Irony in Jane Austen’s 'Emma'

Seminar Paper, 2008

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. The concept of irony

3. Body
3.1. A general characterisation of Emma Woodhouse
3.2. Irony in the “Emma-Elton-Harriet-fiasco”
3.3. Irony in the “Emma-Frank Churchill-Jane Fairfax illusion”

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Many critics still regard Jane Austen as one of the “most popular and enduring English writers of all time” (Byrne 20). Throughout the literary world, she is renowned for her skills in novel writing (cf. Trickett 162). Among other qualities, Austen has particularly been acknowledged for being a “dazzling satirist of snobbery and elitism” (Byrne 2). Concerning her novels, Emma, being published in 1816, is nowadays seen as Austen’s greatest achievement (cf. Mansell 146). Even early critics acknowledged that the special nature of this novel in comparison to what she had written before (cf. Byrne 32). According to Odmark, Emma particularly reflects how Austen successfully established and further developed methods of writing used in her earlier novels (cf. Odmark 24). The success of Emma can also be seen in the fact that it was the first of Austen’s novels which was reviewed by a famous author of her time, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) (cf. Byrne 32). Scott particularly pointed to the “naturalness” and “pervasive realism” Austen employed in Emma (Trickett 163). However, he also claimed that this novel had not much of a story in the traditional narrative sense (cf. Trickett 168). While the climax of a story is normally reached through a number of incidents and adventures, Austen’s Emma does not present such features (cf. Trickett 168). What is most important about this novel was summed up by the novelist Thomas Henry Lister, who praised Austen for her “rare and difficult art of making her readers intimately acquainted with the characters” of her novel (qtd. in Trickett 165). He moreover stated that Austen’s novel provides the feeling of having literally lived among these characters; “and yet she employs no elaborate description – no metaphysical analysis – no antithetical balance of their good and bad qualities. She scarcely does more than make them act and talk [...].” (qtd. in Trickett 165). In Emma, the characters themselves are thus more important than the plot in the traditional sense. This is why critics often categorize Emma and other works by Austen as “novels of manners” (Marsh 28). In a novel of manners, the writer scrutinizes and minutely presents the characters’ behaviour (cf. Marsh 28). These specific manners, in turn, serve to reflect the characters’ moral attitudes (cf. Odmark 11). By analysing these, the reader is thus enabled to understand the deeper structure of the novel and the inner-lying messages of it (cf. Marsh 28). As regards Austen’s novels, one can clearly notice that the aforementioned inner-lying message is largely connected to the recurring theme of “self-deception” (Marsh 28). In this context, Emma is a very good example of Austen’s skill to represent “the deceptiveness of reality” by using irony as a stylistic device (Marsh 32). Very often, one can notice that the words written in this novel imply more than one meaning (cf. Marsh 197). Due to Austen’s use of irony, Emma also presents characteristic elements of a comedy (cf. Strovel 20). Mudrick praises it, for example, for its extraordinary atmosphere, established through “wit, irony, [and] light laughter” (Mudrick 104). Since irony is the most significant “structuring principle” to determine the shape of Austen’s Emma (Odmark 1), it shall thus be examined more closely within the scope of this paper. Odmark points out that irony in Emma is mostly connected to the heroine’s personality and her misjudgement of the characters and situations in the novel (cf. Odmark 25). Therefore, special focus will be laid on the heroine Emma Woodhouse in relation to other characters to exemplify that specific use of irony. However, before this shall be done, it seems necessary to define the term ‘irony’ first in order to form a basis for the subsequent analysis.

2. The concept of irony

Colebrook states that the Greek term “eironeia” was first used in connection with the double meaning perceived in “the Socratic dialogues of Plato” (Colebrook 2). Back then, irony encompassed the act of lying but also the act of concealing something (cf. Colebrook 2). Particularly the “practice of concealment” proved to be of great importance for the development of the concept of irony in Western politics and philosophy (Colebrook 2). Quintilian, a Roman orator who lived in the first century, was one of the first to define irony in the sense it is generally used today (cf. Colebrook 1). To him, irony can be a stylistic device in a text to say one thing but meaning another, a speech whose style and tone contradict its actual topic, or a whole attitude towards life (cf. Knox 22). Socrates, for instance, held such an ironic attitude by pretending all through his life to be ignorant and to admire the wisdom and knowledge of others while actually thus exposing their ignorance (cf. Knox 22). Quintilian’s thoughts about irony were largely been taken on in the following centuries (cf. Knox 22). Thus, the most common way to define irony nowadays is to say one thing but in fact mean another (cf. Colebrook 1). Irony can consequently be perceived when something contains “two or more related meanings or attitudes” (qtd. in Marsh 198). These meanings might seem contradictory at first sight. Yet within a work of literature, both meanings very often turn out to be valid (cf. Marsh 198). Irony can thus be seen as the link between two or more different meanings (cf. Marsh 198). Colebrook moreover underlines that “[r]eading ironically means, in a complex way, not taking things at their word; it means looking beyond standard use and exchange to what this or that might really mean” (Colebrook 4). Ironic reading of texts thus entails searching for an alternative meaning in exchange to the obvious one (cf. Colebrook 5). This also includes taking into account the contradictory nature of language in order to find the difference between what is said and what meant (Colebrook 177). Irony thus also provokes the reader to think about these different meanings or attitudes that have been detected in a text (cf. Marsh 199).

