"Irony is the soul of Jane Austen's comedy"- Pride and Prejudice.

Some Kind of Contrast at the Root of Irony

Irony arises from some kind of contrast. It is generally a contrast between appearance and reality. It may be a contrast between what a character thinks himself to be, and what he really is; between what he believes, and what the reader knows to be actually the case; between what a character says, and what he really means to convey; between what a character thinks he will do or achieve, and what he really in the long run does or achieves; between what the reader thinks is going to happen, and what actually happens; between the reader's or a character's anticipation and the actual event; and so on.

Irony may produce a comic effect or a tragic effect, depending upon the circumstances of the case. Thus, we find abundant examples of irony in both the comic and the tragic plays of Shakespeare. This means that the use of irony by an author may amuse the reader or may sadden him all the more.

Comic Irony in the Novels of Jane Austen

Jane Austen is a comic writer and, therefore, the use of irony in her novels adds to the comic effect at which she aims. In other words, in the novels of Jane Austen we have comic irony; and, indeed, she gives us plenty of it. It may also be pointed out that irony may exist in a situation or in a piece of dialogue or in a remark or in a belief which a character has or expresses, and so on. Furthermore, irony may be conscious on the part of a character, or it may be unconscious. On the part of the author, however, irony is always conscious.

Ironical Reversal of the Situation in the Darcy-Elizabeth Plot

Irony is all-pervasive in Pride and Prejudice. It penetrates the whole structure of this novel. We find the use of irony in this novel from its beginning to its end. There are a large number of situations which are characterized by irony; and there are a large number of ironical remarks. In several cases what eventually happens is the reverse of what we had anticipated. Indeed, comic reversals in the novel show how extensive the use of irony here is. There is irony in the very manner in which the main plot of the novel develops and ends. The main plot pertains to Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. This plot begins with a mutual dislike between these two persons. Mr. Darcy does not feel like dancing with Elizabeth because he does not find her attractive or handsome enough. Elizabeth who over hears Mr. Darcy expressing an unfavourable opinion about her, conceives a dislike for him. Elizabeth's dislike goes on increasing because she finds Mr. Darcy to be a very proud and haughty kind of man. Mr. Darcy's initial opinion of Elizabeth begins to undergo a change and he feels more and more attracted by her as days pass by. Although Mr. Darcy has begun to like Elizabeth, yet the idea of marrying her is far from his thoughts because she is far below him in social status. Such is the situation in the beginning and upto the middle. We may even describe the initial relationship between these two persons as a sort of mutual antagonism. And yet eventually these two antagonists are united in wedlock. In fact, both have now begun to feel that they are best suited to each other as life-partners. Here we have a striking case of an ironic reversal.

Irony Behind Mr. Darcy's Opposition to Mr. Bingley's wish

Then there is irony in Mr. Darcy's urging his friend Mr. Bingley to give up his intention to marry Jane, and his succeeding in this endeavour. Of course, the irony here is unconscious as it is in the case cited before. Mr. Darcy tells Mr. Bingley that Jane is not so much in love with him (Mr. Bingley) as he (Mr. Bingley) is in love with her. Accordingly, Mr. Bingley gives up his idea of proposing marriage to Jane. But afterwards Mr. Darcy has to change his view and has then to withdraw the pressure which he had been exerting upon Mr. Bingley. Eventually, Mr. Bingley does propose marriage to Jane, and she accepts him. This too is a case of an ironic reversal so far as Mr. Darcy's original opposition to Mr. Bingley's wish is concerned.

Irony in Elizabeth's Contempt for Mr. Collins

Elizabeth finds Mr. Collins to be an oddity not worth her attention. She finds him to be a pompous, conceited, and silly man whom no decent girl would agree to marry. Elizabeth thus begins to hold Mr. Collins in contempt. Even Charlotte falls in Elizabeth's esteem because Charlotte agrees to marry that man. And yet the same Mr. Collins provides a basis for Elizabeth's visit to Hunsford where Mr. Collins lives and where Charlotte has settled down as Mr. Collins's wife. It is at Hunsford that Elizabeth again happens to meet Mr. Darcy, who now makes a proposal of marriage to her, though she rejects this proposal. And at Hunsford it is that Elizabeth receives from Mr. Darcy a letter in which Mr. Darcy has defended himself against the charges which she had brought against him on the preceding day when he proposed marriage to her. Her reading of this letter is the turning-point in her attitude to him. Thus Mr. Collins, who was odious and obnoxious in Elizabeth's eyes, becomes unconsciously and unknowingly instrumental in bring­ing Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy a little close to each other. Some of Elizabeth's prejudice against Mr. Darcy is removed by her reading of Mr. Darcy's letter. Irony in this case resides in Mr. Collins's serving a purpose which could never be expected from him, though he serves the purpose unconsciously.

The Irony behind the Expectation Regarding Lydia

The shifting of the militia regiment from a site near the town of Meryton to a site near Brighton is expected to put an end to Lydia's meeting its officers frequently and flirting with them. Lydia was getting spoilt by her mixing with the officers indiscriminately; and the transfer of the regiment means that she would now be cut off from the officers with whom she was becoming more and more intimate and thus exposing herself to scandal and even of exploitation by some of them. But the reverse of what had been expected happens. In Brighton she becomes even more intimate with one of the officers of that very regiment and elopes with him, thus bringing disgrace to her family. (That officer is Mr. Wickham). The irony here results from the contrast between what was expected and what actually happens.

