The Meaning of Fiction

By Albert Spaulding Cook | Go to book overview

III
MODES OF IRONY
JANE AUSTEN AND STENDHAL

Like reflexivity, irony is a formal device by which a literary work can contrast appearance with reality, and consequently novels often use it. Irony in poetry, indeed, when it has people in view, just by setting up an interaction of appearance and reality, makes its characters look much like those in novels. Juvenal's unscrupulous metropolitans, Pope's narcissistic socialites, Laforgue's starry-eyed sophistic languishers, could appear in fiction with minimum adjustment.

The forms of irony in the novel are various. One form is the irony of statement. Jane Austen's remark in Mansfield Park, "They had their faults, and Mrs. Norris soon found them out," implies many contrasts between appearances and realities. True, the Grants ("they") did have faults, but not of the sort Mrs. Norris, the most insensitive person in the novel, could appreciate. What Mrs. Norris considers a fault, extravagance about the table, has a relation, though unperceived by her, to the fault, the gluttony, of the Grants. They seek affection through some other means than the sole Austenian one of enlightened altruism, as does the greedy Mrs. Norris herself. The ironies of Jane Austen's statement touch on contrasts between Mrs. Norris' ignorance and her self-imputed wisdom, between Mrs. Norris

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