Colebrook moreover points out that irony in literature is strongly linked to the concept of “aesthetic distance” (Colebrook 160). This refers to the notion that the authorial point of view is different from the voice expressed in the novel (cf. Colebrook 160). This technique has been defined as “free-indirect style” or free-indirect discourse and was largely employed by Jane Austen to describe her characters “in the elevated, manufactured and obsequious tones they would themselves use” (Colebrook 160). Therefore, the narrator employs the language and moral attitudes of the characters while at the same time it becomes clear that these are actually wrong or prejudiced. Duckworth further adds that by means of free indirect style, the characters are able to express their private and inner thoughts through the disguise of the narrator (cf. Duckworth 547). Considering Jane Austen’s Emma, Mansell points out that the narrator constantly steals into Emma’s consciousness, expressing her thoughts and then again parts out to present a more objective view on certain issues (cf. Mansell 149).

3. Body

Irony in Jane Austen’s novels has mainly been analysed in terms of content (cf. Odmark 1). Odmark suggests that a “typical ironic pattern” can be made out within Emma when analysing it concerning irony (Odmark 25). This pattern comprises that the reader assumes that Emma has misjudged a person or situation. Then, these suspicions turn out to be right, followed by Emma perceiving the mistake herself (cf. Odmark 25). Within the course of the novel, this kind of pattern reappears several times in several situations (cf. Odmark 25). Wiltshire moreover adds that irony in Emma mainly derives from the fact that the characters do not simply misunderstand each other, but they each ascribe a different meaning to the same thing (cf. Wiltshire 90). Thus, the reader of the novel encounters “a series of ironic discrepancies between speech, thought and feeling” of the characters (Marsh 78). This, in turn, reflects how difficult it can be to distinguish between “appearance and reality” (Marsh 78).

Many critics moreover argue that Emma can be subdivided into several layers or levels when examining irony in it (cf. Marsh 74). According to Marsh, the top or first layer of the dialogue basically includes what the characters tell each other (cf. Marsh 75). The second layer comprises all the unspoken, “but commonly understood”, implications of what is said (Marsh 75). The third layer deals with what the characters are actually thinking while they converse with each other (cf. Marsh 76). The fourth layer, however, is more difficult to describe. It includes deeper feelings that are possibly hidden but occur when the character talks to someone (cf. Marsh 76). Here, certain emotions, which the reader has detected in other parts of the novel, can be referred to if they seem to affect the conversation between the characters (cf. Marsh 77). Marsh suggests that these four layers of the dialogue in Emma are closely tied together by irony (cf. 78). Duffy moreover provides another division, which mainly refers to the contents of the novel (cf. Strovel 23). He suggests that one can find three stages in Emma: the first can be called the “Emma-Elton-Harriet-fiasco”, the second “the Emma-Frank Churchill-Jane Fairfax illusion and masquerade”, and the third one revolves around the relationship and love between Mr. Knightley and Emma (qtd. in Strovel 23).

In the following, the first two of these three complex relations, in which the aforementioned ironic pattern and the layers of dialogue can be detected, shall be presented in order to show how irony is employed in Emma. Since both chapters of the subsequent analysis will deal with the relation between the heroine of the novel, Emma Woodhouse, and other characters, a general characterisation of her shall be provided first.

3.1. A general characterisation of Emma Woodhouse

Emma Woodhouse is described as being a “handsome, clever, and rich” girl (Austen 5). Her mother has died in her early childhood, which is why she lives alone with her elderly and invalid father in the small village of Highbury (cf. Byrne 100). She is one of few heroines in Austen’s fiction which is not paired with a sister at home, since her sister Isabella lives with her husband and children in London (cf. Mansell 148). Thus, their mansion at Hartfield is basically reined by her alone (cf. Mansell 148). Emma has been brought up by her governess Miss Taylor, who has recently married Mr. Weston, a widower (cf. Byrne 100). Losing her former governess and friend can be seen as “the first important change in Emma’s life” (Byrne 100). Although Miss Taylor has given Emma much motherly affection, she has never imposed any real restraint or control over her (Byrne 100). Consequently, Emma has developed a high self-confidence, which sometimes turns into thinking “a little too well of herself” (Austen 5). Right in the beginning of the novel, the third-person omniscient narrator warns the reader that even though Emma seems to be perfect on the surface, she is, in fact, inclined to fall because of her prejudiced and spoilt behaviour and attitudes (cf. Byrne 100). Thus, the reader is prepared to encounter a “flawed heroine” before he actually hears her own voice speaking in the novel (Byrne 100). One of Emma’s characteristics is that she likes to indulge in managing things and situations (cf. Mudrick 105). Like she manages her father’s life, she also wants to be in this position elsewhere (cf. Mudrick 105). Thus, one of her so-called ‘hobbies’ is match-making (cf. Byrne 102). Having successfully brought together Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, Emma is now determined to find a wife for Mr. Elton, a clergyman living in Highbury (cf. Byrne 102). Out of this plan, the much of the irony in the beginning of the novel will arise.


Excerpt out of 22 pages


Irony in Jane Austen’s 'Emma'
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
Jane Austen's Emma
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irony, jane, austen’s, emma
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Julia Diedrich (Author), 2008, Irony in Jane Austen’s 'Emma', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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