Essay, Research Paper: Pride And Prejudice By Austen

Literature: Jane Austen

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Pride and Prejudice is one of the most popular novels written by Jane Austen.
This romantic novel, the story of which revolves around relationships and the
difficulties of being in love, was not much of a success in Austen's own time.
However, it has grown in its importance to literary critics and readerships over
the last hundred years. There are many facets to the story that make reading it
not only amusing but also highly interesting. The reader can learn much about
the upper-class society of this age, and also gets an insight to the author's
opinion about this society. Austen presents the high-society of her time from an
observational point of view, ironically describing human behavior. She describes
what she sees and adds her own comments to it in a very light and easy way. She
never seems to be condescending or snubbing in her criticism but applies it in a
playful manner. This playfulness, and her witty, ironic comments on society are
probably the main reasons that make this novel still so enjoyable for readers
today. Some rules and characteristics depicted in the story seem very peculiar
and are hard to conceive by people of our generation. Nevertheless, the
descriptions of the goings-on in that society are so lively and sparkling with
irony that most people cannot help but like the novel. Jane Austen applies irony
on different levels in her novel Pride and Prejudice. She uses various means of
making her opinion on 18th century society known to the reader through her vivid
and ironic descriptions used in the book. To bring this paper into focus, I will
discuss two separate means of applying irony, as pertaining to a select few of
the book's characters. The novel is introduced by an omniscient narrator,
unknown to the reader, who describes and comments on the given situations
throughout the novel. The narrator serves to represent and speak for Jane Austen,
enabling her to aim her criticism not only through the characters, but also in a
more direct fashion. She uses this unspecified person, who is outside of all the
novel's action and gives explanations, as a medium of communication to present
her own opinion in an allusively open way. This narrator is the first means of
making ironic remarks. Through the narrator a certain mood is created that
prevails throughout the novel. The very first sentence of the novel shows this
with the following sentence, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that
a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife"
(Pride and Prejudice, p. 3). The irony of this statement is the universal
validity with which assumptions are made in that upper-class society. It is
assumed that there is nothing else for a man of high rank to want but a wife to
complete his possessions. Along with his money, land, riches etc. she acts as
nothing more but another piece of property, which was a common attitude in those
days. Austen manages to make the attitude towards matrimony upheld by this upper
class look rather ridiculous and incredible. Another ironic description is
given, for instance, when Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst take care of the sick
Jane, who stays at their house. They present themselves as very affectionate and
caring friends to Jane. However, that does not stop them from talking very bad
about Jane's relations. The real ironic comment is that the narrator lets us
readers know that after those two ladies have finished bad mouthing Jane's
sister Elizabeth and the rest of her family, they return to Jane "(w)ith a
renewal of tenderness" (p. 27). These high-society women are well versed at
putting others down and whimsically, and as they think wittily, insulting the
characters of those who are of a "lower class" - and Austen comments
on it ironically by describing their behavior with irony. Through the narrator,
Austen shows us how fickle this society is; being based on class and rank. The
narrator exposes the vanities and its stupidity rather drastically. The comment
on Aunt Phillips who "would hardly have resented a comparison with the
housekeeper's room" (p. 56) of Rosing's with her own living-room is so
ironically bitter that it even borders on being mean. These are only a few
examples to show how the general ironic mood of the novel is created. The second
means of creating irony in the novel is through the particular use of the
characters involved. Elizabeth Bennet is the main character of the novel and she
happens to be an acute observer, who likes to ponder about what she sees and who
dares to make judgements. She usually speaks her mind but covers up the meaning
of her statements with irony, in order not to offend the rules of conduct in her
society. Elizabeth likes to play with people's expectations, which she openly
admits to Mr. Darcy in a scene where he wants to invite her to dance. She
declines his offer to dance with him with the following sentence: "You
wanted me, I know, to say 'Yes,' that you might have the pleasure of despising
my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and
cheating a person of their premeditated contempt." She admits that she
likes to upset people's plots, in order to disappoint them and in turn derive
pleasure from their disappointment. This mocking is a form of irony - upsetting
the expected with a counteractive action. This example also shows very well how
different simple sentences sound to the different characters. Darcy merely asked
Elizabeth if she felt like dancing a reel and thought it to be a very nice and
gentle offer. However, Elizabeth expects him to be hateful and condescending,
therefore she always hears an implication of condescension etc. in conversations
with Darcy. Many dialogues between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy seem to be full of
implications: they both have formed an opinion of the other and only view the
others' statements only through their premeditated opinion. Those implications
can give the reading of their conversations a very ironic and amusing touch,
depending on what point of view the reader takes. There are so many different
ways in which every single sentence can be interpreted that it is hard to tell
whether some sentences are really meant to be ironic or whether they are simply
'normal' sentences. If one takes Elizabeth's point of view, some of Darcy's
statements can certainly be interpreted as very ironic, meaning in this case
ironic with the intention to humiliate. If these same statements are viewed,
however, from Darcy's perspective, they can also be very harmless or even nice.
One example for this is the argument between Elizabeth and Darcy about Darcy's
character. Elizabeth slights Darcy by saying that he is very earnest and not one
to be laughed at, which is something pitiful to her because she loves to laugh.
