Jane Austen’s irony reveals inconsistencies and absurdities within society throughout her fiction. In Pride and Prejudice Austen uses irony in multiple ways, from the mocking of Mr. Collins to the humbling of Elizabeth Bennet. It is Mrs. Bennet, however, to whom Austen applies that irony in a surprising way. By playing into social stereotypes and functioning as a fool character, Mrs. Bennet serves to criticize a patriarchal economy. Mrs. Bennet, however, is more complex than a simple fool; she exhibits the characteristics of ritual or theatrical clowns so that her function is both social commentary and catharsis. Mrs. Bennet is thus a culturally significant character as well as an important piece of Austen’s sparkling comedy.
As a mother of five daughters, Mrs. Bennet must care for them, but she also bears the heavy burden of worrying about and planning for their financial future. The narrator seems to have little interest in or sympathy for Mrs. Bennet, however, for she is described as “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” (5). Elizabeth is sensitive to the degraded position of her mother, lamenting that Mr. Bennet gives her up “to the contempt of her own children” (263). The narrator, however, uses each appearance of Mrs. Bennet as an opportunity to demonstrate her imprudence and lack of sense.
Some critics detect the complexity in Mrs. Bennet’s function. Alice Meynell, in her 1905 touchstone essay on English female writers, names Mrs. Bennet as Austen’s “fool” (858). Judith Wylie argues that Mrs. Bennet satirizes the patriarchal limitations put on women. Although Mrs. Bennet is ridiculous, Wylie explains, Mrs. Bennet’s antics act as a veil through which Austen can criticize society while not scandalizing her audience. Sograh Nodeh theorizes that Mrs. Bennet is specifically a “Bakhtinian fool”: a character who is mocked by the narrator, but who is actually a mask for the author’s own criticisms. Nodah argues that “female authors such as Austen, due to the repressive attitude of male-centered society towards women, prefer to give voice to their radical views against patriarchy ‘through the mouths of comic characters’” (2). Mrs. Bennet’s seemingly endless critical and complaining speeches, bemoaning her daughters’ circumstances, tire her husband and daughters and the reader.
In fact, it is interesting how often Mrs. Bennet disrespects or complains to men about her or her daughters’ misfortunes, as if to cry directly to the patriarchy itself without being detected as a revolutionary. Mrs. Bennet is largely unrestrained in public settings, exposing her impertinence. She seems to have little knowledge of tact. Her pleasure in success is expressed without modesty, and her jealousies of or supposed superiority over her friends, such as Lady Lucas, are inartfully veiled. At the Netherfield Ball, Elizabeth is forced to endure her mother’s loud speeches to Lady Lucas about Jane’s expected, advantageous marriage:
In vain did Elizabeth endeavour to check the rapidity of her mother’s words, or persuade her to describe her felicity in a less audible whisper; for to her inexpressible vexation, she could perceive that the chief of it was overheard by Mr. Darcy, who sat opposite to them. Her mother only scolded her for being nonsensical.
“What is Mr. Darcy to me, pray, that I should be afraid of him? I am sure we owe him no such particular civility as to be obliged to say nothing he may not like to hear.”
“For heaven’s sake, madam, speak lower.—What advantage can it be for you to offend Mr. Darcy?—You will never recommend yourself to his friend by so doing.”
Nothing that she could say, however, had any influence. Her mother would talk of her views in the same intelligible tone. Elizabeth blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation. (111–12)
In this excerpt, Mrs. Bennet’s power to mortify her daughter is felt in the extreme. Mrs. Bennet is a dangerous fool, all her socially unacceptable characteristics combining here, capable of ruining her daughter’s prospects in one night. Although Austen positions Mrs. Bennet as a fool, guaranteeing her status as an insignificant voice for the reader, a closer look at Mrs. Bennet’s speeches reveals her as an ironic vocalizer of female frustrations. At Elizabeth’s reminder of Darcy’s presence, Mrs. Bennet declares, “‘What is Mr. Darcy to me, pray, that I should be afraid of him? I am sure we owe him no such particular civility as to be obliged to say nothing he may not like to hear.’” Though Mr. Darcy is a man with great economic and societal advantage, particularly because of his wealth and friendship with Mr. Bingley, Mrs. Bennet is unintimidated by his wealth and status. Her careless attitude toward him is an act of rebellion against not only his unpleasing manner but his social and economic power.
Mr. Collins is another potentially powerful male criticized by Mrs. Bennet. Upon his arrival, Mr. Collins compliments Mrs. Bennet’s daughters and expresses confidence in them all soon being married, but, although Mrs. Bennet is flattered, her anxiety doesn’t disappear: “‘You are very kind, sir, I am sure; and I wish with all my heart it may prove so, for else they will be destitute enough. Things are settled so oddly’” (72). Mrs. Bennet cannot help herself; she must protest, and she must whine. When Mrs. Bennet says something inappropriate or embarrassing to her family, she never stops at one iteration, even if her daughters, namely Elizabeth and Jane, try to dissuade her from airing her opinions loudly.
