Irony

Pride and Prejudice

by

Jane Austen

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Pride and Prejudice: Irony 10 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 1
Explanation and Analysis—Universal Truth:

With its sarcastic undertones, the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is an example of verbal irony:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

This statement is ironic because, while the narrator claims to believe that all single men with wealth seek out wives, the rest of the novel is about all the ways that single women are the ones actively hoping to marry wealthy men (exemplified best in the Bennet sisters, but also by Charlotte, Caroline Bingley, and others).

In fact, in just the next paragraph, the narrator suggests that, when single wealthy men first set foot in a town, they are quickly “considered the rightful property" of the local women, who set their sights on marriageable men and become quite territorial about them. The implication, then, is that men aren't actually the ones desperately "in want of" a spouse; the truth that should be "universally acknowledge," then, is that many women are eager to marry wealthy men, not the other way around. This irony establishes that the narrator is critical of certain widely-held narratives and assumptions about marriage. It also sets the novel up to be more focused on the agency and stories of the women in the book than on the men.

Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—Darcy's Love:

Darcy falling in love with Elizabeth is an example of situational irony because, at the beginning of the novel (in Chapter 3), he makes it clear that he is not interested in her. When Bingley suggests that he should ask Elizabeth to dance, Darcy responds harshly:

"Which do you mean?” and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

Though this moment sets Darcy up to keep his distance from Elizabeth, he ultimately changes his stance entirely. In Chapter 45, he goes as far as telling Caroline Bingley (who clearly dislikes Elizabeth) about how beautiful he considers her to be:

“It is many months since I have considered [Elizabeth] as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.”

Another layer of irony regarding Darcy’s feelings for Elizabeth is that Darcy is the person who convinced Bingley to let go of his feelings for Jane based on both her seeming indifference and the money-seeking behavior of her mother. Using these criteria, Darcy should also dismiss his own feelings for Elizabeth because she has actively expressed dislike for him (going beyond Jane’s “indifference”) and shares the same marriage-obsessed mother—but he doesn't dismiss his feelings for her.

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Chapter 11
Explanation and Analysis—No Defect:

While staying at Netherfield to take care of a sick Jane, Elizabeth spends more time with Darcy and witnesses more of his prideful behavior firsthand. In an example of verbal irony, Elizabeth states the following to Caroline Bingley in front of Darcy:

“I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise.”

This statement is ironic because Elizabeth clearly does not believe Darcy "has no defect." She is using sarcasm to make it clear that she believes the opposite—that Darcy is overly prideful and should be willing to own up to his flaws. Darcy, recognizing her sarcasm and feeling embarrassed, responds that he does have flaws, including his temper and inability to forgive people who have hurt him.

This moment highlights the ways that Elizabeth and Darcy provoke each other, each (at this point) unwilling to let go of prejudices they have of the other. As the two of them come to develop romantic feelings for each other later in the novel and move toward marriage, these moments of biting verbal irony decrease in frequency.

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Chapter 14
Explanation and Analysis—Delicate Flattery:

As one of the most heavily satirized characters in Pride and Prejudice, Collins—who has very little self-awareness—is easy for other characters to mock. While having dinner with Collins and the rest of the family, Mr. Bennet uses verbal irony to tease Collins about his obsession with complimenting his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh:

“You judge very properly,” said Mr. Bennet, “and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”

Through his subtle use of sarcasm, Mr. Bennet makes it clear (at least to his more self-aware family members) that he does not think Collins is gifted at “flattering with delicacy,” and he is not interested in Collins’s answer to the question. He is, instead, hoping to highlight the absurd way in which Collins has recounted for them the various compliments he has shared with Lady Catherine.

This is confirmed in the following paragraphs when the narrator states:

[Mr. Bennet’s] cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance.

In other words, Mr. Bennet is trying not to laugh at Mr. Collins’s lack of manners and inexplicable pride while gently teasing him.

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Chapter 19
Explanation and Analysis—Second Proposal:

In a moment of foreshadowing, Elizabeth rejects Collins’s marriage proposal and, after he says that he will ask her again, she tells him that she is not the type of a woman to say yes to a proposal after previously saying no:

“Upon my word, sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal.”

This moment foreshadows (with some situational irony) how Elizabeth is, in fact, one of “those young ladies” who will say yes the second time someone asks for their hand in marriage, as that is exactly what happens with her and Darcy. She rejects him the first time he asks and, upon learning of his true character and falling in love with him, says yes the second time.

This moment is an example of situational irony because, rather than literally foreshadowing what will happen, Austen hints that the opposite will occur. This adds to another theme of the novel: that Elizabeth’s pride often gets in the way of her seeing herself—and others—clearly. 

Elizabeth’s decision to reject Collins also shows that she is not interested in marrying for financial security; while she knows she will reject him again because she does not love him, she ultimately says yes to Darcy because she comes to love him.

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Chapter 31
Explanation and Analysis—Elizabeth's Denial:

Because the narration of Pride and Prejudice is third-person omniscient, readers learn that Darcy has feelings for Elizabeth long before she does. This leads to moments of dramatic irony, such as when Darcy comes close to Elizabeth while she plays piano and she assumes he seeks to intimidate her:

“You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

This is an example of dramatic irony because readers learned immediately before this paragraph that Darcy moves closer to Elizabeth “so as to command a full view of the fair performer’s countenance.” In other words, rather than seek to intimidate her, he wants to be close to her because he loves her and wants to take in as much of her as he can before asking for her hand in marriage. This moment shows how Elizabeth’s prejudice toward Darcy keeps her from being able to see his caring—rather than intimidating or prideful—intentions.

