Early in Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bingley declares that she could not possibly tease or laugh at Mr. Darcy: “‘Teaze calmness of temper and presence of mind! No, no—I feel he may defy us there. And as to laughter, we will not expose ourselves, if you please, by attempting to laugh without a subject.’” Elizabeth’s response is significant: “‘Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!’ cried Elizabeth. ‘That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintance. I dearly love a laugh’” (57).
Implicit in Miss Bingley’s assertion that they cannot laugh at Darcy is the assumption of Darcy’s social and intellectual superiority. Implicit in Elizabeth’s statement that she “dearly love[s] a laugh” is not only her refusal to be impressed by Mr. Darcy’s superiority but also her belief in the power of laughter.
The role of laughter in Pride and Prejudice is an interesting one. On the one hand, the novel seems a celebration of laughter. From the famous first sentence, the reader is invited to laugh at the ironies of human perception and expectations. On the other hand, the plot of the novel seems to show the limitations of laughter as a response to human experience. Mr. Bennet’s laughter is closely linked to his abdication from responsibility, and the character in the novel who laughs the most is Lydia.1
By the end of the novel, when Elizabeth writes to her aunt, “‘I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh’” (383), Elizabeth’s laughter has changed from the laughter of amusement to the laughter of relief. In the process, Elizabeth has had to confront facts that she cannot laugh away, such as her parent’s inadequacies, Lydia’s elopement, and ultimately Elizabeth’s own vulnerability as a woman in a patriarchal society. She has also had to redefine her opinion of Mr. Darcy and admit to herself that she would like to be his wife. However, what she has not done is give up her idea that Mr. Darcy, like everyone else in society, is sometimes the proper subject of laughter. In the final pages of the novel we hear of Georgiana Darcy’s surprise at the “lively, sportive manner” in which Elizabeth addresses Mr. Darcy (387-88). But just what does “laughing at Mr. Darcy” come to mean for Elizabeth?
One way of looking at the role of laughter in Pride and Prejudice is that in the course of the novel Darcy has to learn to accept laughter and Elizabeth has to learn to laugh wisely. But the role of laughter in their relationship is more complicated than that. For one thing, careful reading shows that Darcy is not as humorless and sober as he appears on the surface. He may not laugh, but in his own way he is as attuned to irony and incongruity as Elizabeth is. For another, laughter in Pride and Prejudice is closely linked to the sexual tensions among the different characters. Furthermore, Elizabeth’s laughter and the delightful wit and energy that make her so appealing to modern audiences would have shocked some of Austen’s contemporaries and certainly could have been expected to shock Mr. Darcy.
Attitudes towards women’s laughter were very different in Jane Austen’s time from what they are now. Many of Austen’s contemporaries saw laughter—in either men or women—as vulgar. Because laughter was connected to irreverence towards authority and lack of proper self-control, even gentlemen were discouraged from laughing. Female laughter in particular was associated with folly on the one hand or misplaced aggressiveness on the other. Either way, too much laughter from a woman was indelicate.
A certain amount of raillery or good-humored ridicule might be part of social intercourse, but the laughter that comes from wit was suspect in women. Unlike the gentler, more benevolent laughter associated with “humor,” the laughter of “wit” is aggressive. Wit implies the ability to be critical. In her readiness to laugh at what she calls the “‘[f]ollies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies’” of those around her (57), Elizabeth is defying social conventions that linked femininity with passivity.2
In addition, by a complicated series of associations, wit in woman was often linked to sexual license in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thought. One possible explanation for this association is that wit is connected to power and aggression. Another is that female chastity was presumed to be dependent on the woman's respect for male authority.3
When Mr. Bennet warns Elizabeth not to marry Mr. Darcy for his money, he states: “‘I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband. . . . Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery’” (376). A witty woman’s ability to see the “follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies” of those around her might result in her failure to respect her “partner in life,” and such a failure might lead her into improper behavior. Although Mr. Bennet’s warning may have meant no more than that Elizabeth might become a cynical shrew who mocked her husband in public, the choice of the words “respectable” and “discredit” suggests a potential sexual connotation. In other words, not only was Elizabeth’s love of laughter, by the rules of her society, bold and potentially subversive; it was also sexually charged. The laughing woman could also be the woman of uncontrolled sexuality whose verbal license was linked to amorality and physical desire.
