Jane Austen’s Use of Irony in the Novel 'Emma'

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Clair Colebrook states it is the ‘practice of concealment’ that contributes significantly into the development of irony in Western political and philosophical tradition. ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen epitomizes this idea by presenting readers with ironic visions through a narrative that underlines the concealed characteristic of human nature in her characters. This in turn contributes to the moral values that emerges at the end of the novel. The central focus will therefore be how Austen has used irony to reverse her use of deception in order to dramatize the revelation of the interrelationship between her characters.

“The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way and a disposition to think a little too well of herself”, sets the stage for the rest of the novel. It serves as a foreshadow to the upcoming events as well as a dramatic irony because the readers are aware of this comfortable character who dwells in self-deception and ignorance. This in turn conjures anticipation for the pending crisis and reality to dawn upon Emma. Austen has successfully established that the self-deception of Emma lies in her failure to acknowledge her own flaws and desires, which is most evident in her selection of candidates to match with Harriet Smith. Emma adopts Harriet as a source of amusement in order to enjoy through her an experimental relationship with a man, Harriet is therefore an agent whom Emma can savour an indirect love affair. This can be seen when she is determined and fixated to transform Harriet in “she would improve her, she would detach her from bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society, she would form her opinions and her manners”. Emma demonstrates her resolution to integrate herself into Harriet by manifesting similarities and removing social and behavioural differences between them. Another example of this amalgamation is Emma’s assumption of Harriet’s gentry connection despite being “the daughter of nobody”. She strongly believes that Harriet is the daughter of “a gentleman—and a gentleman of fortune” which acts as a reflection of her own to conjoin Harriet and herself as one entity. With this unification, along with the determination to matchmake for Harriet, it is likely a possible candidate for Harriet is also a potential suitor for Emma herself. In this context, her accusation of Robert Martin being ‘undoubtedly her inferior as to rank in society’ is therefore justified as “She is superior to Mr. Robert Martin”. Hence separating Harriet from Martin is then the objection of Robert Martin as a possible husband for Emma. She links Martin’s occupation as a farmer to coarseness and clownishness, which are antithetical to the standards of gentry, elegance, and wit, in which she applies to courtship as well as other ritual of life. Physical union with Martin will therefore be impossible for Emma and consequently, impossible for Harriet. Mr Elton, on the other hand, being a “very pretty young man and a very good young man', who many has “great regard for him” is more likely a candidate for Emma, thus for Harriet accordingly. Her enthusiasm and determination to pair Harriet and Mr. Elton suggests her subconscious approval of Mr Elton as a worthy partner for herself. Hence, when Mr Woodhouse states “Emma never thinks of herself, if she can do good to others” contains verbal irony as the belief that Emma has based her actions entirely on generosity towards Harriet allows her to overtook the self-serving undertone of her actions. Emma’s declaration of love and marriage not being her ‘way’ and ‘nature’ is then proved also to be verbal irony as her action challenges her speech- her involvement in others’ romantic fates underlines her contained desires for love. Through all conduct of matchmaking, it allows the reader to witness her awakening from innocence to passion.

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Emma’s close adherence to the established and insulated life of gentry blinded her from the harsh truth of reality and contribute to her lack of understanding of her community, in which her naive perception of the world disagrees with the harsh reality of social order. Her lack of insight of the real world is apparent in the symbolic painting of Harriet when she had “given her friend the only beauty she wanted” despite her not having 'those eye-brows and eye-lashes'. It is the “fault of her face” that is intentionally omitted from the portrait as “Emma knew that she had, but would not own it”. This maintenance of physical illusion of Harriet suggests her indifference to others and highlights her self inflicted delusions, which consequently mirrors her lack of awareness to Harriet’s social possibilities. Emma’s credulous thoughts are most prominent with her intention to help Harriet climb the social ladder and tries to break social boundaries by matchmaking Harriet with men superior as to status in society. This matchmaking backfires on Emma when Mr Elton declares his love for her, as his “sole view” is the “marking” of his “adoration” for Emma and he could not “think of Miss Smith, when Miss Woodhouse is near!”. The irony is evident in which Emma’s role of a governing supervisor is mistaken as the role of principal and that her intention of charity became a hindrance to Harriet’s romantic fates instead. The ultimate irony is that Emma becomes the victim of her own misinterpretations and illusions, causing her to realise she “was adventuring too far, assuming too much”, and “it was foolish to bring any two people together” who do not match in the value birth. Hence, when Mrs Weston states that “Harriet may be said to do Emma good” is an irony that emphasizes in Harriet’s expense, Emma acquires her knowledge of the society, becoming more aware of social compatibility. This forms an hierarchal system in which the distinction between the powerful and the weak is highlighted, and in order for one to gain, the other will have to suffer loss. Emma’s self delusion of a fantastic utopian society instead of the ordinary one that she inhabits sets her apart from her community in Highbury. The apartness manifests itself in the judgements she passes on her neighbours in the instance of Miss Bates where Emma commented “Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number—only three at once” was particularly rude and cruel. She depicts herself above everyone else and is not part of the friendship that binds the community together and has no friend who is an equal “with whom to share genuine intimacy”. She is detached from the community and the unity is only built up in the concluding paragraph showcasing the marriage between Emma and Mr Knightly - “The wedding was very much like other weddings… But in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union”. The novel concludes in the spirit of comedy with the promise of ‘perfect happiness’ in the sense the community at the end is ideally organised in a way that makes for happiness. Highbury is a socially hierarchal world constituted by Emma and Knightley on top, followed by Churchill and Jane, then Harriet and Robert. Social order is restored when Knightley marries Emma and Martin marries Harriet. Characters married those who are socially compatible to them to complete the unification of the community.

