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 thedifficulties 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 overthe last hundred years.
There are many facets to the story that make reading itnot only amusing but also highly interesting. The reader can learn much aboutthe upper-class society of this age, and also gets an insight to the author’sopinion about this society. Austen presents the high-society of her time from anobservational point of view, ironically describing human behavior. She describeswhat she sees and adds her own comments to it in a very light and easy way. Shenever seems to be condescending or snubbing in her criticism but applies it in aplayful manner. This playfulness, and her witty, ironic comments on society areprobably the main reasons that make this novel still so enjoyable for readerstoday.Order now
Some rules and characteristics depicted in the story seem very peculiarand are hard to conceive by people of our generation. Nevertheless, thedescriptions of the goings-on in that society are so lively and sparkling withirony that most people cannot help but like the novel. Jane Austen applies ironyon different levels in her novel Pride and Prejudice. She uses various means ofmaking her opinion on 18th century society known to the reader through her vividand ironic descriptions used in the book. To bring this paper into focus, I willdiscuss two separate means of applying irony, as pertaining to a select few ofthe book’s characters. The novel is introduced by an omniscient narrator,unknown to the reader, who describes and comments on the given situationsthroughout 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 amore direct fashion. She uses this unspecified person, who is outside of all thenovel’s action and gives explanations, as a medium of communication to presenther own opinion in an allusively open way. This narrator is the first means ofmaking ironic remarks. Through the narrator a certain mood is created thatprevails throughout the novel.
The very first sentence of the novel shows thiswith the following sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, thata 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 universalvalidity with which assumptions are made in that upper-class society. It isassumed that there is nothing else for a man of high rank to want but a wife tocomplete his possessions. Along with his money, land, riches etc.
she acts asnothing more but another piece of property, which was a common attitude in thosedays. Austen manages to make the attitude towards matrimony upheld by this upperclass look rather ridiculous and incredible. Another ironic description isgiven, for instance, when Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst take care of the sickJane, who stays at their house. They present themselves as very affectionate andcaring friends to Jane.
However, that does not stop them from talking very badabout Jane’s relations. The real ironic comment is that the narrator lets usreaders know that after those two ladies have finished bad mouthing Jane’ssister Elizabeth and the rest of her family, they return to Jane “(w)ith arenewal of tenderness” (p. 27). These high-society women are well versed atputting others down and whimsically, and as they think wittily, insulting thecharacters of those who are of a “lower class” – and Austen commentson 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. Thenarrator exposes the vanities and its stupidity rather drastically.
The commenton Aunt Phillips who “would hardly have resented a comparison with thehousekeeper’s room” (p. 56) of Rosing’s with her own living-room is soironically bitter that it even borders on being mean. These are only a fewexamples to show how the general ironic mood of the novel is created. The secondmeans of creating irony in the novel is through the particular use of thecharacters involved. Elizabeth Bennet is the main character of the novel and shehappens to be an acute observer, who likes to ponder about what she sees and whodares to make judgements.
She usually speaks her mind but covers up the meaningof her statements with irony, in order not to offend the rules of conduct in hersociety. Elizabeth likes to play with people’s expectations, which she openlyadmits to Mr. Darcy in a scene where he wants to invite her to dance. Shedeclines his offer to dance with him with the following sentence: “Youwanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despisingmy taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, andcheating a person of their premeditated contempt. ” She admits that shelikes to upset people’s plots, in order to disappoint them and in turn derivepleasure from their disappointment.
This mocking is a form of irony – upsettingthe expected with a counteractive action. This example also shows very well howdifferent simple sentences sound to the different characters. Darcy merely askedElizabeth if she felt like dancing a reel and thought it to be a very nice andgentle offer. However, Elizabeth expects him to be hateful and condescending,therefore she always hears an implication of condescension etc.
in conversationswith Darcy. Many dialogues between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy seem to be full ofimplications: they both have formed an opinion of the other and only view theothers’ statements only through their premeditated opinion. Those implicationscan 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 differentways in which every single sentence can be interpreted that it is hard to tellwhether 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’sstatements can certainly be interpreted as very ironic, meaning in this caseironic 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’scharacter. Elizabeth slights Darcy by saying that he is very earnest and not oneto 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 thebest of their actions may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first objectin life is a joke. ” (p.
42). This statement could be seen as derogatory ofElizabeth, but if viewed from Darcy’s point of view it can as well be his honestopinion that one should not make fun of and take lightly everything that goes onin life. It does not necessarily have to be a personal attack, which Elizabethperceives it to be. Because Elizabeth’s attitude towards Darcy is so muchprejudiced in the first part of the book, one is inclined to see allusions andimplications in everything they both say. This general mood of suspicion makesthe reader of course much more alert and ready to discover ironies in theconversations, sometimes even when they might not be intended.
