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Monday, 2 December 2019

Write an essay on the humour of Jane Austen with reference to Pride and Prejudice

In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth tells Darcy,  ".....Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me. I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can." Jane Austen shares this comic vision with her favorite heroine. A. C. Bradley rightly points out in his book. A Miscellany : "Jane Austen's favourite attitude we may even say her instinctive attitude is that of the humorist. The foibles, illusions, self-contradictions, of human nature are a joy to her for their own sake". Whenever her characters deviate from the standard code, they become butts of ridicule. The incongruities and inconsistencies of human behaviour are the subject matter of Pride and Prejudice. But Jane Austen's humour is never cynical. She observes these human absurdities as a pleasant, ridiculous aspect of life which are not seriously harmful.
Jane Austen

Humour in Pride and Prejudice:

Of her novels perhaps Pride and Prejudice makes us laugh most. As we find in this novel, Jane Austen had a peculiar fondness for people who make a fool of themselves. The absurd side of a matter usually struck Jane Austen first. Humour touches and illuminates all the characters in Pride and Prejudice. Lydia excites laughter by flippant and reckless behaviour. Mary makes us laugh because of her high flowing pedantic speeches in the wrong context. Darcy is absurd in his pride and Elizabeth in her prejudice. Miss Bingley is absurd in doting upon Darcy, in agreeing with all his opinions, laughing when he does and feeling sad when he is sad. Charlotte Lucas is absurd in her choice of a husband. Jane is absurd in her judgement and Bingley in his simple-mindedness.

Mrs. Bennet as a Comic Character:

Mrs. Bennet is absurd in more than one thing and provides much amusement. The innumerable complaints about the entail of the Longbourn estate, unending boasting to establish her social position, the protestations to her husband about her nervous breakdown and the vulgarity which goes into supporting the actions of her junior daughters, all go to prove the follies and absurdities of her character.

The Comic Fool:

The pompous ways of Collins are particularly laughable. He has the knack of overdoing everything-----be it flattery, courtesy or humility. The sense in which he proposes to Elizabeth is one of the greatest comic senses of the novel. His reasons for marrying are absurd; so is his cocksureness that he will be accepted. He interprets Elizabeth's rejection as encouragement, which exasperates Elizabeth but amuses the readers. The exchange of congratulations between Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins is particularly, amusing.

Amusing Incidents:

Mr. Bennet's wit and attitude to his family cause amusement as also Lady Catherine's exaggerated pride and Pomposity. There is humour too in the incidents of the novel. When Miss de Bourgh drove past the vicarage, Sir William Lucas, 'to Elizabeth's high diversion, was stationed in the door-way, in earnest contemplation of the greatness before him, and constantly bowing whenever Miss de Bourgh looked that way.' A few pages later, we hear that he was uncommonly silent at Lady Catherine's table: 'Sir William did not say very much. He was storing his memory with anecdotes and nobles' names.'

Humour through Language:

It is not just characters and incidents but the language too of 'pride and prejudice' which is "light and bright and sparkling." Mr. Bennet's wit and sarcastic humour are particularly comic. When he is told of Elizabeth's refusal of Mr. Collins' proposal, he says "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth from this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins and I will not see you again if you do".

Much of the humour in Pride and Prejudice proceeds from the pervasive use of irony in the novel. Irony being an instrument of revealing the difference between appearance and reality is always a source of amusement. The very first sentence is tinged with humour and inverted irony: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." But as Dorothy Van Ghent remarks, "what we read in it is its opposite----a single woman must be in want of a man with a good fortune". The moment we understand the implied irony of the first sentence we are in the comic world of Jane Austen. The irony gives very interesting twists to situations. Thus, it is amusing to see Caroline Bingley frustrating her own chances by maligning Elizabeth in Darcy's eyes or Lady Catherine expediting their marriage by trying to prevent it.

Pride and Prejudice as a Serious Comedy:

But it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that to draw an amusing picture of her contemporary society, to expose the absurdities of characters is Jane Austen's only purpose in writing her novels. Pride and Prejudice is a serious comedy. The incidents, situations, dialogues and characters imply something beyond what they mean. It is true that the moral in her novels is unobtrusive, there is no obvious didacticism, but no discerning reader can miss the ethical strain in her novels. Lord David Cecil points out that Jane Austen is 'profoundly moral' and describes her world view as moral-realistic. Andrew H. Wright also talks of the 'moral concern, perplexity and commitment' of Jane Austen.

The Moral and Ethical Element:

Andrew H. Wright suggests that on the didactic level, her novels can be taken as 'broad allegories, in which sense, sensibility, pride, prejudice, and a number of other virtues and defects are set forth in narrative form and commented on in this way.' Pride and Prejudice portrays the dangers of excessive pride and blind prejudice. All the amusing incidents in the novel also admit to a moral interpretation. Mr. Bennet's wit exhibits a lack of moral responsibility towards his family and it is reprehensible that he is ready to buy his personal peace even at the cost of family honour by allowing Lydia to go to Meryton and thus, making it possible for her to elope. Mr. Bennet's irresponsibility coupled with Mrs. Bennet's vulgarity and mean understanding, underline their inadequacy as parents and by implication the unsuitability of their marriage. The Collins-Charlotte marriage based only on economics and prudence and the Lydia-Wickham marriage based merely on passion, serve to highlight by contrast the propriety of Elizabeth's marriage with Darcy based on true love and understanding. This points to Jane Austen's ethical view of love and marriage.
             
In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine's snobbery is ridiculed, Mr. Collins pretentiousness is mocked at, Caroline Bingley's duplicity is censured; Wickham's cunning is condemned; even Darcy's pride and Elizabeth's prejudice are made fun of. On the other hand Jane's sincerity, Darcy's magnanimity and true nobleness, Elizabeth's restraint and the Gardiner's refinement are held up for approval by Jane Austen. Thus, it is possible to derive a set of moral virtues which Jane Austen thinks are worthy of being cultivated. Her novels as much instruct as they amuse and we can agree with A. C. Bradley that 'There are two great distinct strains in Jane Austen. She is a moralist and humorist. Her view of life is comic, nevertheless there is a profoundly moral and ethical strain to it.

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