Austenís Irony

The main focus of Emma, not surprisingly, is the heroine herself. Like nearly all of Austen’s heroines, she undergoes a process of moral education, so that at the novel’s conclusion she has come to acknowledge her failings and therefore has a better understanding of herself. As the dominant character she is closest to the reader’s position. We therefore share in her self-discovery as well as feeling we can judge her behaviour with authority. However, it is important to recognize that Emma’s thoughts are presented ironically – there is a gap between her real motives and her own interpretation of them. In chapter six, the scene where Emma unveils her portrait of Harriet is written from the heroine’s point of view. But Austen’s use of language undermines Emma’s self-professed good motives:

"…and as she meant to throw in a little improvement to the

figure, to give a little more height, and considerably more elegance,

she had great confidence in its being in every way a pretty drawing

at last, and of its filling its destined place with credit to them both…"

Emma’s portrait is not an accurate likeness of her friend; he has "improved" it in order to further the girl’s chances with Mr Elton. Emma’s guidance becomes controlling and we see that Harriet is being manipulated. Emma is really only thinking of herself.

Austen and her characters frequently utilise ironic statement. In chapter one we are told that Emma "had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her". Yet we later learn that Emma has a very lonely and bored existence, having to cope with her father’s idiosyncrasies and having few friends. Mr Knightley resorts to irony when politeness will not permit more direct statements. Consider his remark to Mr Woodhouse about the snow that may prevent them from returning home safely from the Christmas party at Randalls:

"‘I admired your resolution very much, sir,’ said he, ‘in venturing

out in such weather…I admired your spirit.’"

The reader understands clearly that he does no such thing, but social decorum dictates that John Knightley be deferent towards his father-in-law. He can only resort to sarcasm in conveying his true feelings.

Austen’s use of irony serves to separate her from the characters she portrays. We are unsure where her sympathy lies and have to infer what her intentions may be. Similarly, her use of wit means that her true stance is masked by sarcasm. Aphorisms and epigrams litter Austen’s fiction, either as part of the narrative or as spoken by the main characters. Their bite indicates a darker side to the apparent light-hearted tone. Consider Emma’s comment to Mr Knightley when he suggests Harriet should have married Robert Martin’s proposal:

"‘A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who

asks her.’"

This draws attention to the plight of many women in Austen’s society, as well as her novel, who were only too ready to marry at the first opportunity – spinsterhood meant a life of poverty. Ironically, Harriet is ready to marry anyone, and so Emma is made to appear over-confident in her belief that she is capable of judging others.

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