Irony

Emma

by

Jane Austen

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Emma: Irony 8 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Chapter 5
Explanation and Analysis—Very Good Lists:

Early in the novel, Knightley uses verbal irony in a conversation with Mrs. Weston about Emma’s reading habits:

“Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule.”

Though subtle, this is an example of verbal irony, in that Knightley acts as if he is complimenting Emma on the “very good lists” she makes of books she intends to read. In reality, though, he is pointing out the absurdity of how much time she puts into making these lists instead of actually doing any reading. He is highlighting how unread Emma is through the act of complimenting her on list-making.

This moment of verbal irony is meant to be humorous but, at the same time, shows how empty Emma’s life is as a woman in this time period. Were she not limited by her gender, she would have many more options for what she could do with her time besides making lists of books she wants to read. She would be able to work, travel, and just generally do as she pleases outside of her home. As it is, the fact that she doesn’t want to read leaves her with few options: making lists and meddling in other people’s business.

Chapter 9
Explanation and Analysis—Shakespeare:

Emma alludes to works by Shakespeare multiple times over the course of the novel. For example, in Chapter 9, when divulging to Harriet her theories about Mr. Elton being in love with Harriet, Emma makes a reference to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“The course of true love never did run smooth—A Hartfield edition of Shakespeare would have a long note on that passage.”

This particular Shakespearean allusion adds to the irony of the situation: the course of true love will not run smooth for Harriet and Elton, but not for the reasons Emma thinks. Instead of being a tale of romance across social class, Mr. Elton will break Harriet’s heart.

Emma later references Romeo and Juliet in Chapter 46, when discussing Jane Fairfax’s behavior during her secret engagement to Frank:

“Much, indeed!” cried Emma, feelingly. “If a woman can ever be excused for thinking only of herself, it is in a situation like Jane Fairfax’s.—Of such, one may almost say, that ‘the world is not their’s, nor the world’s law.’”

This quote gives more emotional weight to Emma’s maturation through the novel—where she used to judge and misperceive Jane, she now understands her.

In addition to shedding light on particular relationship dynamics in the novel, these Shakespeare quotes also show that Emma is well-read, hinting at her social class and also making her as a character seem like more than a misguided matchmaker.

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Chapter 10
Explanation and Analysis—Emma and Knightley:

Emma and Knightley ending up married is an example of situational irony because, throughout the novel, Emma makes it clear that she sees him more as a friend and also swears that she will never get married, as in this conversation with Harriet:

“I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.”

The irony is heightened by the fact that Emma has speculated and gossiped about Knightley’s potential feelings for both Jane and Harriet and, though she does not consider them good matches, is not (consciously, at least) aware of her feelings for him.

Despite all this, Austen makes sure to foreshadow Emma and Knightley’s eventual nuptials, such as when Knightley says that he prefers women who are not reserved:

“Jane Fairfax has feeling,” said Mr. Knightley—“I do not accuse her of want of feeling. Her sensibilities, I suspect, are strong—and her temper excellent in its power of forbearance, patience, self-controul; but it wants openness. She is reserved, more reserved, I think, than she used to be—And I love an open temper.”

Emma, of course, is the woman in his life who best displays this sort of “open temper,” a hint that Austen hopes readers will pick up on so that the eventual reveal and Emma and Knightley’s mutual affection doesn’t come too out of the blue.

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Chapter 13
Explanation and Analysis—Mr. Elton’s Feelings:

In an example of situational irony early in the novel, Emma believes that Mr. Elton has feelings for Harriet when, it turns out, he has harbored feelings for Emma all along. Not only does Emma believe that he wants to be with Harriet, but she convinced Harriet that he loves her in return and persuaded her to turn down Mr. Martin’s marriage proposal in the process.

