Characters Caricatures: the Power of Laughter in Pride and Prejudice

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Literatura del Romanticisme Angles Characters Caricatures: The Power of Laughter in Pride and Prejudice Michela Pantano Characters Caricatures: The Power of Laughter in Pride and Prejudice Author: Michela Pantano Date: 03/04/2012 Regency England was characterized by a series of strict social laws. One of the major restrain regarded women position during that period. In fact, women were seen as inferior beings compared to men, and all they had to care about was to find a respectable and well-off man to marry with, and take care of children.

However, this concept does not regard only Regency period, but also during Romantic and Victorian England it was still alive. Many writers wrote about women condition during this long period, such as Anne Bronte in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which she claims about the position of women artists and the mistreatment of wives. Nonetheless, in Pride and Prejudice, the author Jane Austen, perfectly succeeds in presenting to readers all these social restrains that were alive at that time by adopting a cleaver and subtle strategy in order to criticize them.

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In fact, her tactic was to create exaggerated characters, that are seen as caricatures, to make readers laugh at them and, consequently, understand and reject the injustices of her society. Jane Austen’s objective, in Pride and Prejudice, is to mock male position and the ideal concept of women in society. Every character, in fact, has been carefully created with a specific aim, and represents one aspect of Regency England. Pride and Prejudice is strongly characterized by the presence of humor that makes readers focus in the absurdity f the politics of that time. Thus, the aim of this paper is to study and illustrate how Jane Austen plays with humor through characters, by assigning them a specific function in the novel. Her humor goes through different topics during the all novel, such as the politics of marriage, the right of education and the inferior position of women. The power of laughter is so strong in the novel that we can classify Pride and Prejudice as a comic novel, because without humor readers would not perceive the wrongness of society and Jane Austen’s position about it.

During this paper I will analyze those characters that are painted as caricatures, in order to understand the reason why the author wanted to show and emphasize their comic sides, and all the politics that are mocked by them. Through the very heroine of the novel, Elizabeth Bennet, an extremely determined young woman with an innate sense of humor, we face with all those characters and situations, being her the speaking voice of the author. Jane Austen belonged to the Regency Era, a period strongly characterized by a series of social and moral estrictions. But since always, when we use the word “restriction” referring to a society, “contradiction” is the following word that rises in our minds. In fact, during the end of the Romantic period, and the beginning of Victorian Era, we find many authors claiming moral and social values, showing readers, how blind and contradictory, people can turn if living in a very strict society. As a matter of fact, many topics were faced in literature, such as prostitution, women condition, children condition, the politics of marriage and many others.

This very big affluence of criticized topics, is the proof of the strong and living contradiction that turned around Regency England. In the case of Pride and Prejudice, the main criticized topics regard women condition and the absurd politics of marriage. Marriage, in fact, was a very serious business, that created a tremendous preoccupation, because from it depended the destiny and reputation of middle and upper class families. In this novel, Jane Austen, clearly criticized also the role of women in society, by creating the character of Elizabeth Bennet, a young independent- minded woman of strong principles, capable of holding her wn in any conversation. The narrative process and tactic, adopted by the author, is indeed very complex, and it is been repeatedly discussed by many literary critics. However, I would like to empathize on the ironic and humorist side of it. It is not hard to perceive and understand that the author was endowed by a brilliant ironic and humorist side, that perfectly utilized to mock male position and the marriage market, not only in this novel, but almost in all her novels. In fact, as the author Audrey Bilger reported in her book Laughing Feminism, Jane Austen declare to be ompulsively comic: I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. (1998: 30) Thus, her decision to create a character as Elizabeth Bennet, has a clear explanation. She perfectly reflects Jane Austen’s way to leave, and her humor has not the only aim to criticize, but also it was her own way to face life.

Moreover, Elizabeth, during the narration process, declares herself bound to laugh at “follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies”( 51), and her behavior never changes during the all novel. As a matter of fact, at the end of the novel she marries but she maintains her active lively mind. A proof of it can be her conversation with Darcy, almost at the end of the novel, when she says: “it belongs to me to find occasions for teasing and quarreling with you as often as may be” (318). However, in the novel, we face with many characters that reflect one ore more values of that period.

They are created with extremely accuracy, in order to permit readers to catch their worst defects since their introduction in the novel. The first character I would like to focus on is Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth’s mother. We face with her just at the beginning of the first chapter, and that is how the narrator introduces us to her: “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news” ( 4)

What Jane Austen does with Mrs. Bennet, is to increase her personality to become a caricature. In fact, she is maybe the most ridiculous character in English literature. She develops her exaggerated characteristics, like vulgarity, peevishness, obtuseness and garrulity, through the all novel. Her obsession with marriage is so strong that clearly turns her into a very comic character. Many are the situations in which Mrs. Bennet clearly shows her real nature . ‘Well, well, and so Mr. Bingley is coming down, sister,’ (for Mrs Philips first brought her the news. ) ‘Well, so much the better.

Not that I care about it, though. He is nothing to us, you know and I am sure, never want to see him again. But, however, he is very welcome to come to Netherfield, if he likes it. And who knows what may happen? But that is nothing to us. You know, sister, we agreed long ago never to mention a word about it. And so, is it quite certain he is coming? ‘ ( 275) Mr. Collins is another emblematic character that has been created with a very specific aim, to mock male position and denounce a ludicrous system that inflates male egos. “Mr Collins was not a sensible man, and the eficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father” (61). During the all novel, he develops arrogance and pompousness. Moreover, his “weak head”, as the author describes it, and his superiority bring readers, not only to dislike him, but also to laugh at him every time he appears in the novel. Besides, his overbearing personality makes him appear consistently foolish in all situations. One of the most famous scenes occurs when he proposes to Elizabeth Bennet.

