THE BLOG
12/07/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Jane Austen Weekly: The Truth About Irony

These days, I'm having a lot of trouble with irony. Sometimes I'm even afraid of the concept. Imagine that -- a literature professor afraid of irony. Isn't that ironic?

Why am I afraid? First, there's the basic problem of definition. In most literary critical uses of "irony," M.H. Abrams writes, "there remains the root sense of dissimulation, or of a difference between what is asserted and what is actually the case." So far so good.

But things get tricky whenever you try to apply these terms. For instance, how come it's ironic when I say I am afraid of irony? There is no difference between what I have "asserted and what is actually the case." I am afraid of irony. The irony enters because I am an English professor and English professors are supposed to understand irony, not fear it. The irony enters because I have admitted an unexpected truth.

Partly I'm afraid because irony is so variable. In literature, there is cosmic irony, dramatic irony, Romantic irony, and verbal irony (to name a few). There is Socratic irony, which can be either literary or philosophical. And, according to Jonathan Lear's great book, A Case for Irony, philosophical irony subdivides into "the experience of irony," a "capacity for irony," and "ironic existence."

As if this weren't enough to make you want to pull your head off, consider the contradictory ways the word is currently used to describe America. A few weeks ago, Christy Wampole complained that irony is "the ethos of our age"; her op-ed went viral. Not so, responded Jonathan Fitzgerald: we're still in the "New Sincerity moment." After 9/11 Roger Rosenblatt famously wrote, "One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony." Five years later, Brian Unger described contemporary comedy as an "irony industrial complex." Two years after that, Joan Didion said America was an "irony-free zone." Ahhhhh!

Look, I don't know if we live in an age of irony or an age of sincerity. I'm just happy when I remember what year it is.

But this much I know is true. Austen is a master ironist. No novel better exemplifies Austen's irony -- or any irony for that matter -- than Emma. And in Austen's hands, irony is fundamentally good.

It is ironic that Emma believes Harriet Smith is too highborn to marry Mr. Martin when Harriet is illegitimate and Emma (like Cher in Clueless) is usually the most status-conscious girl in town. It is ironic (and unwittingly cruel) that Emma convinces Harriet that Mr. Elton is in love with her (Harriet) and then Mr. Elton proposes to Emma. It is ironic that despite her famed intelligence Emma doesn't see the proposal coming. Her brother-in-law, Mr. John Knightley, warns her about the possibility. But Emma walks off, "amusing herself" with "the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are forever falling into." It is ironic that Emma is accusing Mr. John Knightley when, unbeknownst to her, she is really describing herself!

It is ironic that after the debacle with Harriet, Emma vows to repress "imagination all the rest of her life" and then immediately launches into a fantasy about Jane Fairfax. Emma thinks Jane wants to steal the husband of Mrs. Dixon, Jane's best friend. Yet Jane is secretly engaged to Frank Churchill, with whom Emma is shamelessly flirting. From Jane's point of view, Emma is the potential husband thief. Meanwhile Harriet, who falls in love with Mr. Knightley, becomes Emma's potential husband thief. That is, Harriet is to Emma what Emma wrongly imagines Jane is to her best friend. Got that?

It is ironic that, after Emma cruelly insults Miss Bates at Box Hill, Mr. Weston obliviously describes Emma as the standard of "perfection." It is ironic that Emma seems threatened by Miss Bates even though Emma is young, "handsome, clever, and rich" and Miss Bates is "neither young, handsome, rich," nor clever.

The insult itself is too mean-spirited to be ironic. Miss Bates is painfully vulnerable and dependent on the kindness of neighbors. As Mr. Knightley puts it, "She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to." Emma loathes Miss Bates's non-stop talking and her endless (and sincere) professions of gratitude. At Box Hill, when Miss Bates self-deprecatingly prepares to say three "very dull" things, Emma says, "Pardon me -- but you will be limited as to number -- only three at once." Afterwards, Mr. Knightley lashes into Emma. "How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent... to a woman of her character, age, and situation?" Ironically, Emma does not even realize what she has done.

When the awareness is forced upon her, Emma is "vexed beyond what could have been expressed." This from a character who has (or so she thinks) lived "nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." "Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved at any circumstance in her life." Emma, who lives at "Hartfield" feels the heartlessness of her behavior "at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates?"

In A Case for Irony, Jonathan Lear describes an ideal form of "first personal" irony. It occurs when a person finds herself detached from her aspirations for -- and belief in -- herself. As human beings, Lear writes, we "make claims about who we are and the shape of our lives." Irony occurs when a person recognizes the inaccuracy of these claims. Tom Ashbrook tried to synthesize the point when he interviewed Lear. So, Ashbrook said, "Real irony" is "the gap between what we are actually doing and what we attest we ought to be doing." Yes, Lear said, but under the best circumstances, this irony is disturbing and anxiety-provoking. An individual is grabbed, shaken and disoriented by the recognition that the she is not the person she says she is and thought she was.

This is precisely what happens to Emma after she insults Miss Bates. Until this moment, Emma believed she had a "happy disposition," believed she could control everyone around her, and believed she was an essentially good person. Now Emma is so "depressed" she cries; she realizes she cannot even control herself, and she questions her very thoughts and character.

The good news about this irony, Lear says, is that it can be "as affirming as it is negating." Drawing on Kierkegaard, he writes, "It is constitutive of human excellence that one develop a capacity for appropriately disrupting one's understanding of what such excellence consists in." I take this to mean that to approach human excellence an individual must doubt her own capacity for human excellence and doubt that she even knows what human excellence is. (By this standard I, myself, am Mother Teresa.) Instead of encouraging detachment, Lear told Ashbrook, this kind of irony can foster a "deep re-commitment to the fundamental value with which we started."

Does Emma approach this kind of human excellence? I don't think so. She ends the novel re-committed to socioeconomic hierarchies and to the traditional values of marriage, not just for everyone else, but for herself. She marries Mr. Knightley who has been her surrogate mother and father and who has, as he tells Emma, "been in love with you ever since you were thirteen at least." These days he would be arrested.

But as for literary excellence, there is no doubt. Emma sets the standard of perfection. And it does so partly because of its mind-blowing irony.