Irony in "Pride and Prejudice"
“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 which the reader is included: “His cousin was absurd as he had hoped… and except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, required no partner in his pleasure.” For Austen, to demonstrate wit, or at least to grasp its subtleties, is the mark of intelligence and perception, and those who fall prey to it are undermined; exposed as deficient in understanding. This is exemplified in an exchange in which Miss Bingley accuses Elizabeth of being “one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex, by undervaluing their own”, yet is ironically at that very moment doing so herself, for the remark was “chiefly addressed” to Darcy. His ironic response, “there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable” is a retort cleverly veiled as an agreement. The narrator delivers the fatal blow, wryly pronouncing Miss Bingley “not so entirely satisfied with this reply as to continue the subject”, exposing her intellectual inferiority to Elizabeth and Darcy, and thus her unworthiness of the latter.
The art of “feigned ignorance” – appearing to miss the point but in fact delivering a shrewd insight – is one of which Austen is a master. Thus irony is not only a tool to understanding, but as Mudrick proposes, a weapon against stupidity – and (for it is both more subtle and less aggressive than direct male confrontation) a woman’s weapon, utilised to great effect by Austen. A feminist reading could view irony as an empowering device, its oblique nature enabling Austen and her heroine to target the upper class in a way that a young woman of the gentry could not more explicitly do. Elizabeth uses her natural “quickness” to politely evade Lady Catherine’s interrogations (suspecting herself “to be the first creature who had ever dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence”), and her “playful disposition” to tease Darcy, a man of many times her “consequence”. Here the feminine weapon of irony has a flirtatious edge, for “having rather expected to affront him”, Elizabeth’s “sweetness and archness of manner” inadvertently makes it “difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her.”
As an intrinsic part of a comedy of manners, mockery of the upper classes is also achieved by narrative irony as Austen satirises the affectations and manners of many social groups. Miss Bingley is a caricature of the fashionable woman both in her superficiality and her pretentions, which are acutely parodied through indirect speech: “The sisters, on hearing this, repeated three of four times how much they were grieved, how shocking it was to have a bad cold, and how excessively they disliked being ill themselves; and then thought no more of the matter.” Yet for all their snobbery, the Bingleys’ wealth is “acquired by trade” – a fact slyly alluded to by the narrator. Similarly, the haughty and aristocratic Lady Catherine ironically provokes shame in Darcy for her “ill breeding”, here the words taking on quite a different meaning to their normal use. The clergy, and by extension the church, do not escape Austen’s irony: the hypocrisies and foibles of no other character are as intensely and cringingly exploited as Mr Collins’, from his excessive pride in his office as “equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom”, to his pride in his superior understanding, by which he patronisingly considers himself “more fitted by education and habitual study to decided on what is right than a young lady like yourself”. This pride is coupled with “a proper humility of behaviour” that extends to obsequiousness and bizarre sycophancy, caricaturing the overly-grateful rector and pious clergyman. The most striking hypocrisy of Mr Collins’ character is his lack of the Christian forgiveness that he preaches, demonstrated to an alarming degree in his distasteful letter in which he urges Mr Bennet “to throw off your unworthy child… for ever”. Finally, the airs and aspirations of the gentry are satirised in Mrs Bennet: the caricature of the parochial mother whose sole aim in life is “to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.” She is however self-defeating, for her “total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself” very nearly prevents Jane’s marriage. Many other characters are ironically self-defeating, such as Lady Catherine, who in attempting to prevent Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage brings it about, Miss Bingley, who in attempting to flirt with Darcy exposes herself as foolish, and even Elizabeth, whose attempts to offend Darcy result in captivating his heart.
The course of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship, “so full of contradictions and varieties” undergoes many perversities of misunderstanding, creating situational irony that, especially on repeated readings, is relished in retrospect. From Darcy’s fateful first slur “she is not handsome enough to tempt me” to Elizabeth’s resolve never to dance with a man she was “determined to hate”, to the terrible timing of his first proposal and its misguided motivations on both sides, the central romance is beset on all sides with situational and dramatic irony. Austen’s situational irony “lends compactness, clarity and subtlety to the narrative” (Bhattacharyya) giving a satisfying and interesting love story. Dramatic irony (the reader’s knowledge over that of a character) serves a double purpose: as a narrative device to aid suspense and conflict, and to highlight the self-deception of the protagonist. Just as in the Greek tragedies in which dramatic irony became common, in Pride and Prejudice the perceptive reader is, from various narrative and character hints, aware of Darcy’s attraction, of the dangers of Jane’s excessive modesty, and most importantly of the true natures of Darcy and Wickham. From Elizabeth’s viewpoint do we see her dismiss Jane’s, Charlotte Lucas’s, Miss Bingley’s and Mrs Gardiner’s advice on the subject, all the while priding herself on her quick judgment and believing herself a “studier of character”. Only upon reaching the “resolution” stage of the dramatic irony – her epiphany in discovering that “she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” – does she begin to develop as a character, and overcome the titular pride and prejudice.
Austen’s irony has many faces: dramatic and situational irony which contributes structure, irony as a powerful weapon against class hypocrisy, and irony as “the instrument of moral vision” (Wright) in exposing character flaws. Finally, there is the signature irony of Austen: the double-edged sword of verbal irony, relished for its “humour tinged with cruelty”, and its two-fold meaning, the second of which must be divined by the perceptive reader: “I leave it for yourself to determine.”