The Irony behind Mr. Wickham's Role

Mr. Wickham is the man who has made a determined attempt to defame Mr. Darcy and to discredit him in the eyes of Elizabeth. He is the man whom Mr. Darcy held in great contempt; and he is the man who has been trying to avoid meeting Mr. Darcy just as Mr. Darcy has been trying to avoid him. He is the man who had almost won Elizabeth's trust and who might even have won her heart. Mr. Darcy's letter, however, reveals to Elizabeth the reality of the man; and she also now begins to hate him. And yet this man, whom Mr. Darcy had been hating and whom Elizabeth has now begun to hate, ultimately proves instrumental in bringing Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy one step closer to each other. Mr. Darcy's intervention in the Lydia-Wickham affair, and his bringing about the marriage of the two runaways, creates a profound effect on Elizabeth who therefore moves emotionally much closer to Mr. Darcy as a consequence of the service which Mr. Darcy has done to the Bennet family. The irony here resides in the fact that Mr. Wickham, who had aggravated Elizabeth’s prejudice against Mr. Darcy, ultimately proves the means by which Elizabeth feels further attracted towards Mr. Darcy. This is a case of an ironic reversal of the situation.
There is similar irony in Lady Catherine's warnings to Elizabeth not to marry Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine tries her utmost to prevent a marriage between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy but in the event she proves instrumen­tal in bringing them closer to each other and hastening their marriage.

Ironical Remarks, Made by Some of the Characters

We then come to examples of remarks which are ironical. A speaker is said to have made an ironical remark when he means just the opposite of what he actually says. For instance, Mr. Bennet has formed a very low opinion of Mr. Wickham who had brought disgrace to the Bennet family by having lured Lydia to elope with him. After Lydia has got married to Mr. Wickham and the couple has paid a visit to Longbourn, Mr. Bennet expresses his opinion about Mr. Wickham in the following manner: "He is as fine a fellow as ever I saw. He simpers, and smirks, and makes love to us all. I am prodigiously proud of him." Here is a striking example of irony. On the surface, Mr. Bennet's remarks about Mr. Wickham are highly complimentary; but actually these remarks are intended to discredit Mr. Wickham in the eyes of his listeners. In other words, Mr. Bennet here means exactly the opposite of what he has said. Actually Mr. Bennet is ashamed of having Mr. Wickham as a son-in-law, but here he says that he is enormously proud of that man.
A similar irony is to be found in another remark which Mr. Bennet makes about Mr. Wickham. Mr. Bennet, speaking to Elizabeth, says: "I admire all my three sons-in-law highly. Wickham, perhaps, is my favourite." Here, again, Mr. Bennet seems to be praising Mr. Wickham, but he means just the opposite when he says that Mr. Wickham is his favourite son-in-law.
Mr. Bennet's remark early in the novel about Mrs. Bennet's nerves is also ironical. Mr. Bennet tells his wife that he has a high respect for her nerves, adding that her nerves are his old friends. Here he seems outwardly to be paying a compliment to his wife and her nerves; but actually he is poking fun at her. His remark here is a sarcastic one.
Elizabeth's remark early in the novel, that Mr. Darcy has no defects at all in his character, is ironical because Elizabeth means just the opposite of what she has said. She has found a serious fault in him, the fault being pride or vanity; but she conveys her adverse opinion by making a remark which on the surface is a compliment to Mr. Darcy.
Elizabeth makes an ironical remark about Mr. Collins when she tells her sister Jane that she hopes to find as good a husband as Mr. Collins is to his wife. Actually, Elizabeth has a very low opinion about Mr. Collins, and she had rejected Mr. Collins's proposal of marriage twice. Therefore, when she says that she hopes to find a husband of the same kind as Mr. Collins, she means just the opposite of what she is saying.
Yet another ironical remark made by Elizabeth is that Lady Catherine loves to be of use to people, and that she has also been of infinite use to her (Elizabeth) and Mr. Darcy. Actually, of course, Elizabeth means that Lady Catherine had tried to keep Elizabeth away from Mr. Darcy entirely and had thus been wanting to hurt Elizabeth. But her remark on the surface is a compliment to Lady Catherine.
Sometimes there is unconscious irony in a remark made by a character. At the very outset Mr. Darcy says that Elizabeth is not handsome enough to tempt him to dance with her. Now, there is a hidden irony in this remark, and even Mr. Darcy himself is not conscious of this irony. Subsequently, Mr. Darcy not only finds Elizabeth handsome enough to dance with but handsome enough to propose marriage to. Not many days after making that remark, Mr. Darcy feels bewitched by Elizabeth's charms.
There is unconscious irony also in Elizabeth's telling Mr. Collins that she would never refuse a first proposal of marriage and then accept a second proposal from the same man. But Elizabeth does exactly what she here says she would never do. She rejects Mr. Darcy's first proposal of marriage, but later accepts his second proposal.
Finally, the very opening sentence of the novel has been regarded as a striking example of irony on the part of the author.

Irony, a Source of Mirth and Merriment

As already pointed out at the outset, the irony in Jane Austen's novels is comic irony. And so the irony in Pride and Prejudice amuses us and makes us smile, if not laugh. Each of the examples of irony given above adds to our mirth and merriment. We feel tickled by ironical reversals of situation and by ironical remarks, and so we enjoy reading the novel even more than we would otherwise have done.