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.
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.