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Laughable Issues and Lessons in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

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“Who wouldn’t want to be Elizabeth Bennet?” is perhaps one question that a reader of Pride and Prejudice would usually ask. As Jane Austen’s best-loved heroine, her “liveliness of mind,” independence, wit and vivacity are a delight to many. The best of it all is that she is able to attract the tall, handsome rich Darcy. Truly, who does not want to be her?

Yet, if one looks at the world of the novel, one cannot deny that Regency England is not a very friendly place for women. Beyond Austen’s neat fences were wars, revolutions and a mad king ruling England. It was a tumultuous time that called for sense as well as sensibility. Jane Austen exhibits both these characteristics well in all of her novels. Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility is a paragon of this as well as Elizabeth Bennet. Although Elizabeth does come in Netherfield Park with a muddy petticoat, she does not cross the borders of propriety like her three younger sisters. Sense is well employed in the novel through irony. Darcy himelf notes the inconsistency and power of Elizabeth’s ironic language: “ […] you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own” (134).

Irony refers to how a person, statement, circumstance or situation is not how it seems to be. The best example of this is actually the novel’s well-quoted first line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (1). In reality, women are generally the ones looking for men to be their husbands or son-in-laws. That statement basically summarizes the premise of the novel and the quest of the Bennet sisters. That is also true for Lizzy as she finds love and fortune in the course of the novel. As the novel progresses, this irony will deepen. In this essay, the manner of which issues such as the woman question, class mobility and marriage are ironically laughed instead of subversively protesting about them will be explored, particularly in Elizabeth Bennet’s experiences.

Even in the novel’s first sentence, one could see the goals of women in society at that time. The goal of almost every woman then was to marry a rich man and make her daughters marry rich men. Women were only intended to please men. In one drawing room conversation at Netherfield, Caroline Bingley lists the characteristics of an accomplished woman: must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions […] (29).

All these characteristics are the characteristics of a perfect hostess. Mr. Darcy adds to this: “the improvement of her mind by extensive reading” (29). All of these comments seem to amuse Elizabeth as she replies to both: “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any” (29). That shook the Bingley sisters’ nerves. Not only did that remark imply that they are not accomplished women but also it questions their very notion of accomplished women. The question of woman’s identity does neither arise in the novel that much nor is it answered, but like in that particular conversation, it is questioned.

            Marriage, as previously mentioned, is one of the main subjects of the novel as it follows the marriage conquests of the Bennet sisters. In Regency England, marriage is usually a business transaction. Few people marry for love. Many marry for security like Charlotte Lucas in marrying Mr. Collins. Before that event, readers are given a glimpse of Charlotte’s perspectives on marriage:

Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life (16).

Of Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins, Elizabeth could only “meditate upon Charlotte’s degree of contentment” (122). For Elizabeth, happiness in a marriage such as that is impossible, as she has daily proof of that in the marriage of her parents. There are not many happy marriages in the novel.

            Class mobility is interrelated with marriage in the novel. Women are not the only ones to marry rich but also men like Mr. Wickham, since one could move up the social ladder through marriage as some people do through trade like Mr. Bingley. Unfortunately, characters such as Lady Catherine like “to have the distinction of rank preserved” (124). The aristocratic Lady Catherine and Mr. Darcy show their hold on other classes through various deeds. As Lady Catherine controls Mr. Collins so does Darcy influence the noveau riche Bingley in interfering in Bingley’s relationship with Jane. Darcy’s concept of pride is linked to his class. The concept of pride in the novel is linked to honor and duty. Elizabeth herself assents: “you have chosen your fault well” (43). Though Elizabeth and the novel’s readers could laugh at Mr. Collins groveling over Lady Catherine or Ms. Bingley putting herself on display for Mr. Darcy, class conflict is obvious. Jane’s marriage to Bingley and Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy in the end does little to harmonize the relationship between these classes.

            Elizabeth laughs at those issues but as she experiences them she cannot deny that those issues are real in her world. At the middle of the novel, she learns that she is blinded by prejudice, so that she could not truly approach the issues that surround her as objectively as she thought:

How despicably have I acted! […] I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust.—How humiliating is this discovery! […]But vanity, not love, has been my folly. […]Till this moment, I never knew myself (159).

Her sense of vision was questioned, so she had to reconsider her opinions of almost everything. When Lydia was invited by Mrs. Foster, she objects to her father’s decision, seeing Lydia’s disgrace more clearly. In Derbyshire, she comes face to face not only with “his beautiful grounds of Pemberley” (286) but also the reality of his class. She came to realize that “to be the mistress of Pemberley must be something” (185). Lydia’s elopement with Wickham only became the final blow to her, forcing her to seriously consider her connections.

            Given all of Elizabeth’s experiences, the modern reader would probably ask if these lessons are still applicable in the 20th century, since many chick-lit writers such as Helen Fielding draw inspiration from this novel. Perhaps one could say “yes” to that. There is still a degree of prejudice in all manners of education, even in this post-Holocaust world. But at least, in this era, many people are more aware of prejudice and its effects than in Jane Austen’s time. The issues mentioned here are taken more seriously.

            Truly, issues such as the woman question, class mobility and marriage are found ironically laughable in this novel. But after reading this novel, the reader, like Elizabeth, is also forced to question his sense of vision and prejudice. As the reader considers this, one might not think this issue of prejudice laughable at all.

Works Cited 

—. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. James Kinsley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

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