It is no coincidence that among the characters who laugh in Pride and Prejudice, the one who laughs most is also the one who transgresses sexually. Lydia Bennet’s laughter is a sign both of foolishness—of lack of reflection—and of rampant sexuality. This is shown most clearly in the letter that she leaves behind when she elopes:
“You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton, for there is but one man in the world I love, and he is an angel. I should never be happy without him, so think it no harm to be off. You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater when I write to them and sign my name Lydia Wickham. What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing. . . .” ( 291, emphasis mine)
For Lydia, running off with a man is a huge joke. The letter expresses no regrets, no sensibility to the moral dimension of what she is doing, not even an awareness that her escapade might trouble or disappoint her friends and family—only delight at the gratification of her desire. “Untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy and fearless” (315), Lydia goes through life unreflectingly, eloping with a man who doesn’t intend to marry her because she thinks it would be “‘very good fun’” (316) to be married before any of her sisters.
Although Elizabeth’s love of laughter is clearly of a different sort than Lydia’s, the presence of her wild, unreflecting, and sexually precocious sister in the novel tells us something about Elizabeth and her laughter. On the most basic level, Lydia serves as a foil for Elizabeth. There are many parallels between the sisters: Like Elizabeth, Lydia likes to laugh. Like Elizabeth, she is the favorite child of one of their parents. Like Elizabeth, she does not always observe convention. Like Elizabeth, she finds Wickham attractive. There the resemblance seems to end, and the reader is usually more struck by the contrasts. Yet the only real contrast that matters is that Elizabeth thinks and discriminates. If Lydia’s love of laughter is implicitly linked to her sexuality, we may assume that Elizabeth’s is also, though Elizabeth will handle her sexuality with greater thought and discrimination.
Throughout the novel, the sexual tension between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth is evidenced in a series of witty exchanges in which Elizabeth’s implied laughter is set against Mr. Darcy’s solemnity. One of the earliest of these exchanges occurs in the scene quoted at the beginning of this essay where Elizabeth responds with amusement to Miss Bingley’s suggestion that “‘Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at.’” For Elizabeth, the idea of someone being somehow above laughter is itself laughable. When Darcy responds, “‘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,’” Elizabeth counters that she is not one of those people: “‘I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good’” (57), and goes on to confront Mr. Darcy with the suggestion that maybe he thinks he is without “‘follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies.’” Unfortunately, it seems that Darcy does think so. He admits that he has faults—“‘My temper would perhaps be called resentful’”—but his faults, he implies, are not funny. Elizabeth agrees, though not without a touch of irony: “‘Implacable resentment is a shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well. —I really cannot laugh at it; you are safe from me’” (58).
This dialogue is important because it sets forth what laughter means to Darcy and to Elizabeth. Darcy, at this point in the novel, links laughter to lack of respect. In contrast, Elizabeth, who has been raised by a father whose philosophy is that “‘we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn’” (364), links laughter with closeness. When Elizabeth says that she couldn’t laugh at Mr. Darcy’s fault, she is not only suggesting that “implacable resentment” is not a laughable flaw. She is also expressing her lack of interest in becoming closer to Mr. Darcy.
On the surface, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth seem very wide apart, not only in terms of gender and social position but in their essential attitudes towards experience. Elizabeth is playful; Mr. Darcy is solemn. She is trying to make a joke, to tease. He is trying, earnestly, to explain himself: “‘There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.’” Yet when she tries to dismiss his earnest explanation with the flippant “‘And your defect is a propensity to hate every body,’” he is ready for her: “‘And yours,’ he replied with a smile, ‘is willfully to misunderstand them’” (58).
