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Irony as a literary device has been used in order to achieve a sense of reality within works of fiction. It can be seen a sort of contrast between the surface meaning of something that is said or done and the actual, underlying meaning of the utterance or action. People often use it in day-to-day conversations or as a technique to overcome a stronger character. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, irony is one of the main literary devices used in order to achieve the effect of that time in history upon the reader, which in turn has made it into one of the most widely known works of nineteenth century English literature.
Whether you would expect it or not, the book itself starts with an ironic utterance immediately, at the very beginning of the first chapter:
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’
This very well might be the most famous ironic statement of the book, however, one that a number of readers have interpreted it on a literal level. This case of verbal irony used by the author is meant to hint at the kind of society that was present at the time, which in turn makes it a critique of the same, showing dissatisfaction and disagreeing. To start with, not every ‘single man in possession of a good fortune’ is looking for a woman to marry. Actually, in that time, it was the women who were the ones looking for a husband with a sizeable fortune to marry, in order to secure their own future. Needless to say, in those times, women did not have a lot of rights or means to survive, having marriage as the only safe solution.
Whilst on the topic of absurd utterances, like the above mentioned one, the following dialogue portrays an even more ‘sensible’ behaviour that quite a lot of readers, including myself, did not pay a lot attention to and did not see it as an example of irony:
‘‘Don’t keep coughing so, Kitty, for heaven’s sake! Have a little compassion on my nerves. You tear them to pieces.’’
“Now, Kitty, you may cough as much as you choose”
Once emphasized as an example of irony, one can clearly see that the content of this conversation makes no real sense. The first part of this extract is Mrs. Bennet scolding Kitty for coughing, saying that she cannot stand her coughing due to her fragile nerves. However, the witty Mr. Bennet, after a few moments allows Kitty to cough. The irony here might be too obvious, which is the reason why I could have missed it on the first reading of the book.
As we all know, coughing is not a voluntary bodily action, so there is no need to ask for permission to do it. This is yet another example of verbal irony, which is an ironical response to Mrs. Bennet unnecessary lashing out at Kitty for coughing.
Another type of irony which is considered to be one of the finest ways of using this literary advice, is the irony of character, meaning that particular character, with their behaviour, ways of thinking and mannerism are a representation of irony, kind of a ‘walking irony’. The character of Mr. Collins is one of those, and the following statement of his portrays it perfectly:
‘You ought certainly to forgive them as a Christian, but never to admit them to your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.’
Mrs. Collins is a clergyman at the estate of his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the above mentioned utterance is an advice which he gives to Mr. Bennet as a response to finding out about Lydia’s flight from home. As a clergyman of the church, his position is meant to be that of a leader within the religion, offering guidance and support and teach the doctrines of that religion.
However, this does not seem to be the case when it comes to Mr. Collins. The notion of forgiving, which should be based on his religious background, is completely wrong. He completely goes against what religion is meant to stand for and most importantly, he unconsciously contradicts himself, making him a prime example of irony of character within this novel.
On the topic of forced marriages, the union of Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas and the way it came to be, is another example of irony in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
“My dear Charlotte and I have but one mind and one way of thinking. There is in everything a most remarkable resemblance of character and ideas between us. We seemed to have been designed for each other”
In order to see the irony here, one needs to know the background of this union, which was made out of convenience. After proposing to Elizabeth Bennet, a proposal which was almost instantaneously rejected, Mr. Collins proposes to Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s very close friend. Seeing as this proposal comes right after the first one was rejected, it was obviously the easiest thing to do in order for Mr. Collins to have a wife and Charlotte to have a secured future.
However, Mr. Collins statement that their marriage was the perfect one, and that their characters coinciding is definitely not the reason why they are getting married, as Mr. Collins does not even pay any attention to Charlotte, before being rejected by Elizabeth. Hence why, this is yet another instance where Austen masterfully depicts a picture of the time she wrote in and its society and a critique of the same.
The following dialogue is an example of irony in the novel, however the centre of the irony is Elizabeth, quite unexpectedly, as she has been described, for the better part of the novel, as someone that is quite aware of her surroundings and not being easily manipulated by others.
“This is quite shocking! He deserves to be publicly disgraced.”
“Some time or other he will be — but it shall not be by me. Till I can forget his father, I can never defy or expose him.”
This dialogue is a conversation between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Wickham, in her aunt’s home, discussing on the topic of Mr. Darcy and his late father. He describes his relationship with Darcy’s family and the things that happened between them. To start with, the irony here can be seen in the statement Wickham makes: ‘Till I can forget his father, I can never defy or expose him’. The statement itself is a contradiction, because after telling Elizabeth everything about what occurred between him and Darcy’s family, he says he cannot expose him, which he in fact does.
However, Elizabeth is the centre of this ironic occurrence, as we, the readers, can instantly realise that he does the exact opposite of what he says he is doing. Although, Elizabeth does not realise what Wickham is actually doing as a consequence of being overwhelmed by the information she had just come to know.
This novel is full of countless ironic instances, which have been masterfully portrayed by the author, Jane Austen. Having used all types of irony, verbal, situational, dramatic and most importantly, the irony of character, she has managed to realistically portray the time of her existence and the type of society she lived in.
By using just this one simple literary device, Austen has created a beautiful work of art in a form of a book which has been praised by so many critics of her time and our time, today. Because of the way this book is written, the topics and themes it covers and the way in which the characters develop throughout the novel, the author has created a masterpiece which transcends time.
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