this statement is the universal validity with which assumptions are made in that upper-class society. It is assumed that there is nothing else for a man of high rank to want but a wife to complete his possessions. Along with his money, land, riches etc. she acts as nothing more but another piece of property, which was a common attitude in those days. Austen manages to make the attitude towards matrimony upheld by this upper class look rather ridiculous and incredible. Another ironic description is given, for instance, when Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst take care of the sick Jane, who stays at their house. They present themselves as very affectionate and caring friends to Jane. However, that does not stop them from talking very bad about Jane’s relations. The real ironic comment is that the narrator lets us readers know that after those two ladies have finished bad mouthing Jane’s sister Elizabeth and the rest of her family, they return to Jane (w)ith a renewal of tenderness (p. 27). These high-society women are well versed at putting others down and whimsically, and as they think wittily, insulting the characters of those who are of a lower class – and Austen comments on it ironically by describing their behavior with irony. Through the narrator, Austen shows us how fickle this society is; being based on class and rank. The narrator exposes the vanities and its stupidity rather drastically. The comment on Aunt Phillips who would hardly have resented a comparison with the housekeeper’s room (p. 56) of Rosing’s with her own living-room is so ironically bitter that it even borders on being mean. These are only a few examples to show how the general ironic mood of the novel is created.
The second means of creating irony in the novel is through the particular use of the characters involved. Elizabeth Bennet is the main character of the novel and she happens to be an acute observer, who likes to ponder about what she sees and who dares to make judgements. She usually speaks her mind but covers up the meaning of her statements with irony, in order not to offend the rules of conduct in her society. Elizabeth likes to play with people’s expectations, which she openly admits to Mr. Darcy in a scene where he wants to invite her to dance. She declines his offer to dance with him with the following sentence: You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. She admits that she likes to upset people’s plots, in order to disappoint them and in turn derive pleasure from their disappointment. This mocking is a form of irony – upsetting the expected with a counteractive action.
This example also shows very well how different simple sentences sound to the different characters. Darcy merely asked Elizabeth if she felt like dancing a reel and thought it to be a very nice and gentle offer. However, Elizabeth expects him to be hateful and condescending, therefore she always hears an implication of condescension etc. in conversations with Darcy. Many dialogues between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy seem to be full of implications: they both have formed an opinion of the other and only view the others’ statements only through their premeditated opinion. Those implications can give the reading of their conversations a very ironic and amusing touch, depending on what point of view the reader takes. There are so many different ways in which every single sentence can be interpreted that it is hard to tell whether some sentences are really meant to be ironic or whether they are simply ‘normal’ sentences. If one takes Elizabeth’s point of view, some of Darcy’s statements can certainly be interpreted as very ironic, meaning in this case ironic with the intention to humiliate. If these same statements are viewed, however, from Darcy’s perspective, they can also be very harmless or even nice. One example for this is the argument between Elizabeth and Darcy about Darcy’s character. Elizabeth slights Darcy by saying that he is very earnest and not one to be laughed at, which is something pitiful to her because she loves to laugh. His answer is The wisest and the best of men – nay, the wisest and the best of their actions may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke. (p. 42). This statement could be seen as derogatory of Elizabeth, but if viewed from Darcy’s point of view it can as well be his honest opinion that one should not make fun of and take lightly everything that goes on in life. It does not necessarily have to be a personal attack, which Elizabeth perceives it to be. Because Elizabeth’s attitude towards Darcy is so much prejudiced in the first part of the book, one is inclined to see allusions and implications in everything they both say. This general mood of suspicion makes the reader of course much more alert and ready to discover ironies in the conversations, sometimes even when they might not be intended.
Elizabeth is an ironic character in different ways as well. She is very aware of the things that are going on around her, which is probably a reason for her sarcasm and irony. She sees the flaws in people, including herself, and understands the nuances of situations and peoples’ behaviors very acutely. She is, for example, quite aware of the inappropriateness of her mother’s behavior, or her younger sister’s. It can be imagined that this awareness makes her turn to sarcasm and irony, in order to handle the embarrassing situations created by their behavior without hurting the feelings of her family, or breaking the rules of conduct. She also tries to condemn her sister Lydia’ s behavior, to make her aware of the inappropriateness. Her comment, for instance, on Lydia’s recommendation of how to get a husband and her promise to get husbands for all her sisters: I thank you for my share of the favour, but I do not particularly like your way of getting husbands. (p. 228) is an example of this. Thanking Lydia is of course very ironic. However, this biting irony is too subtle and is wasted on a person like Lydia, who is simply too absorbed in her own life, her desires and her wishes to be affected by it.