Darcy’s smiles are just as important as Elizabeth’s laughter. We never see Darcy laugh, but his smiles—which usually take place in the course of his exchanges with Elizabeth—suggest both a mind that is as quick as hers and a growing receptivity to Elizabeth’s love of laughter. Her initial attraction for him is physical, but it is a physical attraction which is closely linked to his appreciation of her personality. He is struck by the “beautiful expression of her dark eyes” and the “intelligence” they give her face. Against his will he finds her figure “light and pleasing” and is attracted by the “easy playfulness” of her manners (23). That he confesses this attraction to, of all people, Miss Bingley suggests a certain playfulness of his own.
Darcy’s interaction with Miss Bingley is often overlooked by readers because it seems peripheral to the real matter of Darcy’s relationship with Elizabeth. Yet in many ways, Darcy’s interaction with Miss Bingley gives the first glimpse of the true Darcy. Their conversation shows that his wit can be as ready as Elizabeth Bennet’s. For example, when Miss Bingley accuses Elizabeth of being “‘one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex, by undervaluing their own,’” Mr. Darcy’s ironic response that “‘there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation’” (40) indicates that he sees through Miss Bingley’s own attempt to “recommend” herself to him by “undervaluing” Elizabeth.
An important point about Mr. Darcy’s relationship with Miss Bingley is that although Miss Bingley asserts that she couldn’t possibly laugh at Mr. Darcy, she has, in fact, been laughing at him ever since he told her that he admired Elizabeth Bennet’s eyes. Much of her laughter falls into the category of social raillery and, on one level, is a form of flirting. However, Miss Bingley’s raillery also has the purpose of trying to shame Darcy out of his admitted attraction for Elizabeth. Over and over, Miss Bingley mocks Darcy’s interest in Elizabeth by emphasizing Elizabeth’s low family connections and lack of breeding: “‘You will have a charming mother-in-law indeed, and . . . she will be always at Pemberley with you’” (27), “‘I am afraid . . . that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes’” (36), and “‘Do let the portraits of your uncle and aunt Phillips be placed in the gallery at Pemberley’” (52-53).
Miss Bingley’s laughter is subtly aggressive; she uses raillery to assert her own superiority and she attempts to influence the actions of others through her scorn. Her lack of success with Mr. Darcy notwithstanding, Miss Bingley’s laughter represents the perspective of “polite society,” the degree to which derisive laughter is socially permissible, and the shallow, superficial judgment it reflects. If Mr. Darcy, in the early parts of the novel, mistrusts laughter, it is not only because his patrician background leads him to associate laughter with irreverence, foolishness and uncontrolled sexuality—as represented by Lydia—but also because social experience has taught him to connect laughter to the shallow malice that Miss Bingley displays.
Miss Bingley is another foil for Elizabeth. As with Lydia, the differences between the two are most apparent, but the similarities are perhaps more interesting. Both are, in different ways, attracted by Darcy. Both can be witty—Elizabeth is struck by how, when the men are out of the room, the Bingley sisters “could describe an entertainment with accuracy, relate an anecdote with humour, and laugh at their acquaintance with spirit” (54). And both are sensitive to social nuances and critical of those who do not live up to their standards. The main difference, besides Elizabeth’s greater individuality of judgment, seems to be Elizabeth’s lack of malice. Even Mr. Collins’s absurdities and Lady Catherine’s arrogance do not provoke Elizabeth to snide remarks of the sort that Miss Bingley is always making about the Bennet girls’ low connections.
The sexual tension underlying Darcy’s exchanges with Miss Bingley exists in sharp contrast to the tension between him and Elizabeth, not only because Miss Bingley is chasing Darcy while Elizabeth is determined to show her indifference, but because Miss Bingley and Elizabeth employ laughter differently. Miss Bingley’s laughter creates a distance between her listeners and herself, even when her purpose is the opposite. Mr. Darcy may agree that the Bennet family behaves improperly and even join in Miss Bingley’s criticism, but he does not seem to join in her laughter. For Miss Bingley, laughter is a weapon, a way of imposing her view of reality upon others. For Elizabeth, laughter is an invitation to fellowship. Because she connects shared laughter to closeness, she uses her laughter to reach out to those around her.
