Irony in "Pride and Prejudice"

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“Irony is central to the meaning and effects of Pride and Prejudice.” How far and in what ways do you find this to be the case?

Jane Austen initially worried that Pride and Prejudice was a work “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling” to justify its moral themes – yet it is for its dazzling ironic wit that the novel is prized today. The multi-faceted device of irony is deftly manipulated by Austen: first the mischievous narrator, who finds “great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which, in fact, are not [her] own,” then the "explorer of incongruities", (Mudrick) exposing the absurdities of character, and finally the moralist, revealing complex principles and themes.

The most immediately apparent form of irony in Pride and Prejudice is its verbal irony, which is used by both the narrator and a few characters to highlight the absurdities of other characters to comic effect, “for what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” Nowhere is this more enjoyable than in the double act of the Bennet marriage, in which Mr Bennet amuses himself with ironic statements whose true meanings are intended to elude the “mean understanding” of his wife: “if your daughter … should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr Bingley, and under your orders.” Typically, Mrs Bennet’s reply to this barbed criticism is oblivious to its irony – “Oh! I am not at all afraid of her dying” – revealing her own idiocy and perverse priorities. The Bennet marriage offers many such comic exchanges, such as the opening dialogue, in which Mrs Bennet’s increasingly impatient enquiries are met with her husband’s muted responses “Mr Bennet replied that he had not” and “Mr Bennet made no answer,” until he finally resigns himself to hearing her, which the narrator wryly states “was invitation enough”. This perfect opposition of understatement and hyperbole highlights the effusion of Mrs Bennet’s character and clearly sides the narrator with Mr Bennet, as Austen values moderation and reason above sentimentality and excess. However, Mr Bennet does not go without narrative criticism, for the lack of communication inherent in his marriage that is revealed by passages such as these has an irony of its own: in the very first chapter of a novel based on marriage we see a dysfunctional marriage in which the “continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible”.

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Another proponent of verbal irony is our heroine, who has evidently inherited it from, yet wields it with less cruelty than her father. She, who much like the Austen herself “delights in anything ridiculous,” makes gentle fun of Darcy through mild sarcasm: “I am perfectly convinced… that Mr Darcy has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise.” Her subtle mockery of flawed characters, such as the sententious and hypocritical Mr Collins, is often in conjunction with that of the narrator or Mr Bennet, and so the comic irony is augmented by the enjoyment of a private joke in ...

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