Meynell praises Austen’s use of repetition as a comedic tool and specifically notes the repetition of Mrs. Bennet’s speeches. At the Netherfield Ball, Elizabeth is forced to endure her mother’s loud speeches about Jane’s expected, advantageous marriage. Meynell defines this technique as “the iteration of little touches” (862) and specifically refers to Mrs. Bennet’s many complaints about the entail on the estate. At the arrival of Mr. Collins’s letter, the Bennet family is reminded of the entail and their future disinheritance. Mrs. Bennet’s repeated complaints and inquiries about the entail demonstrate her lack of understanding: “‘I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children; and I am sure, if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it’” (69). Blaming the entail on Mr. Bennet for allowing it or on Mr. Collins for taking it is, of course, nonsensical because it is an establishment that predates them: neither Mr. Bennet nor Mr. Collins is responsible for the entail. Austen uses irony here to illustrate Mrs. Bennet’s comically narrow mind but also voices a justified complaint and critique of the legal system. Austen seems to be simultaneously downplaying and criticizing the Bennets’ economic situation. Judith Lowder Newton argues that the novel is set up by Austen to “recogniz[e] the shaping influence of economics but [deny] its force” to elevate the status of female will (34). Newton also points out that it is only Mrs. Bennet who takes their economic situation seriously. Newton’s argument is compelling, but I want to argue for yet a deeper use of Mrs. Bennet’s comical outbursts.
The narrator’s critical eye, Mrs. Bennet’s behavior, and her absurd, disparaging speeches combine to resemble a well-known figure in literature, religion, and theatre around the globe: the clown. In many ways, the clown figure is enigmatic, popping up in various places and in various ways—from the Hopi ritual clowning to Charlie Chaplin—but there are some key characteristics. The clown is simultaneously a part of the larger society and detached from it, “not know[ing] or disregard[ing] all conventions,” “deliberately outlandish and yet undoubtedly familiar” (Zucker 310–11). By social class, the clown is often poor and lowly, often dressed in bizarre attire and strange makeup, such as mud or paint. He or she is connected to fertility and sexuality, in some cultures being one of the few figures expected and encouraged to be sexually explicit in public. In many cultures, the clown is at liberty to mock and imitate the highest authority in the community, and no one is allowed to be offended. There is also a “grievance-clown,” practiced by the Witotos in South America; during a dance, a man can put on a large, “foolish” hat and express a complaint against a member of the community in a short recital (Charles 29).
At face value, the only one of these criteria Mrs. Bennet lacks is the proper dress of a clown—something outlandish, bizarre, and unusually painted. It can be assumed that within the confines of Austen’s realistic novel and the values of her time, the clown dress was discarded. Wolfgang M. Zucker has his own theory about the disappearance of the clown in Austen’s time: “playing a role [was then] understood as a dishonest disguising of what one really is and repudiated as a deliberate lie. What place had the clown there? He had none, and no century was poorer in comical figures than the 19th” (315). The clown does play a role, but one that releases its audience from their own roleplaying, an aspect that may have been easily misunderstood in the nineteenth century. Austen’s clown, then, is hidden in plainly clothed sight.
Most importantly, the clown fills a necessary role in society: the laughter-maker, the Delight Maker,1 and the liberator of the collective psyche. Lucile Hoerr Charles explains that when a community is consumed by high ambition, by greed for intellect and power, the clown serves to bring them back to earth, to the humble and the everyday. Moreover, Charles says that the clown taps into and expresses the “psychological element” that has been causing conflict or tension in “the unconscious” (32). In the clown’s appearance, behavior, and speech, an underlying element of society is exaggerated to “symbolize” that which is causing conflict and to “hold [it] up for [clearer] understanding” (33). Given this definition of the clown figure, Mrs. Bennet’s character can be examined for a deeper look at Austen’s novel and the society it depicts.