The irony of this situation is heightened as Emma makes excuse after excuse for Mr. Elton’s behavior that does not align with her misperception of his feelings. After Mr. Elton is not at all perturbed by Harriet falling ill and not being able to attend a Christmas event, Emma does all sorts of internal twisting to keep her story intact:

“Well,” said she to herself, “this is most strange!—After I had got him off so well, to chuse to go into company, and leave Harriet ill behind!—Most strange indeed!—But there is, I believe, in many men, especially single men, such an inclination—such a passion for dining out—a dinner engagement is so high in the class of their pleasures, their employments, their dignities, almost their duties, that anything gives way to it—and this must be the case with Mr. Elton; a most valuable, amiable, pleasing young man undoubtedly, and very much in love with Harriet; but still, he cannot refuse an invitation, he must dine out wherever he is asked. What a strange thing love is! he can see ready wit in Harriet, but will not dine alone for her.”

Rather than believe that Mr. Elton wants to attend the party to spend time with her, Emma decides that he "cannot refuse an invitation" so as not to be rude. When Mr. Elton reveals his feelings for Emma just hours later on the way back from the party, she is shocked, showing the extent of her self-deception.

Another layer of irony in this moment is that Emma is upset that Mr. Elton doesn’t want to be with Harriet because of her social standing (as he puts it, “I need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith!”) when Emma herself encouraged Harriet to reject the farmer Mr. Martin for these same reasons.

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Chapter 16
Explanation and Analysis—Emma Meddling:

After Emma is incorrect about Mr. Elton’s feelings for Harriet (as he actually loves Emma instead), she promises to stop playing matchmaker but then continues to do so—an example of dramatic irony. Emma makes it clear to herself and readers that she has learned her lesson about meddling after reflecting on how wrong she was about Mr. Elton and how much she hurt Harriet in the process:

The first error and the worst lay at her door. It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple. She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more.

The dramatic irony comes in when Emma does not stop playing matchmaker, as seen just a couple paragraphs later when she unconsciously begins to consider other suitors for Harriet:

“I am sure I have not an idea of any body else who would be at all desirable for her;—William Cox—Oh! no, I could not endure William Cox—a pert young lawyer.”

Because readers have witnessed Emma promise herself (and also Harriet) that she will no longer meddle, they can appreciate the irony in her immediately going back to her old ways. It hints at how Emma will continue to be trapped by her pride and meddling instincts for much of the book—that it will take more than this moment to make her change her ways.

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Chapter 24
Explanation and Analysis—Frank and Jane:

Throughout most of the novel, Emma believes that Frank wants to be with her and that Jane wants to be with her former employer, Mr. Dixon. Frank and Jane have been secretly engaged the entire time, however, and this rift between belief and reality is an example of situational irony.

While Emma’s misperceptions and incorrect reads of people are somewhat obvious (such as her belief that Mr. Elton has feelings for Harriet rather than for herself), this situation is a surprise to her and to readers. Frank has consistently acted as if he is not interested in Jane, such as in this conversation with Emma in which he calls Jane “reserved” and implies he would never love such a person:

“It is a most repulsive quality, indeed,” said he. “Oftentimes very convenient, no doubt, but never pleasing. There is safety in reserve, but no attraction. One cannot love a reserved person.”

In addition to commenting on Jane’s unlikable personality, Frank has also described how he’s not interested in women with a “deplorable want of complexion," one of Jane's physical characteristics. 

Frank’s engagement to Jane is certainly ironic after all of Frank’s blatant denials of his feelings for Jane, and it's also quite painful for Emma. Though she no longer has romantic feelings for Frank at this point, she trusted him as a friend and feels somewhat betrayed. She also feels ashamed about how deeply she misperceived the situation (believing him to have been in love with her) and how her public flirty behavior with Frank must have hurt Jane. Rather than behaving reactively, however, Emma takes steps to hear Frank out and to apologize to Jane, showing how she has matured over the course of the novel and let go of her pride.

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Chapter 29
Explanation and Analysis—No Dancing:

Austen’s writing style is full of humor and playful energy. Near the beginning of the novel, the narrator uses verbal irony to describe how deeply the young adults of Highbury enjoy their social dances:

It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively, without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind;—but when a beginning is made—when the felicities of rapid motion have once been, though slightly, felt—it must be a very heavy set that does not ask for more.

This is an example of verbal irony because the narrator knows full well that it is “possible to do without dancing”—and that young people of course survive many months without being able to dance (without becoming unhealthy “either to body or mind”). But they use sarcasm to highlight how deeply desperate Emma and her friends are for a ball.

