Fortunate Falls: Three Novels By Jane Austen

Young, Timothy
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University of Hawaii at Manoa
The following essays are three attempts to locate Jane Austen in the contemporary critical discussion of irony--a discussion which has been dominated over the last fifteen years by the work of Paul de Man. Austen provides a compelling alternative to de Man's deconstructive mode of criticism, a criticism which is firmly grounded in a radical conception of irony. I will attempt to show how Austen shares de Man's concerns but also how she departs from him, taking the insight of irony and redesignating it as a social phenomenon. Hence, I will not simply deny, explain away, or subsume de Man's competing notion of irony, but rather I hope to challenge it by reading Austen as a serious contributor to contemporary dialogue. I will deal with three of Austen's novels--Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion--because each contains a scene in which a moment of ironic self-consciousness becomes crucial to the development of a character's ability to interpret his or her world. What a character like Elizabeth Bennet undergoes after reading Darcy's letter in Pride and Prejudice looks very much like what a literary critic, in Frank Lentricchia's words, experiences in an act of reflection: It is the moment of unrestrained doubt, when we feel utterly unjustified in doing anything, when we question everything, when what we do seems to us to have unacceptable consequences or (horribly) no consequences at all for our lives as social beings, when we don't know what to put in place of what we've been doing, when we come to distrust putting anything in place of our old habits.
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