The Use of Irony in Jane Austen’s 'Pride and Prejudice'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. The Appropriate Definition of Irony for the Purpose of this Essay

3 . Irony in the Structure of the Plot and the Narrator’s Use of Rhetorical Irony

4. The Characters’ Use of Rhetorical Irony
4.1. Mr Bennet's Use of Irony
4.2. Elizabeth Bennet's Use of Irony

5. Exceptions from the Ironic Tone of the Novel

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In chapter 14 of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins is asked by the Bennets to read a passage from a book to the family. The book the Bennet sisters choose, however, raises little delight on Mr. Collins’ part. The girls choose a novel, and, of course, he never reads novels. Instead, he decides to read a chapter from Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women to the ladies, since he agrees with Fordyce’s impression that “there seem to be very few, in the style of a Novel, that you can read with safety, and yet fewer that you can read with advantage.”[1] In Jane Austen’s time, the late 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, most Englishman shared Mr. Collins’ and James Fordyce’s opinion. Novels were regarded as useless pieces of literature. They posed a risk to the virtuousness and decorum according to which the members of the English society, especially the female ones, were expected to behave.

Writing a novel was regarded as an even worse thing to do than reading one. Hence, in particular the female writers of Austen’s time stressed the educational character of their novels, thus meeting the society’s expectations. The consequence of this was that most of the novels were riddled with didactic comments and attempts at moral indoctrination, lucidly expressing the religious and virtuous end of their pieces of literature.[2]

In contrast to the obtrusive morality of the majority of novels at that time, Austen’s pieces of work are strongly marked by an ironic tone, a subtle humour and highly ambivalent statements. This ambivalence and high use of irony makes it, even today, difficult to determine Austen’s attitudes towards society and the question whether her novels are to be interpreted as conservative, modern or feministic pieces of literature. Romantic novel, Bildungsroman, comedy of manners and comedy of character are some examples for the various terms Austen’s novels have been labeled.[3]

In particular in Pride and Prejudice, an ironic tone is predominant throughout the novel. As Klingel Ray states, Austen is “first and foremost a satirist. And for a satirist, irony is the major tool of language.”[4] In order to analyse the novel thoroughly and adequately, it is thus of paramount importance to study Austen’s use of irony and her intentions and motives behind the ironic statements and events in the book.

This essay seeks to investigate Austen’s use of irony in Pride and Prejudice. After discussing the definition of irony that should be applied when studying Austen’s works, including an explanation of the different motives behind her use of irony, the author’s treatment of irony in the structure of the plot and her narrative strategy will be illustrated. An analysis of the two most ironic characters in Pride and Prejudice will then follow, and their relative contribution to the ironic tone of the novel will be depicted with the aid of several examples. Finally, two exceptions from the prevailing ironic tone in Pride and Prejudice will be stated and explained.

2. The Appropriate Definition of Irony for the Purpose of this Essay

Before analysing the use and effects of irony in Pride and Prejudice, it is necessary to determine an appropriate definition of the term. It is certainly not difficult to find definitions for irony, since it is a well-known and often used word. However, it is exactly this omnipresence of the word irony that makes it so hard to determine its true meaning. There are simply too many definitions. For the purpose of this essay, it is appropriate to regard irony the way Austen herself did. One is only able to interpret and examine her pieces of work adequately when keeping her view on irony in mind.

First and foremost, Austen uses irony as a tool for unveiling and describing “all the incongruities between form and fact, all the delusions intrinsic to conventional art and conventional society.”[5] When one reads the letters she wrote to her sister, it becomes apparent that Austen was greatly sensitive to such incongruities, especially to those of social behavior, and that she found pleasure in detecting and then relating them to people around her: “Charles Powlett gave a dance on Thursday, to the great disturbance of all his neighbours, of course, who, you know, take a most lively interest in the state of his finances, and live in hopes of his being soon ruined.”[6] The immediate effect of Austen’s ironic statement here, which is representative for her writing style in her letters as well as her novels, is that it makes people laugh. Both Austen herself and her audience, be it her sister or the readers of her novels, are entertained by her comments on the discrepancy between what people pretend to be and what they really are.