Elizabeth also uses irony as an indirect means of showing people like Wickham what she thinks of them. For other people, her remarks might sound normal, but since he knows what she is alluding to they convey an additional meaning. In order to conceal her opinion from others, who might be provoked or hurt if she spoke her mind openly, she uses allusions and ironies to let Wickham know what she knows and what she thinks about him. She says for example: ?and, she was afraid, (that you) had- not turned out well. At such distance as that, you know, things are strangely misrepresented. (p. 236). Wickham concludes from this rhetoric that Elizabeth sees through him and knows his real character. With allusions and ironies like this she succeeds at least in making him completely uneasy around her.
Elizabeth’s use of irony not only shows her own perception of the world around her, but also is used in order to bring about changes. This is the main difference between her and another very ironic character of the novel – her father, Mr. Bennet.
Her father is also aware of the follies around him. He is not blind to how much his wife and younger daughters compromise themselves in company. But instead of trying to raise their awareness of it, as Elizabeth tries every now and then, he has given up on that intention. He has resigned to their dispositions and takes to observing their follies as a kind of sport. He seems to enjoy seeing people ridicule themselves in front of others. This is seen very well in a conversation between Elizabeth and her father about the letter Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet’s cousin, had sent to the former. Elizabeth questions whether Mr. Collins can be a very sensible man. Her father’s reply is: No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse.(p. 48). It is also said at another place that his expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, [?]. (p. 51). This shows clearly that Mr. Bennet enjoys observing people’s oddities and follies, and amuses himself by looking at them in an ironic or even cynical way. I think that this attitude is almost close to condescension, but he is too good-humored a person to think in that way. He seems to enjoy observing absurd behavior so much that thrives on people like Mr. Collins.
Mr. Bennet is certainly ironic about people and their behavior, but his irony has an almost bitter undertone. One of his statements shows this when he says about his neighbors, who are friends of his family, ?some of the good-natured, gossiping Lucases. (p. 261). It becomes apparent, that he does not approve of the spreading gossip about his family. He shows this by opposing the character description of the Lucases as good-natured and gossiping, which is of course a negatively loaded word. He is quite scornful about their behavior, and expresses his feelings covertly instead of speaking his mind frankly. It is when Lydia elopes with Wickham, that he loses his calm ironic mood. He admits to Elizabeth that she was right when she warned him not to be too liberal with his daughters, and that he had been too careless in their upbringing. He says: Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it. (p. 215). For a moment he loses his ironic mask and admits his own faults. But he knows himself well enough to also add, No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. [?] It will pass away soon enough. (p. 215). At that point it becomes obvious that he usually guards himself with sarcasm simply to tolerate the behavior and the foolishness around him. Only by being cynical, can he survive in this household of silly and nerve-wrecking women like his wife and his two youngest daughters. His fault, however, is that he never realized that by allowing himself to simply be amused by people’s behavior, he has indirectly encouraged and reinforced their behavior.
Nevertheless, Mr. Bennet recovers soon from his moments of revelation and remorse and goes on with his usual way of life. He even finds his humor again, so much as to write a letter to Mr. Collins, when it is resolved that Elizabeth will marry Mr. Darcy. He writes: I must trouble you once more for congratulations. (p. 277). This is clearly ironic, because congratulations for the marriage of Wickham and Lydia must have been perceived as sheer mockery, or as congratulations for having reduced the embarrassment as much as possible by legitimating their relationship. His comparison of this marriage with Elizabeth’s pleasant marriage is his cynical way of looking at the world.
These are only a few examples of how Austen uses irony in Pride and Prejudice. There is much more to say about this topic: this serves only as a brief discussion.
My references are made to this edition:
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Modern Library Edition, Random House Inc., 1995.