Laughter In Austen
"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