Irony in Emma
The forte of Jane Austen is irony. There is almost no satire in her novels. Even when her tone grown harsh, and we feel that she is writing satire, as we feel when she exposes Collins in Pride and Prejudice, the satire is so gentle that it does not offend. We find such mild satire in Jane Austen’s exposure of the stupidity of Isabella Thorpe, Miss Steele and Mrs. Bennet.
We do not find such exposure in Emma. Satire is almost absent here. Emma is a hilarious comedy. It abounds in irony and humour. So far as pure humour and wit are concerned, it may be compared with the comedies of Shakespeare. Let us first illustrate and examine humour in the novel.
Jane Austen gives a very humours account of Mrs. Churchill’s illness when she remarks that Frank Churchill “knew her illnesses they never occurred but for her convenience”. There is a humourous account in the remarks of Mr. Knightley and Emma regarding the new born baby of Mrs. Weston. Both Knightley and Emma agree that Mrs. Weston, a former governess, would use her ability in teaching her own daughter. Mr. Knightley then remarks that the baby would be as much indulged as Emma has been. Humour arises when Mr. Woodhouse calls Isabella and Taylor ‘poor’ because they have been married. Woodhouse does not want any change. He feels lone because Miss Taylor is married. When Emma says that she does come to see us pretty often, Woodhouse remarks:
“But then she always has to go again”
When Emma says that Taylor is happy because she has a house of her own Woodhouse replies :
“But what is the advantage of her own ? Hartfield is three times as large as her house, Randalls”
Woodhouse is so foolish that he equates the dimension of his house with the home of a bride. He laments:
“What a pity it is that Mr. Weston ever thought of her.”
He dissuades everybody from having any wedding cake. When the persuasion fails he prevents him or her from eating it. His own stomach bears nothing rich, and he can never believe other people to be different from himself The boisterous humour lies in the ignorance of Mr. Woodhouse that the portrait does not catch cold “The only thing I do not thoroughly like is, that seems to being out of doors, with only a little shawl over her shoulders and makes one think she must catch cold.”
Emma is equally humourous when she replies : “But, my dear papa, it is supposed to be summer”. Mr. Woodbouse does not agree to Emma’s marriage. It is very ridiculous on his part to consent to her marriage because he feels protected in the presence of Mr. Knightley when one night Mr. Weston’s poultry house is robbed. Hilarious humour lies in Mrs. Elton’s wish that the whole party should proceed to the Box Hilon donkeys. It is very funny that Emma breaks the lace of her shoe to provide Mr. Elton an opportunity to declare his love to Harriet. The indecision, of Harriet regarding sending of parcels to Mrs. Goddard’s or to Hartfield causes a lot of fun:
“‘Should I send it to Mrs. Goddard’s, ma’am ?” asked Mrs. Ford. ‘Yes-no-yes, Mrs. Goddard’s. Only my pattern gown is at Hartfield. No, you shall send it to Hartfield, if you please. But then, Mrs. Goddard will want to see it. And I could take the pattern gown home any day. But I shall want the ribbon directly so it had better go to Hartfield-at least the ribbon.
Likewise, the confusion of Miss Bates causes humour.
“It was before tea-stay-no, it could be before tea, because we were just going to cards and yet it was before tea, because I remember thinking- Oh ! no, now I recollect, now I have it; something happened before tea but not that. Mr. Elton was called out of the room before tea.”
Humour and pathos lie in Harriet’s treasuring of the useless things concerning Mr. Elton, as a token of love. We laugh at the sentimentality of Harriet, but our heart goes out to her Witty humour lies in Emma’s remark to Frank :
“If you have another slice of meat and some more wine you will be equal to the rest of us”.
When Mr. Woodhouse expressed his wish that he ought to have paid his respects to Mrs. Elton, Emma wittily remarked that he was so friend to matrimony, and that it was encouraging people to marry if he did no. This is the wit which can be compared favourably with that of Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.
And now it is time we come to the irony in the novel. The irony in the novel is thorough because it depends on Emma herself. Emma, though deluded, is not ridiculous. This makes the irony in the novel more subtle than in any of the other novels of Jane Austen. Emma’s “misapprehensions-of Harriet, of Mr. Elton, Jane Fairfax, of Frank Churchill of Mr. Knightley, and of herself-lead her to develop and encourage a number of situations which, however amusing, clearly display the profound contradictions which are the essence of irony”
Jane Austen exposing Emma’s weakness to be praised comments that perhaps she might have passed over more had his (John Knightley’s manners been flattering” to her.” Likewise, Jane Austen’s playful irony is flung at Mrs. Elton’s weakness, for after a good many compliments to Jane on her dress, she wants the compliment to be returned. Jane Austen flings her deadly irony at Mrs. Elton’s weakness of finding excuse for outing :
“Donwell was famous for its strawberries, which seemed a plea for the invitation : but no plea was necessary; cabbage-beds would have been enough to tempt the lady who wanted to be going somewhere.”
