Illustration of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy with neutral expressions on their faces

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

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What contributes to the humor in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

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One source of humor in Pride and Prejudice is irony. Austen employs both verbal and situational irony. She starts the novel out with one of her most famous ironic statements:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

This verbal irony is humorous because it is not a universal truth that all single wealthy men want wives, yet it was widely known in Austen's time that mothers of five single daughters acted as though it were true.

Irony is humorous because of the witty figures of speech that comprise verbal irony and the amusingly unexpected twists of fate that comprise situational irony (amusingly unexpected in a comedy, at any rate). Irony occurs when words have a figurative twist to them so they mean something other than what they seem to mean or when situations prove to be something other than what is expected.

Austen develops situational irony in a number of instances. One thing about Austen's ironic situations is that sadness of varying degrees accompanies the ironically humorous situations. For instance, we are presented with an ironically humorous situation when Mary insists on singing loudly and badly at the Sir William’s gathering but there is also sadness attached to it. In the first place, Mary is humiliated because her talent is not equal to her vanity:

Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached.

In the second, Darcy adds Mary’s behavior to the long and growing list of reasons he presents to Bingley to dissuade him--successfully--from proposing to Jane. Thus, it is through the addition of sorrow to humorously ironic situations that Austen develops her themes. Similarly, Austen employs humorous verbal irony to develop her plot and her characters.

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What forms of humor does Jane Austen use in the novel Pride and Prejudice?

Pride and Prejudice was not well-received in some circles when it was first published as Jane Austen did not meet the standard of 'literature'

as an idealized higher reality.

Whilst her novel was considered to be entertaining and witty, the realism of the inept characters she portrayed reduced the novel's effect as literature is supposed to be uplifting not purely entertaining.  

The sarcasm in Pride and Prejudice is evident from the beginning, the opening line comments 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Irony is widely used and Reuben A Brower commented

The triumph of the novel—whatever its limitations may be—lies in combining such poetry of wit,...with the dramatic structure of fiction.

He even compared her to Alexander Pope

without couplets...

The characters, especially Lizzy and her father are good examples of the use of irony and satire. Lizzy, with her 

lively, playful disposition, which delights in anything ridiculous,

and Mr. Bennet concluding that one of the purposes of life is to provide 

sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn

Mr. Bennet intends to invite Collins to visit and hopes that his absurdity will be entertainiing.

Lizzy subtly taunts Lady Catherine by flouting her expectation of deference.

Further use of Irony is apparent when Lizzy, refusing to dance with Darcy, tells Sir William that

Mr. Darcy is all politeness,

Mr. Bennet says (as a joke),

I admire all my three sons-in-law,...Wickham perhaps is my favorite.

Jane Austen used irony purposefully in  Pride and Prejudice, a novel so wrapped up in the ironies of the day and the need to marry well, thereby resolving the main issues surrounding the marriage plot andbecause it is able to acknowledge

a multiplicity of perspectives simultaneously.

The eNotes study guide will help you understand the styles used and navigate to the 'Essays and criticism' section where you will find references to the humor, amongst other helpful information.  

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What makes Pride and Prejudice comical?

Certain characters like Mr. Collins, Caroline Bingley, and Mrs. Bennet help to make the novel comical.  Mr. Collins is a prize idiot, something that everyone but Mrs. Bennet and Mary seem to realize.  He has stupid opinions about marriage and women's reading and propriety and how to treat women, and he fails to realize just how ridiculous he is.  Then, Miss Bingley tries again and again to lower Elizabeth in the eyes of Mr. Darcy, failing repeatedly.  Her machinations to tempt him into love with her are so transparent and obvious that they end up being funny.  Mrs. Bennet is another such character: her constant complaining about her "nerves," her desperation to marry her daughters off to whomever she can, and her husband's complete inability to be in the same room with her for more than five minutes together make her comical too.

Further, scenes like the one at the Netherfield ball, when Elizabeth is almost convinced that her family has conspired to make themselves ridiculous all at once are quite comical as well.  Her mother is talking loudly about a wedding between Jane and Mr. Bingley (when he's not proposed yet), Mary is hogging the attention of the party by singing, badly, Mr. Collins embarrasses himself first in front of Mr. Darcy and then, again, in front of the entire party when he waxes philosophic about music, and even her father publicly redresses Mary, interrupting her mid-song.  As the reader can most likely relate to poor Elizabeth's feelings, her mortification both makes her more appealing to us and more sympathetic as well, but we cannot help but chuckle at how perfectly timed everyone's bad behavior is. 

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