Elizabeth is anironic character in different ways as well. She is very aware of the things thatare 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 ofsituations and peoples’ behaviors very acutely. She is, for example, quite awareof the inappropriateness of her mother’s behavior, or her younger sister’s.
Itcan be imagined that this awareness makes her turn to sarcasm and irony, inorder to handle the embarrassing situations created by their behavior withouthurting the feelings of her family, or breaking the rules of conduct. She alsotries to condemn her sister Lydia’ s behavior, to make her aware of theinappropriateness. Her comment, for instance, on Lydia’s recommendation of howto get a husband and her promise to get husbands for all her sisters: ” Ithank you for my share of the favour, but I do not particularly like your way ofgetting husbands. ” (p. 228) is an example of this.
Thanking Lydia is ofcourse very ironic. However, this biting irony is too subtle and is wasted on aperson like Lydia, who is simply too absorbed in her own life, her desires andher wishes to be affected by it. Elizabeth also uses irony as an indirect meansof showing people like Wickham what she thinks of them. For other people, herremarks might sound normal, but since he knows what she is alluding to theyconvey an additional meaning. In order to conceal her opinion from others, whomight be provoked or hurt if she spoke her mind openly, she uses allusions andironies to let Wickham know what she knows and what she thinks about him. Shesays for example: ” .
. . and, she was afraid, (that you) had- not turned outwell. At such distance as that, you know, things are strangelymisrepresented. ” (p. 236).
Wickham concludes from this rhetoric thatElizabeth sees through him and knows his real character. With allusions andironies like this she succeeds at least in making him completely uneasy aroundher. Elizabeth’s use of irony not only shows her own perception of the worldaround her, but also is used in order to bring about changes. This is the maindifference between her and another very ironic character of the novel – herfather, Mr. Bennet. Her father is also aware of the follies around him.
He isnot blind to how much his wife and younger daughters compromise themselves incompany. But instead of trying to raise their awareness of it, as Elizabethtries every now and then, he has given up on that intention. He has resigned totheir dispositions and takes to observing their follies as a kind of sport. Heseems to enjoy seeing people ridicule themselves in front of others. This isseen very well in a conversation between Elizabeth and her father about theletter Mr. Collins, Mr.
Bennet’s cousin, had sent to the former. Elizabethquestions 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 thereverse. “(p. 48). It is also said at another place that his”expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he hadhoped, [. .
. ]. ” (p. 51). This shows clearly that Mr.
Bennet enjoys observingpeople’s oddities and follies, and amuses himself by looking at them in anironic or even cynical way. I think that this attitude is almost close tocondescension, but he is too good-humored a person to think in that way. Heseems 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 hisirony has an almost bitter undertone. One of his statements shows this when hesays about his neighbors, who are friends of his family, “. . . some of thegood-natured, gossiping Lucases.
” (p. 261). It becomes apparent, that hedoes not approve of the spreading gossip about his family. He shows this byopposing the character description of the Lucases as “good-natured”and “gossiping”, which is of course a negatively loaded word. He isquite scornful about their behavior, and expresses his feelings covertly insteadof speaking his mind frankly. It is when Lydia elopes with Wickham, that heloses his calm ironic mood.
He admits to Elizabeth that she was right when shewarned him not to be too liberal with his daughters, and that he had been toocareless in their upbringing. He says: ” Who should suffer but myself? Ithas been my own doing, and I ought to feel it. ” (p. 215). For a moment heloses his ironic mask and admits his own faults.
But he knows himself wellenough to also add, ” No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much Ihave been to blame. [. . .
] It will pass away soon enough. ” (p. 215). At thatpoint it becomes obvious that he usually guards himself with sarcasm simply totolerate the behavior and the foolishness around him. Only by being cynical, canhe survive in this household of silly and nerve-wrecking women like his wife andhis two youngest daughters.
His fault, however, is that he never realized thatby allowing himself to simply be amused by people’s behavior, he has indirectlyencouraged and reinforced their behavior. Nevertheless, Mr. Bennet recovers soonfrom his moments of revelation and remorse and goes on with his usual way oflife. 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 isclearly ironic, because congratulations for the marriage of Wickham and Lydiamust have been perceived as sheer mockery, or as congratulations for havingreduced the embarrassment as much as possible by legitimating theirrelationship. His comparison of this marriage with Elizabeth’s pleasant marriageis his cynical way of looking at the world. These are only a few examples of howAusten uses irony in Pride and Prejudice. There is much more to say about thistopic: this serves only as a brief discussion. BibliographyAusten, Jane.
Pride and Prejudice. New York: Modern Library Edition, RandomHouse Inc. , 1995.