The irony lies in Mr. Elton’s words to Emma :
“You have given Miss Smith all that she required,’ said he ‘you have made her graceful and easy. She was a beautiful creature when she came to you, but, in my opinion, the attractions you have added are infinitely superior to what she received from nature’.”
The irony here is very subtle Emma thinks that Elton is praising Harriet, and is sighing like a lover, while, really speaking, Elton is praising Emma herself. And after Emma’s belief that her plan of seeing Harriet matched to Elton is almost successful, the proposal of Elton to Emma comes as devastating irony. “That Emma is nearly completely wrong about” Elton, writes A. H. Wright, “makes for one of the major ironies in the book.”
Mr. John Knightley points out to Emma that Mr. Elton “seems to have a great deal of goodwill towards you.” And Emma exclaims: “Mr. Elton in love with me what an idea !” And Jane Austen remarks that “she walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstance, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are forever falling into.” This is a marvellous piece of dramatic irony because what Emma says about John Knightley is true to herself. Emma’s musing is more significant in the sense that it occurs on the very morning of the party at the Westons after which Mr. Elton declares his hot love to Emma, thus giving a jolt to her vanity of understanding characters.
When Mrs. Weston suggests that Mr. Knightley may have a more than ordinary interest in Jane Fairfax, Emma replies “Dear Mrs. Weston, how could you think of such a thing ?” Its ironic that Emma, herself wrong, accuses Mrs. Weston of her wrong judgment. A. H. Wright writes about this remark of Emma : “To accuse her accuser of the crime of which she herself is guilty is of course transparently ironic and (with regard to her attitude to Mr. Knightley) this shows the depth of Emma’s self-deception.” Chapter 13 is a fine specimen of Jane Austen’s irony. The irony lies in Emma’s delusion that Elton would feel depressed and anxious at learning about Harriet’s illness, and would refrain from going to the Randalls party. The irony lies in Elton’s high spirits and enthusiasm with which he looks forward to attend the party. When Elton repeats the words of Emma, “no husbands and wives are involved in such a manner that Emma wonders if she should leave the rooms at once to declare his love to Harriet.” The irony throughout lies in the fact that Elton declares his love not to Harriet but to Emma. Likewise irony lies in Emma’s view that Elton hides his true feelings for Harriet when he says that verses were written by one of his friends.
Sharp, pungent irony lies in the misunderstanding of Elton’s character. The magnitude of irony is revealed when Elton is seen later in his true colours. Jane Austen writes :
“This man is almost too gallant to be in love,’ thought Emma. ‘I should say so, but that I suppose there may be a different ways of being in love. Here is an excellent young man, and will suit Harriet exactly……”
The irony lies in the fact that Mr. Elton is really “too gallant to be in love”, because he is ambitious And, therefore, he wants to marry Emma, not Harriet. The irony contained in “Here is an excellent young man” is revealed later when Emma exclaims :
“This was Mr. Elton ! the amiable, obliging, gentle Mr. Elton.”
The earlier praise of Emma for Elton as “amiable, obliging, gentle” comes now as shockingly ironical.
Again irony is contained in Emma’s remark to Harriet :
“I am not at all surprised at you, Harriet. The service he rendered you was enough to warm your heart.”
Emma thinks that Harriet is referring to Frank Churchill, and his saving her from the gypsies. But Harriet is alluding to Mr. Knightley and his dancing with her when Mr. Elton had refused to dance. This ironic situation has arisen because the name of Harriet’s lover is not mentioned. Emma no longer wants to interfere directly. Emma was disillusioned earlier because she had interfered. Her disillusion is now in the offing because she does not interfere. A H Wright writes about this irony :
“Thus the preparation is being made for a grand disillusionment later in the story. It is particularly ironic that Emma should be the creator of this illusion on the grounds of non-interference.”
That Jane Austen commands kindly, yet not ineffective, irony, is revealed in the following words of Emma to Mr. Knightley :
“Oh ! then, don’t speak it,’ she eagerly cried : ‘Take a little time, consider, don’t commit yourself”.
The irony lies in the fact that Emma discourages Mr. George Knightley from proposing to her, thus, if not rung, certainly postponing, her own happiness.