Mr George Knightley is another object of irony as Austen highlighted some flaws in his nagging and correction of Emma despite being the representation of integrity in personality and honesty of action that are ideal in the novel. Mr Knightley’s embodiment of truth and honesty can be seen most evidently in “My Emma, does not everything serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?”. The rhetorical question along with his praise of honesty shows an evident pride in the vision of his very own honesty to Emma. However, when this private disposition is involved with public influence, they become entangled in the web of social frailty and deception. F.W. Bradbrook commented in relation: that the “impeccable Mr. Knightley” dwells in “purely egoistic self-deception”. Frank Churchill’s exploitation of Emma “with ruthless thoroughness” in order to hide his surreptitious affair with Jane parallels with Knightley’s trifling relation with Harriet’s affection while remaining silent about his love for Emma. This corresponds when Emma “blush of sensibility on Harriet’s account” as similarities between both characters are profound. Therefore, Mr Knightley’s condemnation of misleading others and appreciation for truth is seen as a verbal irony and placed him in a complex system of moral responsibility and illusion. Mr Knightley, like Frank Churchill, dwells in the plot of manipulation of not only himself but also those around him due to his repressed desires and self interest. The only difference between both men is that Mr Knightley is unaware and innocent from any aims to beguile. This complication is not completely misleading but morality is evasive too. Furthermore, Mr Knightley’s ‘endeavours to counteract the indulgence of Emma is more “likely to do harm as good” as it sparked her desires to prove him wrong and prompted her intransigent acts to continue in matchmaking for Harriet. His good will is then not vindicated and instead, become an accomplice for the very faults he corrects. This declaration of candour is hence incomplete and have to be accompanied with the previous narrative on honesty: “Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material”. Austen implies that complete truth is rarely found in human disclosure, in which, self-deception and greed have public results. His kindness to Harriet has led her to believe a reciprocal love can exist between them and his real motives in coming to comfort Emma for her supposedly loss of Frank Churchill is revealed after he proposes his own love for Emma. The human integrity is thus challenged, instead of being objective ‘performance’, it becomes a subjective ‘feeling’. Though his intentions remained virtuous, his moral obligations are confined in the intricate subject of moral accountability and misconception. The very integrity of Mr Knightley expands his ironic and external similarity to Frank Churchill to add depth to the novel’s moral undertones: to some degree, misunderstandings are unavoidable and truth are not completely revealed as it is modified by the perception of the listener. The individual rectitude is diffused by the misconception of the eyes which behold it.

The complexity that lies in ‘Emma’ is the contradiction between fancy versus nature and appearance versus reality. Irony involves the splitting of perspective into many viewpoints and this gives reader the insights to deeper understanding of the characters by exposing their external performance and internal agenda. This consciousness and access to private thoughts of characters derives an assessment to realism, allowing readers to counterbalance the duplicity and readjusting the reality in this novel. Austen’s use of irony is therefore a dominant undercurrent beneath the basic theme of deception.

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Jane Austen’s Use of Irony in the Novel ‘Emma’. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/jane-austens-use-of-irony-in-the-novel-emma/
“Jane Austen’s Use of Irony in the Novel ‘Emma’.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/jane-austens-use-of-irony-in-the-novel-emma/
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