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Self-preservation in Pride and Prejudice

By Literature Tutor

Satire is defined by the authoritative M H Abrams in his ‘A Glossary of Literary Terms’ as the literary art of diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous or evoking attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn or indignation. The text goes on to distinguish satire from comic by stating that “unlike comedy whose end goal is to evoke laughter, satire uses laughter as weapon and against a butt (target) that exists outside of the work itself”. The butt may be a type of person, an actual person or a class, an institution, or even the entire human race. And so clearly the first use of satire in “Pride and Prejudice” is to criticise real people in real social society. Both classes of society – the upper wealthy landed gentry class and the middle class are the targets in “Pride and Prejudice”. Both classes are brought into contact with each other in the  different locales, from the painstaking attention to details, norms, leisurely pursuits and pastimes of  both the social classes, their possessions such as the types of carriages, the interiors of the houses, the servants they have, the type of education they receive and their accomplishments dovetails with the social and economic realities of Regency England.

In the text, satire is firstly focused on the objective of diminishing certain subjects of the middle and upper classes by ridicule. We thus have Mr Collins, the pompous, sycophantic, presumptuous clergyman, and his decent stodgy wife, Charlotte who puts up with him. Although both are satirised, there is a marked difference in their portrayal and hence in the type of satire they are subjected to. Although Elizabeth rejects financial stability as the sole condition for marriage, the narrator makes a point to explain the family situation of Charlotte Lukas with the many young siblings, the limited income of her father and her age (27 ). Scholars like DW Harding in the 1950s have linked Charlotte’s situation to Austen herself who spent a night of psychological crisis in deciding to revoke her acceptance of an “advantageous” proposal made the previous evening.  Charlotte is portrayed thus in a rather sympathetic light constituting an example of gentle satire but no effort is spared to describe how obnoxious Mr Collins is – he is a comic, self-aggrandising, pompous, sycophantic monster and although his job involves him being a representative of the church and by extension a representation of Christianity, he is a poor reflection of what a clergyman should be. Surely his letter to Mr Bennet purportedly offering consolation over the sordid affair of Lydia and Wickham is cruel given not least of all its self-congratulatory tone but the persistent advice that Lydia, the wayward daughter, should be disowned and condemned.

Harding introduced the term “regulated hatred” in his essay “Regulated Hatred: An aspect of the work of Jane Austen”(1940). He argued that she was no delicate satirist. In this aspect then satire becomes  a weapon of survival. It was a mode of existence for Austen’s critical attitudes towards certain members of the middle and upper classes in society and towards the restrictive conditions imposed on women. So on the one hand while she was critical of the crass and materialistic and shallow mindsets of the upper and middle classes in her novels, it was necessary for Austen to be on reasonably good terms with her readers who came largely from the very same  two classes. There was need for their goodwill while being sensitive and uncomfortable with their crudeness, and complacencies. It helped that most people are able to laugh at their own faults and that of their friends so long as the laughter was good-natured, not derisive or mean-spirited. And satire served that dual purpose. It provided comic relief, but at the same time it denigrated and ridiculed the faults and character failings of the two classes. After all no matter how much Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine in “Pride and Prejudice” criticised Charlotte’s decision to marry Collins, she visits them and corresponds with her. She maintains ties with them.

These two related aspects of the function of satire in the text are Austen’s way of weaponizing satire to resolve her sensitivity to their crudity and complacency and in the final analysis, satire was Austen’s way of self-preservation. For more information about the Literature tutor, click here.

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