In his 1954 essay “Mansfield Park,” Lionel Trilling, one of the 20th-century’s greatest public intellectuals and literary critics, writes:
Sooner or later, when we speak of Jane Austen, we speak of her irony, and it is better to speak of it sooner than later because nothing can so far mislead us about her work as a wrong understanding of this one aspect of it. Most people either value irony too much or fear it too much. This is true of their response to irony in its first simple meaning, that of a device of rhetoric by which we say one thing and intend its opposite, or intend more, or less, than we say. It is equally true of their response to irony in its derived meaning, the loose generalized sense in which we speak of irony as a quality of someone’s mind, Montaigne’s for example. Both the excessive valuation and the excessive fear of irony lead us to misconceive the part it can play in the intellectual and moral life. To Jane Austen, irony does not mean, as it means to many, a moral detachment or the tone of superiority that goes with moral detachment. Upon irony so conceived she has made her own judgment in the figure of Mr. Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, whose irony of moral detachment is shown to be the cause of his becoming a moral nonentity.
Jane Austen’s irony is only secondarily a matter of tone. Primarily it is a method of comprehension. It perceives the world through an awareness of its contradictions, paradoxes, and anomalies. It is by no means detached. It is partisan with generosity of spirit – it is on the side of “life,” of “affirmation.” But it is preoccupied not only with the charm of the expansive virtues but also with the cost at which they are to be gained and exercised. This cost is regarded as being at once ridiculously high and perfectly fair. What we may call Jane Austen’s first or basic irony is the recognition of the fact that spirit is not free, that it is conditioned, that it is limited by circumstance. This, as everyone knows from childhood on, is indeed an anomaly. Her next and consequent irony has reference to the fact that only by reason of this anomaly does spirit have virtue and meaning.
In irony, even in the large derived sense of the word, there is a kind of malice. The ironist has the intention of practicing upon the misplaced confidence of the literal mind, of disappointing expectation. Jane Austen’s malice of irony is directed not only upon certain of the characters of her novels but also upon the reader himself.
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But there is one novel of Jane Austen’s, Mansfield Park, in which the characteristic irony seems not to be at work. Indeed, one might say of this novel that it undertakes to discredit irony and to affirm literalness, that it demonstrates that there are no two ways about anything. […] We cannot say that the novel is without irony—we must say, indeed, that its irony is more profound than that of any of Jane Austen’s other novels. It is an irony directed against irony itself
— The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Select Essays
- The Atlantic: Nathan Glick, The Last Great Critic. Lionel Trilling believed that politics needed the imaginative qualities of literature and that liberalism needed literature’s sense of “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty”
- The New Yorker: Louis Menand, Regrets Only. Lionel Trilling and his discontents.