Elements of Wit, Humor, and Irony in Pride and Prejudice
The Novel, Pride and Prejudice has been considered to be the best of Jane Austen’s novels. Jane Austen has written only six novels in her short life but most of her novels have been successful in drawing the attention of the readers because of their intrinsic qualities. Somerset Mangham has commented on the unique importance of the novel in the following line in his critical book, Great Novelists and their Novels: “the great mass of readers, I believe, has accepted Pride and Prejudice as her (Jane Austen’s) masterpiece, and in such a case, I think it’s well to accept their judgment. My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that Pride and Prejudice is, on the whole, the most satisfactory of all the novels for its fascinating qualities.” Such a wide popularity of the novel is due to its brilliant wit, genial humor and realistic irony.
It is a fact that the novel does not contain stormy passion and high tragedy of emotional life, yet for its craft and artifice, incomparable freshness and sharpness of outline it can be compared with the drama of Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing. In Much Ado About Nothing, the Benedick and Beatrice, the witty hero and heroine, who hate each other in the beginning of the play are ultimately married at the end. Similarly, we have Darcy and Elizabeth representing Pride and Prejudice and their ultimate union at the end. In this novel, we have a perfect comedy of manners presented in a spirit of amusement derived from bitterness. The excellence of the novel rests on to a greater part on the witty dialogue. The paucity of action has been compensated by the wit in dialogues; wit sparkles the characters of Elizabeth and her father Mr. Bennet. Elizabeth’s witty exchange with Darcy is amusing but Mr. Bennet’s remarks and replies to his wife’s queries are sharp and scathing. The dull situations are rendered highly investing through the witty dialogues of the characters. When Mrs. Bennet was talking to her husband about his indifference towards the interest of the family, Kitty was coughing and she lost temper with Kitty: “Don’t keep coughing so, Kitty, for Heaven’s sake; have a little compassion on my nerves, you tear them to prices.”
“Kitty has no discretion in her cough,” said her father, “she times them ill.” “I do not cough for my own amusement,” replied Kitty fretfully.
When Mrs. Bennet approaches her husband to persuade Elizabeth to marry Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet answers: “I have not the pleasure of understanding you, said he, when she finished her speech of what are you talking?”
Mr. Bennet’s sparkling wit has been the source of enjoyment throughout the novel; Mrs. Bennet wants Elizabeth to accept the proposal of Mr. Collins; failing which she says, “Yes, I will never see her again.”
To this warning, Mr. Bennet replies in a sharp way,
“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth from this day, you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
The conversation between Darcy and Elizabeth is equally perceptive of wit.
“Jane Austen’s attitude toward life as presented in her novels,” says a critic, “is of a humorist.” Undoubtedly she is a comedian; from the beginning to the end of her creative life she retains humor but towards the end of her life, humor becomes an integrated part of her writing. Humor is in the very tone of her language. For this, her language has been described to be poetic replete with humor.But her humor is genial and amusing. It is free from the bitterness of malice. “I dearly love a laugh,” says Elizabeth and it is equally applicable to her creator. She laughs at follies and nonsensical whims and inconsistencies. But this is confined to a particular class, namely, the upper middle class and her range is limited to the family life only. Her pleasant humor has become very much effective in bringing out the specialties of her characters.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen never leaves the realm of comedy. A.C. Bradley has rightly remarked, “There are two great distinct strains in Jane Austen. She is a moralist and a humorist.”
One of the most important elements of the novel is her profound sense of irony.She has made a varied use of irony. Irony is a contrast between a reality and an appearance. There are two kinds of irony- verbal and rhetorical. Irony shows the contrast between the apparent, i,e the surface meaning of a statement and its real intended meaning. The theme of the novel presents the contrast between ‘Intricacy and simplicity as those terms apply to personality.” Darcy and Elizabeth are intricate characters; Jane and Bingley are simple.
If read carefully, we find irony at different levels in the novels- irony of situations, irony of characters and verbal irony. The examples of irony of situations are found in the proposals of marriages. Collins proposes to Elizabeth when her heart is full of Wickham; Darcy proposes to her when she hates him most. The departure of the militia from Merylon was expected to part an end to Lydia’s flirtation; it brings about her elopement. Both Darcy and Elizabeth do not like each other and are prejudiced against each other because of their pride; they are united in a marriage at last. The very first sentence of the novel can be quoted as an example of verbal irony.
The novel Pride and Prejudice is a vital record of what its writer has thought and felt about the society. Although limited in range, it faithfully holds up a mirror to the society she lived in and it can be said without any hesitation that she has successfully reached her goal.