Sunday, December 19, 2010

Jane Austen – a Moralist, Satirist & Humorist in Pride and Prejudice

Introduction: In P&P Elizabeth tells Darcy, “Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me. I own, and I laugh 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 favorite 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 behavior are the subject matter of P&P, but Jane Austen’s humor is never cynical. She observes these human follies are a pleasant and ridiculous aspect of life which is not seriously harmful.. Jane Austen was a moralist, an eighteenth century moralist. In some respects she was the last and finest flower of that century. She was born a few years later than Wordsworth, Coleridge and Scott. When she died, Byron was famous and Shelley and Keats had already published. She belongs to the period known as the Romantic Revival or Revival of Imagination, but these don’t suit her. Her Novels belong to the age of Johnson and Cowper.
Humor in P&P: of her novels, P&P makes us laugh a lot. Jane Austen had a peculiar fondness of the people who make a fool of themselves. The absurd side of a matter usually struck Jane Austen first. Lydia excites laughter with her flippant and reckless behavior; Marry makes us laugh with her inappropriate and high flowing speeches. Darcy is absurd in his pride and so is Elizabeth in her prejudice. Miss Bingley is absurd in her dotting upon Darcy, in agreeing upon all his opinions. Charlotte Lucas is absurd in a choice of her husband. Jane is absurd in her judgment and Bingley in his simple-mindedness.
Humor in comic situations and language: Mrs. Bennet provides the most amusement – the protestations she makes to her husband about her frequent nervous breakdowns, her unending boasting to establish to establish a social position and her vulgarity and follies.  Collins is another pompous character. He as the knack of overdoing every thing. The scene in which he proposes to Elizabeth is one of the greatest comic scenes 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. The exchange of congratulations between Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins is particularly amusing. Mr. Bennet’s wit and attitude to his family cause amusement as also Lady Catherine’s exaggerated pride and pomposity. It is not only characters, but also language which excites laughter. Mr. Bennet’s wit and sarcastic remarks are particularly comic. When he is told of Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins, 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 Collins and I will not see you again if you do.” Much of the humor in the novel is a result of irony. Prof. Chevalier remarks, “The basic feature of every irony is a contrast between appearance and reality.”  Irony being an instrument of revealing the difference between appearance and reality is always a source of amusement. As an Ironist, she stands unique among many writers. Irony is the very soul of Jane Austen’s novels and P&P is steeped in irony of them, situation, character and narration. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” The very sentence is tinged with humor and inverted irony. As Dorothy Van 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 interesting twists to the story.
Irony – the foundation of humor: (Thematic Irony) Elizabeth tells Bingley that intricate characters are the most amusing. But Andrew Wright points out that “on the ironic level P&P concerns itself with intricacy and simplicity as those terms apply to personality. Each has its virtues and each its defects.” This type of thematic irony runs through all her novels. (Irony of Situation ) P&P is much deeper in this type of irony. Darcy says that Elizabeth is not handsome enough to tempt him, but we relish in his statement when he propose to her. He removes Bingley from Netherfield because he considers it prudent to forge a marriage with the Bennet family, but he himself ends up marrying the second Bennet sister. Collins proposes to Elizabeth when her heart is full of Wickham and Darcy proposes to her when she hates him most. Elizabeth tells Collins that she is not the type to reject the first proposal and accept the second but does exactly this when Darcy when he proposes to her second time. The departure of militia from Meryton was expected to put an end to Lydia’s flirtations, it brings about her elopement. Lady Catherine in her attempts to stop Elizabeth-Darcy marriage only hastens it. (Irony of Character) Irony of character is even more prominent than that of situation. It is ironical that Elizabeth who prides herself on her perception is quite blinded by her own prejudices and errs badly in judging intricate characters. Wickham appears charming and noble, but is ironically an unprincipled rogue. Darcy appears proud and haughty, but ironically proves to be a gentle man when he gets Wickham to marry Lydia by paying him. Darcy is critical of Bennet’s behavior, but ironically his aunt is no different.
Jane Austen’s moral purpose: She is indeed a classic novelist.  Every thing shows a delicacy of touch, a sense of balance, a sever reasonableness, a harmony of the mind in which intellect is paramount.  There is no unrestrained emotion or excess of passion as in the Romanticism. There is hardly any description of nature as in Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. Even if there is a mention of a place or nature, it is too brief. There is apathy towards the peasants and other lower classes. In P&P, there is no reference towards the peasants, servants or workers. This is totally unlike the age of Romanticists who glorified poor characters. Thus Jane Austen is more akin to the eighteenth century than the nineteenth century both in the choice of a subject and in her technique and excellent skill and precision in craftsmanship. She owed much more to Fielding. Her novels represent a feminization of Fielding’s. In her own way, she adapted and carried further Fielding’s dramatic method of presenting action through a succession of short scenes and dialogues. Jane Austen like Fielding is a moralist and satirist.
Her Moral Vision: The chief aspect of Jane Austen’s eighteenth century sensibility is the moralistic bias of her vision. As Walter Allan comments, “She is, with Dr. Johnson, the most forthright moralist in English, and the authority which comes we feel, from vast experience of life, a massive common sense, and an integrity determined to face all the facts of life without seeking refuge in illusion is hers too. ” Indeed, there is no hint of idealizing or romanticizing her characters. All her characters are perfect, but share common human follies and faults.  Pope’s dictum, “Know thyself!”  underlines the theme of each of her work. (Briefly state the developing and changing situations of pride etc. in the novel and also analysis of major characters).  Her moral concern though unobtrusive, is ever present. The marriages of Lydia-Wickham, Collins and Catherine and of the Bennets serve to show by their failure the propriety of Darcy-Elizabeth marriage. There is also condemnation of the moral irresponsibility of Mr. Bennet and his family. Her eighteenth century moral concern of man in relation to society is also evident in P&P. However, a complacent adherence to accepted social attitudes is not what Jane Austen emphasizes. Though P&P is a comedy, but it is a very serious one. She exposes the absurdities of her characters to a moral purpose. Lord David Cecil points out that, “Jane Austen is profoundly moral” and describes her world view point as moral-realistic. There is always a moral and ethical element in her novels. As Andrew Wright suggests that on the didactic level, her novels can be taken as the broad allegories in which sense, sensibility, pride and prejudice and a number of other virtues and defects are set forth. In P&P, Lady Catherine’s snobbery is ridicule, Mr. Collins pretentiousness is mocked at, and Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice are ridiculed. As A.C. Bradley says, “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.” Since as ironist has to be a detached observer of life, Leonie Villard and Marvin Mudrick conclude that Jane Austen is merely an amused and attentive spectator and she doesn’t seek to interpret life and doesn’t have any moral vision. But Andrew Wright says, “Irony in her hands is the instrument of moral vision.” Thus, in her moralistic vision, in her emphasis on organic unity of society, in her style and craftsmanship, in her diction and in her avoidance of romantic elements such as individualism and beauty of nature, she is truly the last exquisite blossom of the eighteenth century. 

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Anonymous said...

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