The exposure of vice

Critics repeatedly refer to Jane Austen's sparkling wit and subtle irony. In all her novels, she makes clever use of irony to expose the foolishness and faults of humanity while demonstrating the rewards of adhering to the moral code of her Anglican faith. The irony in Jane Austen's earlier novels - Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey - had a lighter tone, while in Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion, the irony has more serious overtones:

  • The overall tone of Persuasion is more melancholic than any of Jane Austen's other novels
  • Anne Elliot lacks the ironic humour of Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennett
  • Jane Austen hardly ever ridicules Anne
  • Anne is sometimes amused at her own shortcomings.

Establishing an ironic tone

The ironic tone of Persuasion is firmly set at the opening of the novel with the very pointedly satirical portrait of Sir Walter:

  • The reader is amused at the extent of his conceitedness and vanity
  • Through her mockery of Sir Walter, Jane Austen establishes her stance on vanity and pride
  • The continued ironic tone leads the reader to draw conclusions about the weaknesses in society that Sir Walter represents.

Jane Austen makes fun of most of the other characters in Persuasion from time to time. This is one of the main sources of irony in the novel:

  • Jane Austen draws attention to the relative ordinariness of the Musgrove sisters when she describes them as having ‘all the usual stock of accomplishments' and when Admiral Croft finds he can barely distinguish one from another
  • Mary's changeable moods and fickle opinions are amusing when her letters reveal a complete turnabout in her attitude to the Crofts
  • Mrs. Musgrove's size and exaggerated emotions are ridiculed through the description of her ‘large, fat sighings'.

Other uses of irony

Jane Austen employs other devices to build up the layers of irony in Persuasion:

  • Most commonly, the narrative can be interpreted on several levels. When one thing is said and another meaning intended, a comic effect is created, as when the narrator calls Sir Walter ‘a good father' in Chapter 1. We know she is being sarcastic to highlight that he is actually the opposite of this because he has previously been described as a ‘conceited, silly father' and his behaviour bears out this former description
  • There is often a gap between appearance and reality which is comically exposed. This happens when Lady Russell claims to be looking at the curtains, but the implication is that she was watching Captain Wentworth (Ch. 19 / Vol. 2, Ch. 7).
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.