We can see how Elizabeth reaches out to other with her laughter when we analyze her response to Mr. Darcy’s notorious dismissal of her as “‘not handsome enough to tempt’” him to dance. On the surface, her decision to “tell the story . . . with great spirit among her friends” (12) makes no sense. Why advertise a failure? Had Elizabeth not told the story, no one would have known and she would have been spared both friendly teasing—“‘My overhearings were more to the purpose than yours Eliza,’” remarks Charlotte Lucas; “‘Poor Eliza!—to be only just tolerable’” (19)—and the more critical gossip of such neighbors as Mrs. Long.
However, the point is that Elizabeth doesn’t want to be spared. The playful teasing of friends like Charlotte Lucas is exactly what she needs at this moment. By making Mr. Darcy’s rejection of her a joke, she is both denying the pain that it undoubtedly caused her and claiming the support and empathy of her community. With each person who laughs with her at Mr. Darcy’s arrogance, she is receiving confirmation that the fault lay not in her lack of desirability but in Mr. Darcy’s failure to make himself agreeable. Laughter allows her to take control over the incident and redefine it.
The power that laughter gives Elizabeth is further illustrated when, much later, at Rosings, she alludes to this incident as an example of the “shocking” things she can reveal about Mr. Darcy. “‘[P]repare yourself for something very dreadful,’” she warns Colonel Fitzwilliam playfully. “‘The first time of my ever seeing [Mr. Darcy] in Hertfordshire was at a ball—and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances! I am sorry to pain you—but so it was. He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner’”(175).
In joking with Colonel Fitzwilliam about Darcy’s failure to dance at the Meryton ball, Elizabeth is reaching out to Darcy’s cousin, implicitly asking for his validation of her view that Darcy was at fault. However, she is at the same time laughing at herself and other women who might have the expectation of being asked to dance but are disappointed by the shortage of willing partners. Furthermore, in bringing up the incident during a conversation which includes Mr. Darcy, she is giving him the opportunity to laugh with her at a situation in which neither shone to advantage. Albeit unconsciously, she is reaching out to him also.
This conversation, which takes place around the piano at Rosings, is a pivotal one in the novel. Although Elizabeth herself seems unaware of its significance, it illustrates for the reader the curious harmony of thought that has gradually developed between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Coming before the infamous first proposal scene, it anticipates the perfect understanding that we don’t see between them until after the second proposal.
Their exchange begins with Elizabeth’s playful—but on some level sincere—accusation that he is trying to frighten her by “‘coming in all this state’” to listen to her play. Darcy responds to the playfulness, but indicates uncertainty about her meaning: “‘[Y]ou could not really believe me to entertain any desire of alarming you.’’ He proposes that she is, in fact, only joking. “‘I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own’” (174). When she threatens that she will tell Colonel Fitzwilliam of his behavior in Hertfordshire, his reply is the encouraging “‘I am not afraid of you’” (174). He is smiling.
As stated earlier, Darcy’s smiles are as important in this novel as Elizabeth’s laughter. His smiles indicate the pleasure he finds in her company and conversation. They reflect how strongly attracted he is to her. One way of reading his “I am not afraid of you” is as a response to Elizabeth’s earlier “you are safe from me.” By this point in the novel, Darcy has begun to be open to Elizabeth’s laughter, recognizing both the sexual allure and the invitation to fellowship.
In its verbal brilliance, this scene anticipates a closeness between Elizabeth and Darcy that is yet to come in the plot of the novel. At the beginning of the scene they are speaking directly: “‘[Y]ou mean to frighten me,’” she accuses. “‘You could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you,’” he replies. But by the end of the exchange, when Darcy tells her, “‘You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you, can think any thing wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers”’ (176), they are speaking metaphorically. Elizabeth has offered an analogy between the accomplishment of playing the piano and the verbal, social skill that Darcy admits he lacks. He accepts the analogy—with its implied laughter at his expense—and turns it around so that instead of marking the difference between them—she is good at social conversation; he is not—it focuses on a resemblance which he has come to recognize.
