Sarcasm in Pride and Prejudice

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Sarcasm in Pride and Prejudice
Criticising Social Class

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (1). The opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice does not only contain the novel’s major topic of marriage, but also presents an important stylistic device the author has been using throughout the whole book: Sarcasm. For further argumentation, one would definitely have to define the meaning of “sarcasm”. The Free Online Dictionary provides several definitions of sarcasm:

1. A cutting, often ironic, remark intended to wound.
2. A form of wit that is marked by the use of sarcastic language and is intended to make its victim the butt of contempt or ridicule.

Two main aspects have to be looked at in detail, again: the mentioning of “ridicule” and the meaning of “wit”. “Ridicule” is the feature that is attached to most of the characters in Pride and Prejudice and can bee seen in the character’s own behaviour or it is pointed at in comments of others. The meaning of “wit” is even more important, as the Free Online Dictionary defines it as “the ability to perceive and express in an ingeniously humorous manner the relationship between seemingly incongruous or disparate things.” Actually, Jane Austen is perfectly able to produce this kind of wit and uses it to produce sarcasm as the novel goes on, as will be discussed later. As a reader of Pride and Prejudice, the opening sentence might seem straight forward at first sight and in no way arguable. The want of getting married seems to be natural and human. Still, by reading on, one will find Mrs Bennet, the mother of five young unmarried ladies, narrowing this first sentence to: “Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”, while telling her husband about a young well-settled man having moved to a nearby estate (1). This kind of changing the meaning of a sentence or even whole passage into a sarcastic one, is simply the “wit” having been announced earlier. Having read the whole story, an attentive reader will have realized that Mrs Bennet is “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news” (3). Therefore, already the first sentence suddenly appears in a sarcastic tone if we take in consideration that this “universally acknowledgement” rather seems like Mrs Bennet’s own acknowledgement, or even more: her desire. One could argue that Mrs Bennet resulting presents a character that is caricatured in order to be laughed about, as Kalil also states in her note on Pride and Prejudice. However her status in society and her living situation completely changes this view. As a loving mother, who has in mind, that her daughters will never be able to hire the house they live in, she naturally would have no other thought than marrying her daughters to a man in “good fortune” who will be able to afford a home for both of them. This is also the reason why Mrs Bennet does not mind her second eldest daughter, Elizabeth, getting married to Mr Collins, her husband’s cousin and clergyman, who will hire the house the Bennet family lives in. Actually, Mrs Bennet finds Mr Collin “odious” (46), “hypocritical” (46) and a “false friend” (46), and therefore he would under no circumstance be a good party for her Elizabeth, but the fact of him being the hire of Longbourne, makes her allow him to propose to Elizabeth. Actually, this shows that people of the middle class sometimes will have to act strangely or even like a caricature (Blumenroth. 2006: 17) in order to climb the social ladder. The characters in the story that are positioned on a higher level of society, on the other hand, are definitely presented sarcastically by the implied author herself, or...
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