Copyright J V Ward. 14th August 2003

Pride and Prejudice  and Emma. The Variety and Function of Irony in Austen's Novels.

Austen's purpose is to illustrate the mores of early nineteenth century society in all its aspects and, to accomplish this, she uses the ironic form. This ironic form may be isolated into three distinct types, structural irony, verbal irony and dramatic irony. Her works are replete with examples of each category and show her absolute command of the ironic mode.

Structural irony is a form whereby the work contains an element which divorces the overt representations in the text from their intrinsic meaning. The structure of Pride and Prejudice depends upon the ‘truth universally acknowledged’ that a bachelor ‘must be in want of a wife’. The tone of the assertion and the use of the word ‘must’ imply an ironic reversal and in reality mothers of daughters are in need of ‘a single man in possession of a good fortune’. The presumption of the alleged ‘truth’ provides the justification for Mrs Bennet and others to progress to outrageous lengths to present their offspring to any eligible bachelor who appears in the vicinity. This inherent assumption brings out the humour in Mrs Bennet's gratification over Jane's sudden illness when at Mr Bingley's and her outrage when Elizabeth refuses the unsuitable Mr Collins. However, this ironic reversal is inverted again for Mr Collins is persuaded by Lady Catherine that he does indeed need a wife. Being convinced of the hypothesis, he endeavours assiduously to provide himself with a spouse, taking a second choice when the first fails him and dispensing with a diligent evaluation of prospective candidates. Darcy presumes that it is the woman who requires a spouse and presents himself as Elizabeth's suitor in the insouciant expectation of a prompt acceptance. As Darcy and Elizabeth's relationship oscillates, due to the inbuilt eponymous vices of pride and prejudice, the reader perceives further irony in being unsure in which direction the ironic structure is directed. 

Emma is structured upon the advantaged heroine who only ‘seemed’ to possess the ‘best blessings in existence’. This caveat is augmented by the ‘real evils’ of wilfulness and egotism which are understated by the author in the words ‘rather too much’ and ‘a little too well’. It is further reinforced when Austen declares that Emma's faults are unperceived by all except Mr Knightley who ‘was one of the few people who could see the faults in Emma Woodhouse’. The real pointer to the sense of foreboding is the oxymoron ‘a gentle sorrow’ by which marriage removes her closest companion. This, combined with Mr Woodhouse's antipathy towards marriage, leads Emma to suppose that marriage is for other people. The poignancy of Emma's outburst at Mr Elton's proposal stems from her failing to imagine herself as a prospective bride. The humour of the situation lies in her encouragement of his advances under the notion that they are directed to her protégé, Harriet. Similarly the mayhem resulting from her other attempts at matchmaking derive from the underlying contradictions in her psychological construction.

Verbal irony may be defined as a statement with an inherent meaning which differs fundamentally from its ostensible content. Austen uses this form to build up a character with an economy of words. Mr Woodhouse's social activity is extolled by the weakness of the positive statements on the type of company he keeps. He can ‘command visits’ but only of his ‘little circle’ and his ‘intercourse with families beyond that circle’ was ‘not much’. He dines with ‘the chosen and best’ but this is ‘not unfrequently’ and only ‘through Emma's persuasion’ and ‘there was scarcely an evening in the week’, ‘unless he fancied himself .... unequal to the company’ that Mr Woodhouse did not stay at home and play cards. From these pithy statements the reader may deduce that 'Mr Woodhouse was fond of society in his own way’ means that Mr Woodhouse was not fond of society in any way shape or form.

Austen is particularly adept at elaboration by omission. As Harriet is the ‘daughter of somebody’ the reader infers that she is the daughter of nobody. Emma's character is evolved by a note of her ability in making lists (‘very good lists they were too’) leaving the reader to assume that the agenda was unfulfilled. Mr Collins introduces himself to the novel in epistolary form. He does indeed ‘flatter himself' that his ‘overtures of goodwill are highly commendable’ by his self laudatory style. His position is ‘fortunate’, his patronage is ‘distinguished’ and his rectory ‘valuable’. As he begs ‘leave to apologise’ for an event which is beyond his control, the paucity of affability leads the reader to suspect the reliability of the proffered ‘olive branch’ and the ‘readiness to make them every possible amends’. The sinister undertones in the character's construction enable Austen to reveal a depth of personality which would otherwise remain hidden.