In an earlier conversation, at the Netherfield ball, Elizabeth had said to Mr. Darcy, “‘I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds.’” Although she was being ironic—she goes on to claim that they are both “‘of an unsocial, taciturn disposition’” (91)—she was more right than she realized. Elizabeth’s quick mind and ready wit are more than matched by Mr. Darcy’s intelligence, though her lively spirits are not.
It is this “great similarity in the turn of [their] minds” that makes the relationship between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy an exciting one. “We neither of us perform to strangers” becomes Darcy’s way of telling Elizabeth that he sees the private person beneath the witty verbal performer, and that he is able to appreciate her as “strangers” could not. At the same time he suggests to her that there is more to him also than the surface appearance and asserts a recognition of similarities between them that Elizabeth herself has not discovered yet. It is an invitation to intimacy.
No increase in intimacy results from this conversation because both Darcy and Elizabeth still have much to learn about themselves. Only after the confrontation following Darcy’s first proposal and Darcy’s letter explaining to Elizabeth the real details of his relationship with Wickham can both of them come together as the equals that they are. Darcy has to admit to himself that his pride has been arrogant and ungentlemanlike; Elizabeth has to recognize that she has been mistaken in her judgment and misused her wit. “‘I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to [Mr. Darcy], without any reason,’” she admits to Jane. “‘It is such a spur to one’s genius, such an opening for wit to have a dislike of that kind. One may be continually abusive without saying any thing just; but one cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty’” (225-26).
All this self-knowledge would be irrelevant, however, without the powerful sexual attraction and growing sense of harmony suggested by scenes like the one around the piano at Rosings. The battle of wits between witty heroine and hero may be seen as a type of foreplay. Within the world of romantic comedy, laughter reaffirms life and promises sexual gratification. As a virginal, early nineteenth-century heroine, Elizabeth is not consciously aware of the sexual reverberations of laughter—her conscious focus is on fellowship and community—but the potential for sexual union implicit in her openness to laughter underlies much of her interaction with Mr. Darcy.
When Elizabeth reminds herself that Mr. Darcy “had yet to learn to be laught at” she is looking forward to a time of greater intimacy even as she recognizes that “it was rather too early to begin” (371). Significantly, when the time comes to laugh at Mr. Darcy, it is linked to the intimacy of marriage. Elizabeth’s famous instruction to her younger sister-in-law, “that a woman may take liberties with her husband which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself” (388), not only lets us know that Elizabeth has succeeded in teaching Mr. Darcy to accept laughter of himself but also provides a context for that laughter. The verbal “liberties” that are permissible from a wife are suggestively connected to the physical “liberties” of matrimonial relations. Thus, in the end, laughing at Mr. Darcy becomes a kind of making love.
1. For an analysis of some of the ways in which laughter works in Pride and Prejudice, see Spacks 72-76. See also Stewart’s discussion of the opposition between “wit” and “judgment” and the relationship of Pride and Prejudice to early wit comedy (42-67).
2. For an account of shifting attitudes towards wit, laughter and comedy in the eighteenth and early nineteen centuries, see Tave. For summaries of late eighteenth-/early nineteenth-century attitudes towards laughter, especially as they affected women, see Bilger 15-24 and Castellanos 54-56.
3. See Stewart’s discussion of the connections between wit, power and sexuality (70-71). See also Bilger on how female laughter is linked to “an abandonment to pleasure” (24).
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
Bilger, Audrey. Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1998.
Castellanos, Gabriela. Laughter, War and Feminism: Elements of Carnival in Three of Jane Austen’s Novels. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. “Austen’s Laughter.” Women’s Studies 15 (1988): 71-85.
Stewart, Maaja A. Domestic Realities and Imperial Fictions: Jane Austen’s Novels in Eighteenth-Century Contexts. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1993.
Tave, Stuart M. The Amiable Humorist: A Study in the Comic Theory of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1960.