Jane Austen Comedy of Manners & Use of Satire, Irony

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‘The wisest and the 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.

‘Certainly’, replied Elizabeth - ‘there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wiser or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.’

      Her Purpose and Programme. This brief dialogue between Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet throws distinct light upon Jane Austen’s purpose and programme in her novels. For once at least it be supposed that Miss Bennet’s point of view is but a projection of her creator’s. Her intention in these novels is to present a comedy of manners - to present the follies and vices of men and to expose them to general ridicule by employing the devices of comedy, parody, burlesque, irony, wit, satire; each one of them as is suitable for the occasion and need.

      Its Progress. And her intention to ridicule these follies of characters is obvious from the very first. Her first few endeavours are definitely in a vein of parody and burlesque. Gross humours are as a rule shunned by her nor does she like them in others. The hackneyed type of romantic and sentimental fiction of the day are parodied by her in her first two Juvenelia. Northanger Abbey makes fun of a current literary fad by telling of the imaginary thrills and dangers experienced by Catherine Morland who is an indiscriminate reader of Gothic fiction. A kind of comic farce is used in several of her novels and the obvious examples of which in Pride and Prejudice are Catherine de Bourgh and Mr. Collins. More obviously comic in general conception is Emma with its girlish heroine who is so blind to the plain facts of human nature including her own emotions. The ruthless comedy which fiercely lashes the follies often calls for tragic pity and is consequently out of her reach.

      Her Use of Satire. The debatable point remains: what type of satire she presents in her novels. Some think that her satire is genial and light; as such it is only another form of irony; whereas others discover a ruthless and even cruel touch in her comic treatment. Satire, it is true springs forth moral and ethical bias which is consistently absent in Jane Austen. She never concerns herself with religious or moral issues of the day. Even an elopement is devoid of any breach of ethical code. But the fact cannot be ignored that Jane Austen is too preoccupied with good breeding and fine culture. Whatever jeopardises good sense is revolting to her and elicits from her a quick response. For Jane Austen a slight breach of commonsense is no less in magnitude than an ethical rupture or moral turpitude. Because of this preoccupation, her treatment of the comic becomes satirical. But this fact does not expunge either the possibilities or the existence of pure humour also. Some of her scenes are not actually-laughter-provoking but they leave behind a rippling sense of humour. She touches the humourous side of almost every scene she sees or imagines; for nothing can escape her minute comic observation whether it is the fear of ghosts as in Northanger Abbey, a picnic in Emma, private theatricals as in Mansfield Park or a proposal in Persuasion and also in Pride and Prejudice. But in all these, she never exaggerates the fun.

      Her Objectivity and Impartiality. She is able to capture the comic effect largely due to her sense of detachment. Comedy springs from intellect, tragedy from our heart. The finer comic effect as distinct from the humorous will be achieved if we withdraw our sympathies from the object who is the victim of comedy. Jane Austen also never allows her sympathies to intrude especially when a character has some Comic Flaw (if such a term can be used as opposed to the ‘tragic flaw’) in him. Although she seems to project her point of view through, and to take the side of, her leading female characters yet even these are not spared by her. Tout comprendre tout paradonne is a principle which does not apply to the comic portraits of Jane Austen. Her objectivity, fairness and detachment help her a good deal in achieving the comic effect. The structure of her novels and the persons that move in this world contribute no less to this effect.

      The Persons and Situations are Comic. The situations in her novels are themselves ironic and these invariably display the comic side of her characters. These characters are more or less funny in proportion to their command of common sense. Women on the whole have more claims to it than men as Meredith also discovered later on. But it is not all women who possess it and only few can be said to have perfect command over it. In Jane Austen women are always superior to their husbands in wit and good sense.

      Poetic Justice. As for poetic justice it may be well to remember that Jane Austen had no poetic pretensions. In her world therefore there is all justice and nothing poetic. This poetic justice as such has not been forced upon the structure but if there is a justice in her world, and of course it cannot be denied that the eighteenth century society that she transcribed was not without respect for values and ideals, it grows naturally out of the resolve of the tangled issues. The rewards are not thrown in her world from above by some impartial benevolent observing deity, as we find it thrown on Mr. Micawber, for example in Dickens, who has all along his life been hoping for something to happen and at the end finds himself a magistrate in a new country. As such in the world of Jane Austen there are neither thoroughly good nor thoroughly vicious individuals. As in life so also in fiction the shades often run into and merge with each other. The ethical code has therefore, evaporated from her novels. The poetic justice in Jane Austen has a different basis.

      The Basis of her Poetic Justice. The poetic justice in Jane Austen is thus determined not on the basis of moral virtues but on the basis of good sense. The idea of poetic justice is that virtue should be rewarded and its reverse to be punished; but there is no reverse side of common sense and hence no punishment is ever inflicted on any person in this world. Probably the writer’s feminine generosity also does not approve of the justice to punish those whom she has herself created and animated. Even those who willfully transgress all commonsense and are actively bad have got a partner and are settled in life according to their own merits or otherwise. Thus she observes Poetic Justice in as much as she gives to each according to his or her desserts of commonsense. In her novels commonsense and property are interdependent. She has little faith in the rigid stratification of society. Property is usually inherited by those who have sufficient commonsense or to put the same in a slightly different way those who inherit property come to possess sufficient commonsense and it is the right sort of women who marry these persons. Not all men, it may be supposed, inherit property for all men do not possess sufficient commonsense nor all women marry these persons for all women also do not posses commonsense and do not display finer upbreeding and good taste in their behaviour and manners. If they could they would. Poverty is no bar for women is Jane Austen’s world from marrying into the higher strata of society but good sense is. The six daughters of the Bennet Family marry and get their rewards exactly in proportion to their desserts.

      Conclusion. Thus she regards men and women with the shrewdness and acumen of the satirist without losing sight of these moral values. There is no distortion in her perspective. The faults in her characters are mostly due to bad training or want of training in youth. In older people these are often beyond repair; but in young, especially the young lovers they are purged and done away because they result often from misunderstandings. “Each book is thus a history of self-correction. Miss Austen proffers no counsel of perfection; for her practical idealism is content with the implied lesson that a sound education, a marriage based upon congenial disposition as well as passion and social decorum give the best promise of happiness in life.”

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