The intensity of the narrator’s love of social dances also mirrors Emma’s love of them and shows how much her life is limited by her gender—unfortunately, she has very little in her life apart from social events like this.

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Chapter 33
Explanation and Analysis—Emma and Knightley:

Emma and Knightley ending up married is an example of situational irony because, throughout the novel, Emma makes it clear that she sees him more as a friend and also swears that she will never get married, as in this conversation with Harriet:

“I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.”

The irony is heightened by the fact that Emma has speculated and gossiped about Knightley’s potential feelings for both Jane and Harriet and, though she does not consider them good matches, is not (consciously, at least) aware of her feelings for him.

Despite all this, Austen makes sure to foreshadow Emma and Knightley’s eventual nuptials, such as when Knightley says that he prefers women who are not reserved:

“Jane Fairfax has feeling,” said Mr. Knightley—“I do not accuse her of want of feeling. Her sensibilities, I suspect, are strong—and her temper excellent in its power of forbearance, patience, self-controul; but it wants openness. She is reserved, more reserved, I think, than she used to be—And I love an open temper.”

Emma, of course, is the woman in his life who best displays this sort of “open temper,” a hint that Austen hopes readers will pick up on so that the eventual reveal and Emma and Knightley’s mutual affection doesn’t come too out of the blue.

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Chapter 46
Explanation and Analysis—Shakespeare:

Emma alludes to works by Shakespeare multiple times over the course of the novel. For example, in Chapter 9, when divulging to Harriet her theories about Mr. Elton being in love with Harriet, Emma makes a reference to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“The course of true love never did run smooth—A Hartfield edition of Shakespeare would have a long note on that passage.”

This particular Shakespearean allusion adds to the irony of the situation: the course of true love will not run smooth for Harriet and Elton, but not for the reasons Emma thinks. Instead of being a tale of romance across social class, Mr. Elton will break Harriet’s heart.

Emma later references Romeo and Juliet in Chapter 46, when discussing Jane Fairfax’s behavior during her secret engagement to Frank:

“Much, indeed!” cried Emma, feelingly. “If a woman can ever be excused for thinking only of herself, it is in a situation like Jane Fairfax’s.—Of such, one may almost say, that ‘the world is not their’s, nor the world’s law.’”

This quote gives more emotional weight to Emma’s maturation through the novel—where she used to judge and misperceive Jane, she now understands her.

In addition to shedding light on particular relationship dynamics in the novel, these Shakespeare quotes also show that Emma is well-read, hinting at her social class and also making her as a character seem like more than a misguided matchmaker.

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Chapter 47
Explanation and Analysis—Harriet's Crush:

In the latter half of the novel, Harriet tells Emma that she has feelings for someone, and Emma assumes she’s talking about Frank when she’s actually referring to Knightley. This leads to several chapters of miscommunications and situational irony as Emma tries to bring Harriet and Frank together, leading her to fretting over the fact that she will have to tell Harriet about Frank’s secret engagement to Jane:

“Harriet, poor Harriet!”—Those were the words; in them lay the tormenting ideas which Emma could not get rid of, and which constituted the real misery of the business to her. Frank Churchill had behaved very ill by herself—very ill in many ways,—but it was not so much his behaviour as her own, which made her so angry with him. It was the scrape which he had drawn her into on Harriet’s account, that gave the deepest hue to his offence.—Poor Harriet! to be a second time the dupe of her misconceptions and flattery.

Emma's assumptions are, of course, incorrect, as Harriet explains just a few pages later:

“I should not have thought it possible,” she began, “that you could have misunderstood me! I know we agreed never to name him—but considering how infinitely superior he is to every body else, I should not have thought it possible that I could be supposed to mean any other person. Mr. Frank Churchill, indeed! I do not know who would ever look at him in the company of the other.

When Emma finally learns the truth about Harriet’s feelings, her pride takes another blow. Not only was she wrong about Harriet desiring Frank, but this new information—that Harriet likes Knightley and she (incorrectly) believes he likes her, too—threatens Emma’s own desire for a relationship with Knightley. Of course, in the end, Emma is the one who marries Knightley, but only after she reckons with her pride and deeper feelings for Knightley and lets go of her vanity, misperceptions, and self-denial.

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