Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 23
In the Service of Comedy
Jane Austen, the quintessential female wit, holds a unique place in literary history. The greatest female literary artist of her time, she altered the steps of fiction’s dance. As Regina Barreca explains in her new book on women and humor, They Used to Call Me Snow White … But I Drifted, “women have been labelled as ‘unfunny,’ as less likely to laugh than their male counterparts. It’s been an unspoken but unwavering assumption that women and men have different reactions to humor, as well as different ways of using it. The noted psychologist Rose Laub Coser, argues: … ‘women are expected to be passive and receptive, rather than active and initiating’. ”1 Austen endows her most beloved heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, with a devilish tongue. Elizabeth’s intelligence helps her control her unfortunate indenture to a society which underrates her. Every joke she makes at Darcy’s expense brings her closer to marriage with him. It is a marriage achieved through a series of games she plays with her partner to prove her worth. Austen suggests that intelligence is as valuable as social position. She celebrates the human intelligence. As Barreca says, making a joke is a political gesture – a response to one’s feelings of powerlessness.2 Critic Emily Toth asserts that “women humorists attack – or subvert – the deliberate choices people make; hypocrisies, affectations, mindless following of social expectations.”3 Elizabeth’s quips are her ticket to the upper echelons of a society for which she is frankly unqualified by birthright or education. Elizabeth is undaunted by her lack of weapons in life. She does not feel her “bow” is too light; her aim is true and the arrow of her wit flies straight to its mark. She is a heroine we can embrace two hundred years after her birth as an example of what a woman’s intelligence can accomplish. She succeeds to the fullest extent possible given her society’s limits. Indeed, this is all any of us can hope to do. Austen extends the limitations of Elizabeth’s world to allow for an unexpectedly happy future for her. Collins is the logical choice for Elizabeth’s partner, but Austen shows us how ridiculous such a match would be. In making her readers see this too, she challenges the very foundations of her society. Elizabeth’s dancing feet take her to the altar with the partner of her choice.
1 Regina Barreca, They Used to Call Me Snow White . . . But I Drifted (New York: Viking Press, 1991), p. 6.
2 Barreca, p. 15.
3 Barreca. p. 13.