His proposal to her clearly dramatizes the absurdity of women’s condition at that time, and them place in the marriage market. Being him the heir of Longbourn, he was strongly convinced to be gratefully accepted by her, but as also readers expected, Elizabeth was not interested to him. Although his proposal had something ridiculous, the situation become very comic when he is clearly rejected by Elizabeth. In fact, the more Elizabeth tries to explain him that she is not interested, the more he seems to do not understand it. His belief that women are used to make alse refusals revels his ignorance about women and, at the same time, reflects the cynicism behind courtship conventions. “I am not now to learn… that it is usual with young ladies to reject the address of the man whom they favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long” (90). This is how Mr. Collins reacts when Elizabeth for the first time rejects him giving a rational reason of her refusal. Mr. Collins by ttering those words clearly shows his belief of women subordination to men. In fact he seems not worried about her refusal, and Elizabeth keeps refusing him many time until she understand that her refusals were seen as an encouragement to him. Another important topic of the novel regards women education and how Jane Austen, through the very heroine of the novel, Elizabeth, criticizes in a ironical way the injustice of her society. Indeed it is clear to see that Elizabeth represents Jane Autsten’s belief, and she is her only weapon to manage with all the unfairness of Regency England values.

I perfectly agree with Audrey Bilger when, talking about three women writers, says in her book, Laughing Feminism, : Burney, Edgeworth, and Austen refuse to pay tribute to men’s capacity for learning; in fact, they ridicule male pretension and express resentment against an education system that allowed ignorant men to claim superiority over women through their lowed ignorant men to claim superiority over women through their association with male-dominated institution of higher learning. They show that common sense may be superior to booklearning and that it transcends gender as an indicator of people’s worth… Audrey Bilger 1998: 130). However, as the author Averbach Emily says in her book “Optimism, laughter, and courage seem the best medicines for keeping Elizabeth Bennet resilient, ready to go forward and encounter more of the world’s folly and injustice” ( Averbach Emily 2004: 136). In fact, when Mr Collins proposes to her, she is “near laughing” at the idea of his being run away with his feelings. Nonetheless, her humor and her ability of holding her own in any situation brings her to be seen very unladylike by some characters, such as Miss Bingley, Mrs Hurts and also y her mother that thinks she had maintained her girlhood and that she does not really understand the priorities of life. Elizabeth seems to have inherit her humor by her father Mr. Bennet, another comic character that has a very ironic vision of life and does not lose any opportunity to laugh at his relatives or neighbors. However, I think that what makes a distinction between Elizabeth and her father is the lack of responsibility that he shows often during the novel. One instance of his irresponsibility can be seen in his decision to let Lydia go to Brighton, r that he did not care to save money for his daughters future. However, one thing that goes in his favor is that, although he did not care about all his family, he cared about Elizabeth, and many times he warns her to do not commit his same mistakes about marriage.

In fact, he often regrets to have married Mrs Bennet, for he does not share her beliefs, and clearly he often criticizes her in many ways and for different reasons. But Mr Bennet is one of the keys character in the novel, because through his inappropriate use of humor, Elizabeth understands that he should check her behavior and that humor can be abused. In fact, almost at the end of the novel, she herself admits that her dislike towards Mr. Darcy is unwarranted, and the only reason why she acts in that way is to display her wit. To sum up, we arrive at the conclusion that what really differentiate Elizabeth and Darcy from all those characters, is the fact that, at the end, they admits them errors and look for an improvement, while the other characters do not, and, consequently, remain firm with their beliefs. Moreover, one quality that helped Elizabeth o improve , is her self- criticism, that allow her, since the beginning, to laugh at herself, while the other characters do not accept their imperfections. In fact, as the author Averbach Emily says “To be able to laugh at oneself is to admit weakness; to recognize the possibility of change. Could Mrs. Bennet ever laugh at her whininess, Mary at her pedantry, or Mr. Collins at his pomposity, they would be on their way to improvement” ( Averbach Emily 2004: 161) The real turning point of the novel is the fact that both Elizabeth and Darcy understand each others and ry to find a compromise in order to be happy together. However, during this long process of acknowledgment of the two main characters – Elizabeth and Darcy-, the author took advantages of Elizabeth’s humor in order to denounce her own society. Moreover, with the creation of these exaggerated characters she claims women rights and, at the same times, she mocks all those absurd values that ruled her society. Thus, imperfections are maybe the most important things in the novel because they permits laughter and consequently understand Jane Austen point of view of her own world.

Bibliography Austen Jane. 2007. Pride and Prejudice. London: Wordsworth Edistions. Averbach Emily. 2004. Searching for Jane Austen. Madison: The Univesrity of Wisconsis Press. Bilger Audrey. 1998. Laughing Feminism. Michigan: Wayne State University Press. Harding D. W. 1998. Regulated Hatred and Other Essays on Jane Austen. London: The Athlone Press. Kaplan Deorah. 1992. Jane Austen Among Women. London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Neill Edward. 1999. The Politics of Jane Austen. New York: Palgrave.

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