Does this mean that Austen was solely a comic artist, whose only intention it was to make her readers laugh? This question could only be answered positively if we lived in a world where the aforementioned incongruities served exclusively as material for comedies without having any consequences on the society.[7] This, however, is not the case, and thus one has to take these consequences into account when studying Austen's use of irony.

Pride and Prejudice is, at first glance, simply an amusing depiction of England's social conventions of the late eighteenth- and the beginning of the nineteenth-century, particularly those of the gentry. A second look reveals the deeper meaning of the novel. By employing a subtle ironic style, Austen indirectly criticises certain political, economical and sociological circumstances of her time.[8]

A major aspect of the conventions of her time which Austen criticises is the fact that some people were “simple reproductions of their social type”[9] and had too plain a personality to be able to think for themselves. They perform the role society has given them and are thus colourless figures. Characters in Pride and Prejudice that belong to this category are, for example, Mrs. Bennet or Elizabeth's sister Lydia. For distinguishing these plain characters from those who have their own will and an outstanding personality, those who actually make decisions instead of being led, Austen uses irony as an instrument. While the clever and multifaceted protagonist, Elizabeth, is often ironic in her statements and thoughts, flat characters, such as Mrs. Bennet, neither understand nor are able to use irony. Ironically, according to D. W. Harding, Austen's “books are, as she meant them to be, read and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked; she is a literary classic of the society which attitudes like hers […] would undermine.”[10] Her criticism is thus read by exactly those people she caricatures in Pride and Prejudice, and there is a chance that it also reaches and encourages them to reflect on their own character .

3 . Irony in the Structure of the Plot and the Narrator’s Use of Rhetorical Irony

The ironic tone of Pride and Prejudice is set with the very beginning of the novel. Its first sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”[11], foreshadows the humorous tone of the novel. It is ironic in different ways and serves as a prime example for Austen's wit and skilfulness.

First of all, the statement is ironic in the respect that, in the late 18th century, women were much more dependent on their husbands than vice versa. Especially women who had no families who could provide for them were hardly able to earn their own living in the prevailing patriarchal society.[12] Thus, it was usually the woman who was in want of a husband with a good fortune and not the man desperately looking for a wife. Secondly, calling the latter half of the sentence a universal truth is obviously a massive exaggeration which attributes an improper magnitude to a rather trivial subject. Reading on, the reader learns that the narrator is by no means concerned with the wider world; he is concerned with a neighbourhood:

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.[13]

This rather bathetic opening draws the attentive reader's attention to the ironic treatment that the narrator will give to his subject matter.[14]

After the first two sentences which not only determine the tone of the novel but also subtly criticise the view of marriage as a business, a conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet follows. They are the first married couple the reader is confronted with in a novel in which marriage is one of the major topics. Mrs. Bennet, loud, loquacious and dominant, tells her husband, Mr. Bennet, who is calm, reserved and often cynical, about Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. While her only intentions in life are finding a husband for her daughters and gossiping, Mr. Bennet's personality is much more complex. Their differing characters are emphasised by the relative narrative technique that is used to present them. While Mrs. Bennet's statements are demonstrated in direct speech, her husband's answers, if he answers at all, are displayed in indirect speech, which sums up their diverging personalities fittingly: while Mrs. Bennet is straightforward, hence a very direct person, Mr. Bennet is more subtle and often uses irony. Thus, he is his way of expressing his thoughts and opinion is indirect. Additionally, a short description of their characters by the narrator follows, ensuring that the differences between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are firmly anchored in the reader's head.


[1] Fordyce 1766: 148.

[2] Reinfand 2008: 144 et seq.

[3] Nünning 2007: 45.

[4] Klingel Ray 2001: 2.

[5] Mudrick 1968: 1.

[6] Austen 1798 in Jones 2004: 17 et seq.

[7] Mudrick 1968: 3.

[8] Enotes 2009.

[9] Mudrick 1968: 125.

[10] Harding 1940: 347.

[11] Austen 1996: 5.


[13] Austen 1996: 5.

[14] Wright 1953: 118.

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The Use of Irony in Jane Austen’s 'Pride and Prejudice'
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen
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Irony, Jane Austen, Austen, Pride and Prejudice
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Theresa Weisensee (Author), 2009, The Use of Irony in Jane Austen’s 'Pride and Prejudice', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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