Essay, Research Paper: Laughter In Austen

Literature: Jane Austen

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a
good fortune must be in want of a wife.” What we read is just the opposite; a
single woman must be in want of a man with a good fortune. In this first line of
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice we are at once introduced to language rich
with satire. The comic tendencies displayed in the novel’s language introduce
a theme very important to the novel—the character’s laughter and their
attitudes towards laughter as an index to their morality and social philosophy.
Beginning with Darcy’s opinion, expressed early in the novel, that Miss Bennet
“smiled too much,” attitudes towards laughter divide the characters. Most
obviously Darcy, all “grave propriety,” is opposed to Elizabeth, who has a
“lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous.” We
tend to consider Elizabeth’s position the normative—more closely aligned
with modern theories of humor. She laughs at hypocrisy, vanity, pretension, the
gap between statement and action, and between theory and practice. On the other
hand, Darcy takes a conservative attitude toward laughter. His taciturn
disposition and unwillingness to be the butt of mirth are clearly described. He
tells those assembled in the Netherfield drawing room that “it has been the
study of his life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong
understanding to ridicule.” But the deficiencies of this view, evident enough
in Darcy’s own demeanor, are revealed in the parodies of it which appear in
the novel. Everywhere in Pride and Prejudice, pompous gravity is laughed out of
existence. In the absurdly formal utterances of a Mary Bennet or a Mr. Collins
(neither of whom is ever known to laugh), Austen demonstrates that a total lack
of humor has effects the reverse of what a situation demands. One example of
this is in Mr. Collins’ parody of the prodigal son in his letter of
“consolation” to Mr. Bennet on news of Lydia’s elopement: “Let me advise
you…to console yourself as much as possible, to throw off your unworthy child
from your affection forever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous
offence.” Yet another example is Mary’s formulaic response to the same
event: “we must stem the tide of malice, and pour into the wounded bosoms of
each other, the balm of sisterly consolation.” The humor of these characters
lies in their unawareness of the claims of spontaneity in certain situations.
They can produce, instead, rote and “institutional” responses. In fact, Mr.
Collins admits to Mr. Bennet that he arranges beforehand “such little elegant
compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions.” Elizabeth’s attitude
is very different. In an early conversation, she and Miss Bingley form a
temporary alliance to poke fun at Darcy. Elizabeth desires to “Tease
him—laugh at him,” and to Miss Bingley’s demure and pompous refusal cries:
“Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at! That is an uncommon advantage, and
uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would such a great loss to me to have
so many such an acquaintance. I dearly love to laugh.” Elizabeth is a defender
of banter as a means of proving the worth of a person or idea. And when Darcy
later defends himself by pointing out that “the wisest and best of men, nay,
the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person
whose first object in life is a joke.” Elizabeth replies, “Certainly there
are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what
is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I
own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” When Darcy somewhat pontifically
distinguishes between pride and vanity, “Elizabeth turned away to hide a
smile…” Yet another points in the novel, Elizabeth’s view of humor does
not prevail as laughter becomes, on occasions, everything the grave Darcy
suggests it to be. Mr. Bennet, for example, employs his wit as an assertion of
superiority required by his sense of defeat: “For what do we live, but to make
sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” No less subversive
is Lydia’s laughter, however different her loud buffoonery is from her
father’s cool satire. Lydia’s laughter is excessive and silly, and beyond
this, her hyperboles (“Aye,” “Lord,”), her grammatical failures
(“Kitty and me were to spend the day there”), and her constant inattention
to the decorum required of the occasion (as when she interrupts Mr. Collins in
his reading of Fordyce), indicates vulgarity and selfishness. Lydia’s “wild
volatility” is attributable to her parents. Her father has not taken the
“trouble of checking her exuberant spirits” and her mother--who became a
member of the gentry only through marriage--again and again shows lack of the
“breeding” required by her new position. Lydia’s apparent exemption from
all restraint becomes a focus in the coach returning to Longbourn. As she
informs Mary Bennet on arrival “we were so merry all the home! We talked and
laughed so loud, that anybody might have heard us ten miles off.” Further
evidence of her indecorous conduct during the absence of her older sisters is
revealed in her description of a “piece of fun” recently enjoyed at colonel
Forster’s: We dressed up Chamberlayne in woman’s clothes, on purpose to pass
for a lady, only think what fun…When Denny, and Wickham, and Pratt, and two or
three more of the men came in, they did not know him in the least. Lord! How I
laughed! I thought I should have died. The chaos that Lydia introduces into
previously ordered structures are evident in her speech and manners long before
she runs off with Wickham. But it is this assertion of her “liberty” that
reveals Jane Austen taking a more conservative view of humor. In the letter that
Lydia writes to Harriet Forster following her elopement, the laughter motif
finds its climax, as Lydia’s determination to see everything without exception
as hilarious gives every reason for viewing laughter with suspicion: You will
laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your
surprise tomorrow morning, as soon as I am missed…You need not send word to
Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the
greater, when I write them, and sign my name Lydia Wickham. What a good joke it
will be! I can hardly write for laughing…. The moral chaos of Lydia’s
character is revealed in her choice of correspondent (not her family but her
friend), in her motive for writing (not to dispel alarm, but to inspire
admiration), and in the transparent inconsistency of her avowals (within a
breath of her declared intention to love “but one man in the world,” she
expresses an interest in another). Serious as her action is, however, Lydia has
no sense of guilt. When she returns to Longbourn with Wickham, she is “Lydia
still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless,” and from the moment her
“voice is heard in the vestibule…and she runs into the room.” Lydia can
only observe “with a laugh, that it was a great while since she had been
there,” and “Wickham was not at all more distressed than herself” It is
clear the basically worthy orientations of Darcy and Elizabeth receive comment
in light of the perverse parodies of them that the novel provides. Almost all
the characters are illuminated by the laughter theme, which embraces a whole
series of discriminations of humor—joke, piece of fun, playfulness, good
humor, smile, wit, laughter, and so on, --serving to distinguish decorous from
indecorous action, moral from immoral motivations. In granting Elizabeth an
access to the significance of humor, Jane Austen reveals that her heroine has
learned to make ethical discriminations separately from subjective desires, to
distinguish between what is spontaneously permissible and what is immorally
subversive. Her intrinsic accessibility to such a recognition is show early,
when she “checked her laugh” on seeing that Darcy is really offended by
Bingley’s portrait of him as an “awful object” at Pemberley, and in later
conversation with Jane she shows that she has learned to view “wit” with
some suspicion: And yet I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a
dislike to him, without any reason. It is such a spur to one’s genius, such an
opening for wit to have a dislike of that kind. One may be continually abusive
without saying any thing just; but one cannot always be laughing at a man
without now and then stumbling on something witty…” She has come round
practically to repeating Darcy’s own view on the subject of wit. And when she
is married to Darcy, she comes to regulate her laughter somewhat: “She
remembered that he had yet to learn to be laught at.” Of course, Elizabeth
does not, thankfully, subdue her playfulness entirely, nor is it necessary that
she should. She will continue to shock Darcy’s passive and obedient sister by
the “lively, sportive, manner” in which she addresses Darcy, and she will
distinguish herself from Jane in a letter to her aunt by writing “she only
smiles, I laugh.”
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