“Austen’s comedy participates in the Western tradition of komos –that is, comedy as a revelry in mischief. Liberated from what Charles Lamb calls “the burden of a perpetual moral questioning,” Austen’s mischievous humor specializes in truths uncongenial to the sentimentally-based morality of the novel of courtship and marriage, but fundamental for the moral clarity and complexity of her comic art.”
Only Jane Austen devotees are likely to have read all her novels, but there is hardly anybody who has not read “Pride and Prejudice”. It is unquestionably the most entertaining of her mature works. There had never been anything like it before, not have its innumerable imitators been able to come anywhere near its level. Its popularity rests undoubtedly on the brilliance of its characterizations, the ebullience of its wit, the universal humanity of its psychology, the nimble elegance of its style, and the irresistible comedy of its dialogue and plot.
Of the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, her creator wrote: I must confess that I think her as a delightful a creature as ever appeared in print,” and one cannot but agree with her. Nor can one disagree with one of Jane Austen’s biographers, Elizabeth Jenkins, when she acclaims Mr. Bennet as “one of the most remarkable figures in the whole range of English comedy” and salutes the creation of “the character of a genuinely witty man” as a unique feat. Mr. Bennet,s aesthetic delight in the pompous foolishness and clumsy scheming of the sanctimoniously sycophantic Mr. Collins will forever be shared by all readers. Although every actor in the comedy in brilliantly characterized, Jane Austen surpassed herself in the terse delineation of young mary, the intellectual in the Bennet family: “They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough bass and human nature.”
…To begin with the simpler one, “merit”: Austen writes, “I do not like the Miss Blackstones; indeed I was always determined not to like them, so there is the less merit in it” (9 January 1799). The line presents disliking people, depreciating them, as meritorious, though if you are determined in advance against liking people, actually disliking them is the less praiseworthy. Spontaneous dislike, spontaneous denigration of others, is the assumed virtue: Austen loves the way we tend to be proud of our faults, our prejudices, our
foolish hasty judgments. She offers to us here in one sentence a condensation of the whole comedy of Pride and Prejudice, but we see the humor of claiming inappropriate merit in various sentences from some of the novels…. ( Jane Austen letters to Cassandra. Jan Fergus )
Reading “Pride and Prejudice” is like drinking a bottle of champagne. “Elizabeth loved absurdities,” says Jane Austen, and “pride and Prejudice” brims over with such an abundance of bubbling absurdities that the happy reader, with his nostrils tingling and his mind defogged, is likely to mistake it for a mere comedy of manners and to fall in love with all the characters indiscriminately. Jane Austen’s novels are amusing enough if read on the surface, but they yield a richer reward if reread thoughtfully.
The inhabitants of Meryton and its environs, each with his enduring weakness, are no means uniformly lovable. Most of them are excruciating bores- it is jane Austen’s unique talent to make bores entertaining; in addition Mr. Bennet is a weakling; Mrs. Bennet is not only a disastrous fool who threatens the happiness of the family, she also has the ideals of a brothel keeper; the younger Bennet sisters, in separate ways, are silly geese; Charlotte lucas is a girl who sells her soul for security; Mr. Collins, whom Charlotte marries, is am an with a soul of a lackey and the potentialities of a tyrant; Mr. Wickham, by no means the worst of the lot, is a bounder; Mr. Bingley, with his excellent dispsition, is a character remarkable for the fact that he has no character at all; lady Catherine de Bourgh, who likes to scold her tenants into harmony and plenty,” is Arrogance personified.
