Irony in ‘Pride and Prejudice’: Essay

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“[Austen] began by being an ironical critic; she manifested her judgement of them not by direct censure, but by the indirect method of imitating and exaggerating the faults of her models, thus clearing the fountain by first stirring up the mud. This critical spirit lies at the foundation of her artistic faculty. Criticism, humour, irony, the judgement not of one that gives sentence but of the mimic who quizzes while he mocks, are her characteristics”. That’s Richard Simpson’s assessment, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. Jane Austen often and very skillfully used irony in her works, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is no exception. To confirm this belief of mine, in my essay, I will give 5 examples of irony in the novel.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (p.1). This first sentence of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the first instance of irony. It is supposed to set the scene by explaining how the novel’s society works, namely that any eligible bachelor with a ‘fortune’ would actually seek a wife. Ironically, that is not the case. Rachel Brownstein writes that the truth at issue here is not really that single men want girls, but that poor girls need husbands. If anything, women and their families would seek out men to marry off their daughters for financial stability, as many do in the novel.

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“‘You ought certainly to forgive them, as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing’. That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!” (p.303-305). This quote, found in Chapter 57 of the novel, is uttered by Mr. Collins about Lydia Bennet and Wickham’s elopement. He suggests forgiving them since he is a ‘Christian’, but opposes having them in one’s sight or ever hearing their names (despite having almost no control over the latter). His ‘contradictory’ notion of Christian forgiveness is precisely why, ironically enough, he is not fit to be a clergyman.

“There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it” (p.191). The working title of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was in fact ‘First Impressions’. This ties into the fact that Elizabeth Bennet’s first impressions of others are accurate, except for those of Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy. This is ironic since she was initially charmed by Wickham, only to realize his and Darcy’s true intentions until later on in the novel. Upon their first reading, the reader makes the same mistake as Elizabeth due to her narration and ironic detachment, which can be considered to be somewhat unreliable.

“‘This is quite shocking! He deserves to be publicly disgraced’. ‘Sometime 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’” (p.70). Wickham states that he will not expose Darcy. Ironically, he is doing so as he speaks. Somehow, Elizabeth admired him and thought him more handsome than ever as he expressed this, partly due to Wickham’s nature as an attractive-deceptive figure and her own hasty prejudices of both him and Darcy.

“‘She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me’” (p.13). Initially, Darcy does not have a glowing impression of Elizabeth Bennet, merely viewing her as ‘tolerable’ and tempting to someone, but not to him. This is ironic since later on, in Chapter 34, he confesses his love to her: “My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” (p.161).

The ironical critic Jane Austen, as Richard Simpson called her, made good use of irony in her novels, particularly in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, and the above, although only five quotes, prove it.

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