Laughter In AustenSense of Humor
?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.?