The overall style of Pride and Prejudice is ironic and witty. The narrator frequently makes remarks that may seem to mean one thing but actually mean another. One example of this style is the novel’s famous opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” This comment may seem to suggest that wealthy single men are eager to get married. However, the structure of the sentence asks the reader to think about who it is who universally acknowledges this truth and whether this truth is actually true. Another interpretation of the sentence is that some characters (usually women with single daughters like Mrs. Bennet) believe that eligible bachelors ought to want to get married but that the men themselves may be considerably less eager.
The speeches of various characters also contribute to the ironic style by creating gaps between what is literally being said and what the reader can interpret about the reality of the situation. Characters who lack self-awareness make statements that show they are out of touch with what is happening around them. For example, when Mrs. Bennet is trying to defend living in the country, she asserts that “I believe there are few neighborhoods larger. I know we dine with four and twenty families.” She intends for this remark to strengthen her argument by illustrating her sophistication and large social circle, but what it really reveals is her ignorance. Mr. Collins also makes statements that are directly opposed to what the reader understands is actually happening in the scene. For example, when he confidently tells Elizabeth that “I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long,” his speech suggests that he is on the way to persuading Elizabeth to marry him. This statement is, however, directly contradicted by what the reader knows about Elizabeth’s feelings, creating irony and also humor about Mr. Collins’s sense of self-importance.
More self-aware characters sometimes deliberately say things that reflect the opposite of what they are actually feeling. Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth are the two most frequent contributors to this kind of verbal irony. For example, when Mr. Bennet tells his wife that “if your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness, if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley,” he means the opposite of what he appears to be saying. He is actually implying that it is ridiculous for Mrs. Bennet to be so obsessed with Jane’s marriage that she is willing to jeopardize her daughter’s health. The expression of this perspective is meant to show the reader just how ridiculous it is. In this example, as in many others when Mr. Bennet speaks ironically to his wife, the irony is exaggerated even further because Mrs. Bennet is oblivious to the fact that her husband is making fun of her.
Elizabeth Bennet, like her father, regularly makes statements that do not reflect her true meaning. For example, when, discussing the Bingley sisters, she says to Jane, “Do clear them too or we shall be obliged to think ill of somebody,” she does not actually expect or want Jane to persuade her that nobody is at fault. In fact, Elizabeth is actually revealing that she has already made up her mind about the events being discussed and is firmly convinced that the Bingley sisters have behaved badly. One key difference between Elizabeth’s and Mr. Bennet’s use of this kind of verbal irony is that Elizabeth’s irony is often understood and appreciated by the characters to whom she speaks. Charlotte Lucas, Jane, and even Mr. Darcy realize that Elizabeth may mean the opposite of what she is saying, whereas Mrs. Bennet is usually oblivious to her husband’s irony.
Austen’s ironic style is important to the novel for two main reasons. First, the style adds vibrancy and interest to relatively straightforward plot events. The witty and ironic way in which Pride and Prejudice is written has always been a major part of its appeal, and therefore an appreciation of Austen’s style is essential to an appreciation of the novel. Second, the ironic style is linked to the themes of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Characters in the novel often misinterpret events and behavior, and this confusion tends to exist because of the frequent gaps between literal and actual meaning.