Mrs. Bennet is a core member of her family and her neighborhood. Her time and energy are focused on her daughters, and, in this way, she represents the familiar face of motherhood. But the narrator ensures that the reader has no delusions: Mrs. Bennet is not on equal footing with even her own family. First, Mrs. Bennet comes from a lower social class than her husband, and therefore, from her daughters. While her daughters were born into the landed gentry, Mrs. Bennet’s father “had been an attorney in Meryton,” and she has “a brother settled in London in a respectable line of trade” (31). Most notably, Mrs. Bennet’s behavior and intelligence are called into question throughout the novel. Mr. Bennet leaves the room to escape Mrs. Bennet’s “raptures” (8), feeling indifferent towards his wife except “as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement” (262). Elizabeth and Jane are regularly embarrassed by their mother, and her speeches at the Netherfield ball motivate Mr. Darcy’s interference in Bingley’s courtship of Jane. Mrs. Bennet is often depicted as an impediment to rational conversation and decision-making, although her schemes are sometimes successful. For instance, when Jane catches a cold riding on horseback to Netherfield, cleverly plotted by her mother, the result is Jane’s extended stay with the Bingleys. Moreover, Jane’s extended stay brings Elizabeth to Netherfield, where she captures the affections of Mr. Darcy. In a particularly comical scene later, Mrs. Bennet successfully isolates Jane and Mr. Bingley in the sitting room in the hope that Bingley will propose. Mrs. Bennet is described as “looking and winking at Elizabeth and Catherine for a considerable time,” to which Kitty stupidly responds, “‘What is the matter mamma? What do you keep winking at me for?’” (382).
Indeed, the “business of [Mrs. Bennet’s] life was to get her daughters married” (5). Mrs. Bennet is consumed by her interest in courtship and matrimony. In Jane’s situation, it is Mrs. Bennet who procures most of the significant opportunities for Jane and Mr. Bingley to fall in love. Mrs. Bennet, however, is an amateur cupid; she is hilariously wrong as often as she is right in matters of marriage: Elizabeth is pressured by her mother to accept Mr. Collins, and then Mrs. Bennet behaves coldly to both Elizabeth and the Lucases when Charlotte marries him instead; Lydia leaves for Brighton with visions of officers in her head and no word of caution from her mother. From the compatible pairing of Jane and Bingley to the tragic yoking of Lydia and Mr. Wickham, Mrs. Bennet plays a supporting role in the unions of her daughters.
Mrs. Bennet’s role as an absurd mother obsessed with getting her daughters married despite their economic disadvantage sets her up as the clown of the novel: familiar as a mother, poorer in status, defiant of decorum, and a decided meddler in romantic affairs (the absence of a clown’s explicitly sexual humor is a given characteristic of any Austen novel).
Finally, Mrs. Bennet is an exaggerated depiction of the female anxiety bubbling just below the surface. She taps into the daily restrictions and economic disadvantages women face: the awareness that their fates are precarious, dependent on the good will and affection of powerful men. Mrs. Bennet’s petty remarks and jealousies serve as comical releases of real emotions and anxieties within women. From the opening interaction between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (“‘for it will be impossible for us to visit him, if you do not’” ) to Mrs. Bennet’s exclamations at the news of Darcy’s proposal (“‘how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have!’” ), Mrs. Bennet expresses the limited independence of women and the economic risk they face. In fact, it is Mrs. Bennet’s outcry that nearly forfeits her daughter’s happiness. Austen, however, cannot let Mrs. Bennet have the definitive power in the book. Mrs. Bennet must be harmless so that her critique of female disadvantage will be allowed by the audience and the expectation of a satisfying, romantic ending will be fulfilled.
For all the damage Mrs. Bennet wreaks on her daughters’ chances for happiness, therefore, she is ultimately harmless. Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth despite her connections, paving the way for his own happiness as well as Jane and Bingley’s. Mrs. Bennet’s ignorance gives Lydia up to misery with Mr. Wickham, but the other Bennet daughters are effectively saved from Lydia’s stupidity. As a member of the society in which he or she plays a role, the clown does as much to strengthen and confirm the society’s norms and standards as it does to challenge the status quo. At the end of the novel, Mrs. Bennet is overjoyed at the prospect of having Mr. Darcy as a son-in-law, saying to Elizabeth: “‘Oh, my dear Lizzy! pray apologise for my having disliked him so much before. I hope he will overlook it. Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town! Every thing that is charming! Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord!’” (419–20). Where Mrs. Bennet earlier denounced Mr. Darcy as a person not worth obliging, she now hopes her previous comments have not insulted him. In other words, Mrs. Bennet hopes that her complaints about the economic status of her daughters will not insult the very person who is able to help her daughters climb the ladder of wealth and social position. The reversal of Mrs. Bennet’s attitude does not serve to replace her previous complaints but instead should be seen as a deliberate contrast to them. In this juxtaposition of social criticism and conformity lies the power of the ironic clown. In this sense, Austen can both have her cake and eat it. Her readers are forced to reckon with the tension between reform and reconciliation, and they do so with a laugh and a smile. It is this combination that protects the sparkling nature of Austen’s novel while making it a cultural touchstone worthy of study. Just as Mrs. Bennet confirms the patriarchal norms now benefiting her family, the effective release of her criticism still stands.