Pride and Prejudice: Irony”It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of agood fortune, must be in want of a wife”.(pg.1) The first sentence of JaneAusten’s Pride and Prejudice is perhaps the most famous opening of all Englishcomedies concerning social manners. It encapsulates the ambitions of the emptyheaded Mrs. Bennet, and her desire to find a good match for each of her fivedaughters from the middle-class young men of the family’s acquaintance: “Thebusiness of her life was to get her daughters married, its solace was visitingand news.”(pg. 3) In this, she receives little help from her mild and indolentspouse, who regards her aspirations with a tolerant and witty cynicism. The mainstrand of this story concerns the prejudice of Elizabeth Bennet against theapparent arrogance of her future suitor, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and the blow to hispride in falling in love with her. Though a satisfactory outcome is eventuallyachieved, it is set against the social machinations of many other figures; thehaughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the fatuous Mr. Collins; the younger Bennetdaughter, Lydia; and her lover, Wickham, with whom she scandalously elopes. Itis often pointed out that Austen’s novels emphasize characterization andromanticism, but in Pride and Prejudice the emphasis is on the irony, values andrealism of the characters as they develop throughout the story.
Jane Austen’s irony is devastating in its exposure of foolishness and hypocrisy.
Self-delusion or the attempt to fool other people are usually the object of herwit. There are various forms of exquisite irony in Pride and Prejudice,sometimes the characters are unconsciously ironic, as when Mrs. Bennet seriouslyasserts that she would never accept any entailed property, though Mr. Collins iswilling to. Often Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth serve to directly express theauthor’s ironic opinion. When Mary Bennet is the only daughter at home and doesnot have to be compared with her prettier sisters, the author notes that: “itwas suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without muchreluctance.” (pg.189) Mr. Bennet turns his wit on himself during the crisis withWhickham and Lydia: “let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame.
I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soonenough.”(pg. 230)Elizabeth’s irony is lighthearted when Jane asks when she began to love Mr.
Darcy: “It has been coming on so gradually that I hardly know when it began. ButI believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberly”(pg.163). She can be bitterly cutting however in her remark on Darcy’s role inseparating Bingley and Jane: “Mr. Darcy is uncommonly kind to Mr. Bingley, andtakes a prodigious deal of care of him.” (pg. 202)The author also independent of any character, uses’ irony in the narrative partsfor some of her sharpest judgments The Meryton Community is glad that Lydia ismarrying such a worthless man as Whickham: “… and the good nature wishes forher well doing, which had proceed before from all the spiteful old ladies inMeryton, lost but a little of their spirit in this change of circumstances,because with such a husband, her misery was certain.” (pg. 270)Austen uses irony to provoke gentle, whimsical laughter and to make veiled,bitter observations as well; in her hands’ irony is an extremely effectivedevice for moral evaluation: “She has Elizabeth say that she hopes she willnever laugh at what is wise or good.” (pg.143)The characters on Pride and Prejudice are full of moral, social and human values.
Every character is measured against the intelligence and sensitivity whicheighteen century people called good sense, and they stand and fall by commonconsent of the evaluation made by the author. The characters themselves, thesensible ones, accept this standard, and their relationships are determined byit, Mr. Bennet cannot be happy with his wife because he does not respect her:”Mr. Bennet saw his wife, he was thinking about how obstinate she was, how moneymade her so happy, and how hypocrite she was.”(Pg.90) For this reason heretreats the ridiculousness of his family into sarcasm and carelessness.
Elizabeth also feels pained by her family’s folly, and can not help realizinghow harmful it is to Lydia’s and her own romances:” I have bad news for you …
imprudent as a marriage between Mr. Whickham and our poor Lydia would be, we arenow anxious to be assured it has taken place in Scotland…” (pg. 262) Likewisewhen Charlotte Lucas marries the idiotic Mr. Collins for purely materialisticreasons, Elizabeth knows their friendship can never be the same; they willseparate.
This stress on good sense brings characters together as well. Jane, Elizabeth,and the Gardiners are tied to each other by affection and an alert confidence ineach other’s judgment. They can rely on both the mind and the heart of theothers’; this sensible and spirited attitude is what draws Darcy to Elizabeth inthe first place.
Since the quality of good sense is so important for the characters, we shouldknow what it specifically is. The two characteristics already mentioned,intelligence and sensitivity, are obviously essential. A sense of responsibilityalso seems to be part of it. Mrs. and Mr. Bennet are not sensible when they failto guide their family. This responsibility involves a consideration for thefeelings of other people which silly characters as Mr. Collins, Lady Catherinede Bourgh, and Lydia Bennet conspicuously lack.
What happens in Pride and Prejudice happens to nearly all of us, embarrassmentat the foolishness of relatives, the unsteady feelings of falling in love, andthe mortify of suddenly realizing a big mistake. The psychological realism ofthe novel is revealed in the quick recognition we have of how the charactersfeel, there is a very convincing view of how an intelligent, feeling personchanges, the sensitiveness of how people do feel and act; as when Elizabeth andDarcy are angry at each other and how they completely change their minds withthe passage of time.
Jane Austen’s major weakness as a writer is related to her greatest strength.
Her novels are important because they demonstrate the crude vigorous power ofsociety which is not just of her day, but exists today, although somewhatadapted, and still exerts a powerful influence over social life. The weapon thatJane Austen employs against its suffocating effects is that of irony which isall the more telling for its gentle mockery. At a time when women had nopolitical or financial individuality, she shows how the powerless can influenceand migrate the more soul-destroying aspects of female impotence. It must beremembered that Austen wrote solely from personal experience, and thisauthenticity makes her insights perennially valid.