Humour and Satire in Pride and Prejudice

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  • Created by: IQRA
  • Created on: 08-04-13 19:09

Humour background

It would be wrong to characterise Austen as a highly comic writer: much of what she has to say is serious and without ironical intent and 'the novel's principal characters are not especially amusing. Elizabeth can be mischievous and finds others entertaining; we laugh a little with her but never at her as the reader is always too close to Elizabeth's experience and perspective. Elizabeth finds Darcy amusing, in his supposed pride, for a very brief duration but soon regards him seriously, first with animosity, then, in due course, sympathy leading to affection.

The novel is of course, principally about Elizabeth and Darcy, though Austen clearly relishes the humour achieved in lampooning secondary characters. In portraying the developing relationship of the two lovers Austen clearly addresses a profound subject of perennial interest. The psychology of the relationship, though very familiar to us now, thanks to endless variations on this theme, especially beloved of film-makers, is highly plausible. Interestingly enough, the novel anticipates what one might call a feminist attitude.

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Satire background

Austen, despite or because of her sex, aims most of her satire at women. Her favourite target seems to be the small-mindedness of the sex, the typical preoccupation with fashion, comfort and domestic security. Men are also ridiculed, but more for their individual failings. Perhaps the exaggerated and undignified self-abasement of Collins and, to some extent, Sir William Lucas, is a more widespread fault, as, perhaps, is the philistinism of Hurst and the avarice of Wickham.

The principal, most widespread and most obvious form of humour in the novel is satire - lampooning by means of caricature or exaggeration customs and attitudes that the author disapproves, or characters who embody these hated attitudes.

Austen also has an eye for the absurd in human behaviour, and we meet, in the pages of the novel, a number of memorably silly characters who go beyond stereotypes: the best of these are probably Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine and Mr. Wickham. In some cases, Austen will use her chief character, Elizabeth, to point this ridicule, while in others she allows the absurdity to manifest itself. Mr. Bennet is also used as a more detached commentator on the society he evidently despises and from which he holds aloof.

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Collins' praise of Lady Catherine would be more admirable if it were disinterested and an expression of true loyalty. It is abhorrent because it is merely the sycophantic grovelling of a man whose lack of principle belies his clerical office, and who knows on which side his bread is buttered. In showing this folly Austen uses the humour of satire. And what is being satirised has not disappeared: small-mindedness, snobbery, hypocrisy, egotism, flattery are as active now as they ever were; only the circumstances of their expression change.

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characters cont

Though Austen attempts, in this novel, to depict honestly fashionable society and its etiquette, she is not uncritical of this world. Her criticism is, however, always very subtle and often more implicit, than explicit. She does not, as an author, tend to pass judgement on social institutions or manners, but may depict them in a humorous and unflattering light. In describing a character she may be critical, but, again, the fullest ridicule is occasioned not by this, but by what the characters do and say.

Collins is ridiculous in his person and bearing. Though young in fact, he is so pedantic he seems ancient. He is gauche, and appears rather awkward. He has little idea of how to court women and strikes them as ridiculous. He drops frequent heavy hints (“At present I will not say more...”) about his intentions towards the young women. He is excessively formal, as well as windy, in his speech. Mr. Collins is also responsible for one of Austen's running gags - his obsequious sycophantic deference to Lady Catherine, his patron. This works rather in the manner of the shaggy dog story. Everything about Lady Catherine and her estate at Rosings excels: her taste, wisdom and generosity are beyond compare. Whether the deference is due to self-interest alone, or whether Collins by now really believes his own propaganda, is not clear. Lady Catherine certainly enjoys good value from her nominee and as Collins speaks so well of her she is ready to believe him to be fairly wise.

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Characters cont

The reader is at first overwhelmed by the extravagance of Collins' praise, then, as we come to know him better, suspicious. When we see Lady Catherine for ourselves we are both surprised by her failure remotely to merit so much praise and not, after all, surprised as we see that she is a fit object for the praise of so foolish a man. Collins figures more prominently in the early part of the novel than later, though we do find rather amusing the way his new wife manages him. At Hunsford, Collins is almost invisible to Elizabeth. Charlotte has contrived to keep his and her paths and daily routine as separate as possible. Collins seems not to object to this arrangement (though they are at some point intimate enough with one another for Collins to beget an heir). Mr. Collins's ineffectual parting shot, like his first salvo, comes in the form of a letter - this time he warns Elizabeth against marriage to Darcy “which has not been properly sanctioned”, by Lady Catherine's approval. He concludes with his most uncharitable observations about Lydia. Mr. Bennet is moved by this letter to observe that Collins (as a source of amusement) is even more excellent than Wickham.

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Paul Dutton

A useful set of notes on an important aspect of the novel.  Good for higher tier.


SO SO Helpful! Thank You

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