Austen's study of human relationships is suffused with the ironic comments of the participants. As Emma ‘had no right to expect much’ of Robert Martin and indeed ‘did not expect much’ her disappointment on meeting him becomes more profound. Mr Knightley's comments on Emma's talents for prediction are declared in the disingenuous ‘I do not pretend to Emma's genius for foretelling and guessing’. Emma's advice to Harriet ‘not for the world .... would I advise you either way', is taken at face value by the recipient but discloses to the reader that a specific direction is in her mind. Mr and Mrs Bennet's uneasy relationship subsists on a crossfire of sarcasm from the former and banality from the latter. When Mr Bennet advises his wife to take comfort from the fact that she will not be destitute if he is the one who survives, the overt platitude, as intended, harasses the victim. But Austen takes this interchange to a further level when Mrs Bennet denounces her husband saying ‘you take delight in vexing me’. The comment intended as sarcasm fails to achieve the desired effect as the statement is indeed true. This is a triple ironic inversion, an intended ironic statement is ironic in that it is not ironic.

The constant use of verbal irony has its problems but Austen deals with them in an adroit manner. The ironic tone in the authorial voice can be seen in the description of Mrs Elton's opinion of Highbury society. Mrs Elton is ‘a little shocked at the want of two drawing rooms, at the poor attempt at rout‑cakes and there being no ice…’. The mildness of her disdain adds poignancy to the pleasure she evidently expresses in her thought ‘she would soon show them how everything ought to be arranged. [author's italics]. This section is evidently to be taken as ironic. However, when Austen describes Mrs Bennet's vocation 'the business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news', there is no elaborate sentence structure. The absence of adjectives and adverbs and the sharpness of the single finite verb structure are to be interpreted as a command to take the passage at its superficial meaning. Everything Mr Bennet says is intensely ironic and with such a constant character, little depth of feeling can be adequately expressed in his own voice. When his anger at Wickharn's seduction of his daughter is told, the narrator's voice must take over. Austen herself must tell the reader that he refuses to allow the couple into the house or to defray the nuptial expenses. If Mr Bennet were to speak in his own voice, the reader would seek for a disingenuous interpretation and believe the opposite to be the case as when he does resume his own voice and says that Wickham is his ‘favourite son-in-law’.

Dramatic irony consists of a situation whereby the reader participates with the author in a knowledge of events which have not been disclosed to the character. Austen augments this form of irony by concealing facts from the reader, thereby building up a false anticipation which is abruptly thwarted for the sake of dramatic interest. The reader of Pride and Prejudice knows that Darcy has amorous feelings towards Elizabeth and that these feelings are not reciprocated and also is informed that neither character is aware of the other's feelings. When Darcy's proposal is rejected by Elizabeth, the reader is gratified by foreknowledge of the inevitable reply. This is dramatic irony in its simple form. However when Emma plans for Harriet to be paired with Frank Churchill, the reader along with Emma is unaware that Harriet all the while has had her thoughts on Mr Knightley. The humour of the revelations is thereby enlarged and the reader made more sympathetic with Emma, not condemning her too harshly. Similarly Elizabeth's rejection of Darcy is based partly on the false report of Wickham whose good report, based on the hearsay of the villagers, she shares with the reader. Accordingly, Elizabeth's predicament when she becomes acquainted with the facts attracts the sympathy of the reader.

The distinct types of irony do not perform separate functions. They interact with one another at the various stages of the novels to create humour, pathos, sympathy and understanding. It is Austen's mastery of the application of irony which makes her work outstanding.

Links to other essays
 American Beauty   the movie.
Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar
John Milton Lycidas
Brian Friel Translations
Shakespeare Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V
Shakespeare Henry VI and Richard III
DrydenAbsolem and Achitophel and other works
Virginia WoolfThe Use of Symbolism
Sir Walter Scott Heart of Midlothian and Waverly
Keats and Shelly Adonais and other works
Shakespeare Notes on Twelfth Night