His answer is "The wisest and the best of men - nay, the wisest and the
best of their actions may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object
in life is a joke." (p. 42). This statement could be seen as derogatory of
Elizabeth, but if viewed from Darcy's point of view it can as well be his honest
opinion that one should not make fun of and take lightly everything that goes on
in life. It does not necessarily have to be a personal attack, which Elizabeth
perceives it to be. Because Elizabeth's attitude towards Darcy is so much
prejudiced in the first part of the book, one is inclined to see allusions and
implications in everything they both say. This general mood of suspicion makes
the reader of course much more alert and ready to discover ironies in the
conversations, sometimes even when they might not be intended. Elizabeth is an
ironic character in different ways as well. She is very aware of the things that
are going on around her, which is probably a reason for her sarcasm and irony.
She sees the flaws in people, including herself, and understands the nuances of
situations and peoples' behaviors very acutely. She is, for example, quite aware
of the inappropriateness of her mother's behavior, or her younger sister's. It
can be imagined that this awareness makes her turn to sarcasm and irony, in
order to handle the embarrassing situations created by their behavior without
hurting the feelings of her family, or breaking the rules of conduct. She also
tries to condemn her sister Lydia' s behavior, to make her aware of the
inappropriateness. Her comment, for instance, on Lydia's recommendation of how
to get a husband and her promise to get husbands for all her sisters: " I
thank you for my share of the favour, but I do not particularly like your way of
getting husbands." (p. 228) is an example of this. Thanking Lydia is of
course very ironic. However, this biting irony is too subtle and is wasted on a
person like Lydia, who is simply too absorbed in her own life, her desires and
her wishes to be affected by it. Elizabeth also uses irony as an indirect means
of showing people like Wickham what she thinks of them. For other people, her
remarks might sound normal, but since he knows what she is alluding to they
convey an additional meaning. In order to conceal her opinion from others, who
might be provoked or hurt if she spoke her mind openly, she uses allusions and
ironies to let Wickham know what she knows and what she thinks about him. She
says for example: " …and, she was afraid, (that you) had- not turned out
well. At such distance as that, you know, things are strangely
misrepresented." (p. 236). Wickham concludes from this rhetoric that
Elizabeth sees through him and knows his real character. With allusions and
ironies like this she succeeds at least in making him completely uneasy around
her. Elizabeth's use of irony not only shows her own perception of the world
around her, but also is used in order to bring about changes. This is the main
difference between her and another very ironic character of the novel - her
father, Mr. Bennet. Her father is also aware of the follies around him. He is
not blind to how much his wife and younger daughters compromise themselves in
company. But instead of trying to raise their awareness of it, as Elizabeth
tries every now and then, he has given up on that intention. He has resigned to
their dispositions and takes to observing their follies as a kind of sport. He
seems to enjoy seeing people ridicule themselves in front of others. This is
seen very well in a conversation between Elizabeth and her father about the
letter Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet's cousin, had sent to the former. Elizabeth
questions whether Mr. Collins can be a very sensible man. Her father's reply is:
"No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the
reverse."(p. 48). It is also said at another place that his
"expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had
hoped, […]." (p. 51). This shows clearly that Mr. Bennet enjoys observing
people's oddities and follies, and amuses himself by looking at them in an
ironic or even cynical way. I think that this attitude is almost close to
condescension, but he is too good-humored a person to think in that way. He
seems to enjoy observing absurd behavior so much that thrives on people like Mr.
Collins. Mr. Bennet is certainly ironic about people and their behavior, but his
irony has an almost bitter undertone. One of his statements shows this when he
says about his neighbors, who are friends of his family, "…some of the
good-natured, gossiping Lucases." (p. 261). It becomes apparent, that he
does not approve of the spreading gossip about his family. He shows this by
opposing the character description of the Lucases as "good-natured"
and "gossiping", which is of course a negatively loaded word. He is
quite scornful about their behavior, and expresses his feelings covertly instead
of speaking his mind frankly. It is when Lydia elopes with Wickham, that he
loses his calm ironic mood. He admits to Elizabeth that she was right when she
warned him not to be too liberal with his daughters, and that he had been too
careless in their upbringing. He says: " Who should suffer but myself? It
has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it." (p. 215). For a moment he
loses his ironic mask and admits his own faults. But he knows himself well
enough to also add, " No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I
have been to blame. […] It will pass away soon enough." (p. 215). At that
point it becomes obvious that he usually guards himself with sarcasm simply to
tolerate the behavior and the foolishness around him. Only by being cynical, can
he survive in this household of silly and nerve-wrecking women like his wife and
his two youngest daughters. His fault, however, is that he never realized that
by allowing himself to simply be amused by people's behavior, he has indirectly
encouraged and reinforced their behavior. Nevertheless, Mr. Bennet recovers soon
from his moments of revelation and remorse and goes on with his usual way of
life. He even finds his humor again, so much as to write a letter to Mr.
Collins, when it is resolved that Elizabeth will marry Mr. Darcy. He writes:
" I must trouble you once more for congratulations." (p. 277). This is
clearly ironic, because congratulations for the marriage of Wickham and Lydia
must have been perceived as sheer mockery, or as congratulations for having
reduced the embarrassment as much as possible by legitimating their
relationship. His comparison of this marriage with Elizabeth's pleasant marriage
is his cynical way of looking at the world. These are only a few examples of how
Austen uses irony in Pride and Prejudice. There is much more to say about this
topic: this serves only as a brief discussion.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Modern Library Edition, Random
House Inc., 1995.
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