Acerbic Humor in Pride And Prejudice

I've only read one Jane Austen novel, the infamous Pride And Prejudice, which I likely never would have read unless it had been forced on me in my senior year AP English Literature class (let that be all the lesson one might need about the often-trash opinions of teenage boys on "girl stuff"). Up until that moment, the only exposure I'd had to Austen was in being forced to watch that same novel's film adaptation with my mother one rainy day in elementary school. After that, Pride And Prejudice was facing something of a challenge with me, as I'd already written it off as a boring, self-serious slog. Imagine my surprise, then, when I quickly found Ms. Austen to be one of the most downright hilarious hilarious writers whose work I'd ever had the privilege to read, and my further surprise when it seemed very few of my peers shared this opinion. Perhaps the most common commentary on Austen's work I've heard since then is something along the lines of "I know she's supposed to be funny, I just don't see it," which makes this novel well worth an installment of Funnier Than You Realized. I think part of the reason we don't think of Pride And Prejudice as hilarious is that the book is a bit over 100 years old, and many seem to think that humor was invented in the past 50 years, but I think it's also that the humor in Pride And Prejudice is the kind that rewards careful reading and a good memory, the kind that a teacher needs to take a bit of time to focus on so that all students,  even the ones approaching the book with reticence, will see it. In particular, I want to focus on this quote about Mrs. Bennet, the matriarch of the Bennet family around which all the marriageable action resolves, which I think is perfectly indicative of the novel's humor:

The first part of Mrs. Gardiner’s business on her arrival was to distribute her presents and describe the newest fashions. When this was done she had a less active part to play. It became her turn to listen. Mrs. Bennet had many grievances to relate, and much to complain of. They had all been very ill-used since she last saw her sister.
— Pride And Prejudice, Jane Austen

On the whole this might seem like an innocuous little piece of text, but the moment I read it I wrote "LOL!!!" in the book's margins. Part of this is that the line is surface-level funny, and paints a perfect picture of Mrs. Bennet's psyche, which is comically dismissive of others' grievances and entirely focused on hers. You can imagine her internal monologue, which probably goes something like: "Are you finished? Finally. Buckle up, buttercup, because do I have A LOT to tell you." To understand the real reason why this is great, however, we need to dip into the book a little earlier. You see, phrasing about being ill-used comes up a few pages earlier in the novel, again when Austen's authorial voice is discussing Mrs. Bennet:

Two inferences, however, were plainly deduced from the whole: one, that Elizabeth was the real cause of the mischief; and the other that she herself had been barbarously misused by them all; and on these two points she principally dwelt during the rest of the day.
— Pride And Prejudice, Jane Austen

On the one hand, this quote is also plenty fun in its own right. Every teenager growing up with siblings, after all (and I think one of the things so often forgotten when reading this novel is that Elizabeth Bennet is only 20, and all the Bennet daughters are very much presented as equivalent to today's teenagers), recognizes the feeling that your parents thing you're the real cause of a problem that you clearly weren't, making its presentation here as factual absolutely hilarious. Then there's also the humor inherent in Mrs. Bennet dwelling on Elizabeth's culpability and the way she was wronged all day long. And, of course, we're starting to see something of a pattern, that being ill-used is a go-to phrase of Mrs. Bennet's. However, this isn't the even first time in which that phrasing appears in the novel, a title that belongs to a direct quote from Mrs. Bennet, when she says the following:

nobody is on my side, nobody takes part with me. I am cruelly used, nobody feels for my poor nerves.’
— Pride And Prejudice, Jane Austen

Again, this is a funny quote simply on its own merits. It's a perfect line of Dialogue for Mrs. Bennet, and in it we can see much of what makes her character amusing. We get a perfect sense of her over-weary, always wronged, high-strung motherly character that makes this woman such a satirical figure, and it's a delight to read. However, the most brilliant part of this line is that Austen follows it up with the two quotes I mentioned above, all within a rather brief span of pages (the copy of Pride and Prejudice I'm working from has all three occurring over just thirty-four of the novel's 478 pages, an expanse of text that could theoretically be read in one sitting by just about any reader... oh yeah, you can bet that was intentional spacing).

That pattern works because it's a picture-perfect example of planting, reminders, and payoffs, a tried-and-true technique of both narrative art and comedy, which here informs us not only that Austen is telling us a joke but that she's letting us in on it. The idea of being "ill-used" is first introduced by Mrs. Bennet herself in a way that seems rather innocuous, apart from the surface level humor of Mrs. Bennet as a character. This is known as the plant, the moment in which the important information is first seeded in our mind. Then we're reminded of Mrs. Bennet's rather frequent turn of phrase a few pages later, and this reminder serves to both keep the phrase in the forefront of our mind and to key us into the fact that this is somehow important, that we should be on the lookout for it in the future. Finally, the very first quote cited in this post is the payoff, the moment when the joke is revealed to us all. The two sentences, humorous as they are with the image of Mrs. Bennet plowing away on an endless list of grievances, set us up for something funny, and then "They had been very ill-used since she last saw her sister." is the hilarious punchline, delivered with a sharp, acerbic sarcasm that's hard to miss when you consider this whole quote and the preceding few chapters. All of the sudden this isn't just Austen relating Mrs. Bennet's interior monologue without judgment. Instead, the author telling us something akin to "yepp, you guessed it, she'd been used... what a surprise" in a brutally sarcastic tone that's practically impossible not to laugh out loud at.

This, I think, is more than just the crux of one humorous line: it's the key to the whole damn novel. Seriously, go back to the book and read the authorial voice as one characterized mostly by acerbic sarcasm and an abundance of snark, and I'm convinced you'll find something to laugh at on just about every page.

It's also important to note, of course, that this far from the only humorous series of quotes in the novel. Practically any of Elizabeth and Darcy's dialogue, for one, is utterly hilarious, as is the absurd self-seriousness of the novel's Mr. Collins and the quiet sarcasm of Mr. Bennet. Even the novel's opening line - "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." -, which shows up on a plethora of "best opening line" lists, is often misunderstood as something serious, when the following line - "However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters." - makes it clear that this is a devastatingly sarcastic, and sharp observation  the fascination with marriage many families had in Austen's own time.

So if this sharply acerbic humor, so similar to what makes us laugh in the 21st century, abounds on every page of the novel, why do so many people struggle to see it? I think that this is, in part, the reverence of the old at work once again. Jane Austen's novels in general, and Pride And Prejudice in particular, come to us with a hefty burden of expectation. We know that this novel is a masterpiece that deals with a wide range of important themes and when this is the understanding with which we approach a novel, that colors our appreciation of it. I think this weight is a disservice to them. Not the understanding that they're brilliant works, which they absolutely are, but the intellectual seriousness with which they are so often approached, the aversion to smiling or laughing such seriousness often carries as its baggage. After all, the burden of Austen's commentary in her work falls mostly on the humor. It's her vehicle of critique, the sharp, sarcastic tone utterly indispensable to the novel's message. If this was considered a crucially important part of the novel, one worth just as much explanation in class as any of Austen's social critique, more students would laugh while reading this novel, enhancing their understanding of it. I don't think Austen would have it any other way.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex