In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen expertly uses the four types of irony–verbal, situational, dramatic, and cosmic–to enhance her writing. Throughout the story, irony is used in a number of ways to help create tension, progress the plot, introduce characters, and even serve as a form of social commentary on Austen’s part. In fact, irony is so prevalent that it seems as if it were Austen’s go-to literary device for exhibiting characteristics and plot points in her novel. When a new character is introduced, for example, Austen uses irony to describe them and their families.
As she explores and creates he love stories in the novel, irony is used to create tension as well as keep readers guessing. A great example of irony in Sense and Sensibility occurs during an argument between Marianne and Elinor. Both girls are exasperated with one another, knowing not how to communicate when they both have secrets to hide. Elinor assures Marianne she has “nothing to tell” (138), to which Marianne responds, “Our situations then are alike. We have neither of us anything to tell; you because you communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing” (138).
This statement is deeply ironic because Marianne is proclaiming one hing despite both girls understanding how Marianne’s words are really pointing at the fact that neither one is doing what they usually do; Marianne, typically one to speak her mind as the quote suggests, is instead withholding her emotions and hopes regarding Willoughby from her sister. Similarly, Elinor, who usually instills her sense to help her communicate, is hiding her emotional distress over Edward from her sister.
The use of verbal irony in this scene allows Austen to bring readers’ attention to how distant the two sisters have become since keeping secrets from one another. It also serves the purpose of creating a great deal of tension between the sisters, as is reflected in the following lines; “Elinor, distressed by this charge of reserve in herself, which she was not at liberty to do away, knew not how, under such circumstances, to press for greater openness in Marianne” (138). In addition to verbal irony, there is also a great deal of situational irony in Sense and Sensibility, especially as seen in Marianne’s love life.
At the start of the novel, Marianne is adamant about what she wants and yet is convinced that no man will ever satisfy her. Speaking to her other, she says: I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feeling: the same books, the same music must charm us both… I require so much! (15) The first piece of situational irony regarding this quote comes into play with Willoughby’s character. Possessing every quality Marianne could conceive of to make her perfect man, Willoughby is the picture of perfection in her eyes.
Because of this, Marianne believes them to be a perfect match for one another. When things do not go as planned, it is as much a surprise to Marianne as it is to the eader. This shocking turn of events is a classic indicator of situational irony. The irony doesn’t stop there, though. The man Marianne ends up marrying is nothing like the man she described or expected to marry. Again, this is situational irony in that it is unexpected considering the statements Marianne made to her mother early on.
Without the use of irony in Marianne’s love life, her story would have been two- dimensional; the situational irony creates a sort of tension that helps progress Marianne’s story arc. An arguably more awkward example of irony can be found in the second book of Sense and Sensibility when Edward finds himself in a conversation with both Lucy and Elinor, his fiance and the woman he loves. The result is a scene full of dramatic irony, which is when the audience (sometimes with the addition of specific characters) are aware of something which the other characters are ignorant to.
This is an example of dramatic irony because both women must pretend not to know that Elinor is aware of the secret engagement between Edward and Lucy, Edward is completely unaware of Elinor’s knowledge of his relationship status, and all are unaware of each other’s true eelings towards the other people in the room. This situation is amplified when Elinor brings Marianne into the mix, a fourth party who is unaware of everything aside from Edward’s and Elinor’s feelings for one another, which neither will admit to.
The only character who happening (to everything aside from Edward’s true feelings, that is) is Elinor. “So anxious was [Elinor], for his sake and her own, to [pretend to know nothing], that she forced herself, after a moment’s recollection, to welcome [Edward], with a look and eems to be clued into what is manner that were almost easy, and almost open” (197). When Marianne enters the scene, the dramatic irony is only enhanced by the fact that no one is able to tell Marianne that Edward is engaged to Lucy, in order to keep up the expectation that it is a secret.
This results in Marianne making numerous comments that make everyone uncomfortable, despite Marianne’s ignorance as to why. Another layer of the dramatic irony is Elinor’s true feelings for Edward, lying hidden in secret from half the party as this encounter continues. Clearly, Austen used dramatic irony in this scene to build tension and create a sense of conflict in each character, pushing them all a little closer to heir breaking points and exposing how each reacts to this difficult situation.
Another way in which irony is prevalent in Sense and Sensibility is through the use of cosmic irony. A great example of this type of irony occurs at the expense of Fanny. Throughout the novel, it appears as if Fanny has an irrational distaste for the Dashwood girls. We first encounter her feelings towards them when the girls’ father dies; Fanny talks John out of giving his sisters any money from their father’s estate. From there, her distaste only seems to grow for the Dashwood sisters. It all comes to a head when John suggests they invite his sisters to stay with them at their house.
Fanny becomes desperate to avoid spending time with the two characters she cannot seem to stand to be around, making up a quick excuse to get out of it. “I would ask them with all my heart, if it was in my power. But I had just settled within myself to ask the Miss Steeles to spend a few days with us” (207), she says. This has disastrous results, however, as Lucy Steele is soon discovered to be engaged to Edward, Fanny’s dear brother. “You may think what a blow it was to all her vanity and pride. She fell into violent hysterics mmediately, with such screams as reached your brother’s ears” (211).
Fanny’s emotional response, while indicative of her distress over the engagement, is truly caused by her own actions. This type of irony is considered cosmic irony, commonly referred to as a kind of karma, because the aftermath of Fanny’s actions can be said to have resulted from her own actions of cruelty towards her sisters-in-law. In conclusion, Austen’s use of irony is what allowed her to progress the plot of Sense and Sensibility, while also providing her a way to incorporate her own humor and commentary regarding the characters she reated.
It is also part of the reason Sense and Sensibility has lasted this long; the irony provides layers of subtext which readers can examine to find new meaning within her words. The fact that Austen uses various different types of irony as well as how frequently she incorporates irony into her text also keeps her audience guessing and engaged in the words written. Without irony, Sense and Sensibility would simply be a story of two sisters finding love. With it, however, it becomes a love story full of Austen’s insightful commentary on the nature of love, marriage, communication, and more.