“Austen’s witty humor was influenced by the Restoration-style wit of Georgian comedies. Offering an alternative to the qualities of sensibility common in the heroines of fiction, the witty heroine of English comedy served as a model for Austen’s comic heroines. Focusing on the Juvenilia and Lady Susan , … shows that in addition to the acclaimed burlesque of the sentimental heroine, Aust
enerates another kind of humor from the exploits of female mischief-makers whose egotism and other morally-questionable but engaging qualities appeal to us. The spirit of komos peaks in Pride and Prejudice and Emma : our enjoyment of mischievous humor makes us complicit with the comically-misbehaving heroines, so we do not wish to see Elizabeth’s love of witty sparring or Emma’s charismatic narcissism sacrificed to moral reformation.”…
Of the truly sympathetic characters, Jane Bennet is too good- a fault deliberately intended by the author: she finds excuses for everybody, and her sister Elizabeth tells her, “You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity.” Only two among the leading characters possess the qualities of principle and integrity: Elizabeth herself and Mr. Darcy. And because they possess them and are not, like the others, static and unchangeable they are ultimately able to transcend their respective faults-Mr. Darcy his aristocratic pride, ùElizabeth her middle-class prejudices against the aristocracy.
Anyone who has read Forster’s novels knows that Forster makes the birth of a child almost sacramental, worshipful—think of the babies in Where Angels Fear to Tread or in Howards End. So no wonder he hears the whinnying of harpies in Austen’s very carnal, very irreverent line about a woman who has miscarried. The humor arises centrally, I think, from one word, “unawares”: without it “I suppose she happened to look at her husband” would not be so funny. “Unawares” yokes the mind to the body. It implies—comically—that in this case the female body can be unsettled by the female mind’s contemplation of the male body without adequate preparation. Sightings have to be fully conscious not to be frightful. Since wives can unfortunately scarcely avoid looking at husbands, particularly if they are to produce children, Austen’s sentence implies that conception is only possible for the female body if the female mind is shrouded in darkness.
It’s hard, unpacking the word “unawares,” not to conjure years of Mrs. Hall’s summoning full consciousness, complete stolid
preparation, for any glimpse of the conjugal body—so that at one careless, unprepared look all the hard, dark work of fertility is undone. It may seem extreme to get so much out of a single word, and
There is only one other character in the book who is truly respectable-Elizabeth Bennet’s uncle, Mr. Gardiner, who plies some “low” trade in the City- like Jane Austen’s brother, the banker Henry Austen- and who, to his niece’s great surprise, wins the unqualified esteem and friendship of the haughty Mr. Darcy.
“Like Forster,( E.M. Forster ) most male analysts of comedy find aggression and hostility. Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan analyzed laughter as “sudden glory” and in those two words we get two important elements, suddenness (or the unexpected) and glory (or the sense of superiority—as when we laugh when someone else falls, slips on a banana peel). Sigmund Freud analyzes the unconscious release of tension and aggression in jokes; one example that he considers is when a joke is triangulated, as when two men make a sexual joke about a woman, bonding over her humiliation. And certainly, we can see some of this aggression and hostility in Austen’s humor, both in the novels and in the letters.
Cassandra and Austen are united together in laughing over the frightful Mr. Hall of Sherborne, or over their unpleasant aunt. And
we can also see in the letters what Freud calls humor, distinguishing it from jokes: humor discharges pain rather than hostility. It is a coping strategy, a distancing strategy: instead of getting angry at what is causing pain, the humorist finds something to laugh at, which sounds very like what I’ve been calling Austen’s perverse hopes, her delight in taking pleasure in displeasure. And some analysts of comedy from the Greeks onward focus on its celebration of community and fertility—its conclusion with marriage, its alignment with demands that, as Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing puts it, “the world must be peopled.”
I don’t see this sort of community in the humor of Austen’s letters; I see instead the community of two, generally between Austen and Cassandra, laughing together at the absurdity of their social world. Whether their humor is discharging aggression or distancing pain, or even more, whether it allows them to laugh at themselves and one another, it depends on their deep connection, their full understanding of each other (and of other people) and cements that connection and understanding, that complete intimacy. For me, that’s what humor and laughter do, especially the kinds that circle back on ourselves: not the whinnying of harpies but the whining of fully-conscious, self-aware human beings, in touch with our own absurdities. ( Jan Fergus )