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Chapter 36
Explanation and Analysis—Elizabeth's Prejudice:

The fact that Elizabeth misjudges Darcy—considering him overly prideful and cruel when he is in fact caring and considerate—is an example of situational irony.

Through much of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth judges Jane harshly for trusting people too easily and always believing the best in them, considering herself a much more gifted judge of character. After reading Darcy’s earnest letter to her explaining his actions, Elizabeth becomes aware of the irony of thinking herself skilled when she was in fact “blind” because of her prejudice:

"How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! […] Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind!”

This is a pivotal moment in the novel—Elizabeth begins to let go of her own pride in order to see herself and Darcy more clearly. This leads to a change in her feelings and behavior, leading to her admitting to Darcy that she was wrong and eventually accepting his proposal for marriage.

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Chapter 45
Explanation and Analysis—Darcy's Love:

Darcy falling in love with Elizabeth is an example of situational irony because, at the beginning of the novel (in Chapter 3), he makes it clear that he is not interested in her. When Bingley suggests that he should ask Elizabeth to dance, Darcy responds harshly:

"Which do you mean?” and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

Though this moment sets Darcy up to keep his distance from Elizabeth, he ultimately changes his stance entirely. In Chapter 45, he goes as far as telling Caroline Bingley (who clearly dislikes Elizabeth) about how beautiful he considers her to be:

“It is many months since I have considered [Elizabeth] as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.”

Another layer of irony regarding Darcy’s feelings for Elizabeth is that Darcy is the person who convinced Bingley to let go of his feelings for Jane based on both her seeming indifference and the money-seeking behavior of her mother. Using these criteria, Darcy should also dismiss his own feelings for Elizabeth because she has actively expressed dislike for him (going beyond Jane’s “indifference”) and shares the same marriage-obsessed mother—but he doesn't dismiss his feelings for her.

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Chapter 51
Explanation and Analysis—Lydia's Marriage:

In a moment of dramatic irony, Lydia returns home from her elopement with Wickham and flaunts her haphazard marriage as if it's something to be celebrated, telling her mother:

“Oh! mamma, do the people hereabouts know I am married to-day? I was afraid they might not; and we overtook William Goulding in his curricle, so I was determined he should know it, and so I let down the side-glass next to him, and took off my glove, and let my hand just rest upon the window frame, so that he might see the ring, and then I bowed and smiled like anything.”

This is an example of dramatic irony because, unlike Lydia, readers know that she has nothing to be proud of—Wickham was uninterested in marrying her until he was offered money to do so. He married her as a form of manipulation, not because he loved her. The quote shows how, as a 15-year-old, Lydia doesn’t understand the threat that she posed to her family (i.e., her sisters’ reputations would have been ruined had she run away with Wickham without getting married) or the fact that the man she is celebrating being married to was actively using her to make money.

This moment also highlights how much clout being married gives women in this society. Lydia wants her neighbors to see the ring because it means that she has earned something important—a romantic partner along with financial security.

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Chapter 57
Explanation and Analysis—Delightfully Absurd:

In a moment of dramatic irony near the end of the novel, Mr. Bennett reads a letter Collins has sent him about the impending nuptials of Elizabeth and Darcy and, telling Elizabeth about it, says the following:

“[T]hat is what makes it amusing. Had they fixed on any other man it would have been nothing; but his perfect indifference, and your pointed dislike, make it so delightfully absurd!”

This is an example of dramatic irony because readers know the truth—that this is not as impossible as Mr. Bennet thinks it is, given that Darcy has already once requested Elizabeth’s hand in marriage and proven that he is not “perfectly indifferent” to her. Not only that, but Elizabeth has already let go of her prejudiced judgments about him and no longer feels “pointed dislike” for him; she has, in fact, come to love him. Mr. Bennet thinks this rumor is “absurd” when, in fact, it is based in truth.

This ironic moment highlights Elizabeth’s inner conflict about revealing that she was wrong about Darcy’s extreme pride and that she rashly declined his proposal. Rather than facing her father’s shock and her mother’s disappointment about the truth, she ends up staying silent in this scene, only to reveal the truth later on. And, when she does, Mr. Bennet’s response affirms the irony and humor of the situation, “laughing at her some time” as he “recollect[s] her embarrassment a few days before, on his reading Mr. Collins’s letter.”

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Chapter 59
Explanation and Analysis—Happily Ever After:

The fact that Darcy and Elizabeth end up with a “happily ever after” at the end of the novel is an example of situational irony. Not only did they both dislike each other at the beginning and almost let their pride and prejudice get in the way of their relationship, but they also had to navigate class differences, betrothals to other people, Lydia almost “ruining” her sisters’ reputations, and Elizabeth rejecting Darcy’s first proposal.

The reactions of the other characters confirm the irony of Darcy and Elizabeth ending up together. After Darcy asks Mr. Bennet for his approval of their marriage, Mr. Bennet tells Elizabeth the following:

“I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. […] My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about.”

This quote shows that Mr. Bennet cannot comprehend why she wants to marry Darcy given all of the stories Elizabeth has told of Darcy’s arrogance and pride.

A final ironic twist to Darcy and Elizabeth’s happy ending is that Elizabeth—the Bennet daughter arguably the least interested in an “advantageous” marriage (as seen in her refusing both Collins's as well as Darcy's first proposal)—ends up with the wealthiest husband.

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