Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s prompt is:
What do you think the funniest moment in Pride and Prejudice is?
Not everyone seems to realize just how funny Jane Austen can be. Yes, she writes about people from the past who engage in courtship rituals that readers find either incredibly romantic or amusingly old-fashioned. However, her books aren’t entirely wish fulfillment, the gratification of seeing the right pair fall in love, often against all odds (read: financial odds). Beneath the surface runs Jane Austen’s keen wit, which pokes fun at the social conventions of her day as well as the foibles of her characters. Some consider Austen to write comedies of manners.
My favorite comedic moment occurs when Mr. Collins arrives at Longbourne to determine which of the Bennet sisters he shall marry. After Mr. Collins delivers a compliment, Mr. Bennet innocently says, “It is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?” The question is, of course, meant to poke fun at Mr. Collins’ lack of imagination and general superficiality.
Mr. Collins, however, is so convinced of his own good taste that he does catch the implied judgement. He answers Mr. Bennet very seriousy: “They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.” Without any self-consciousness, Mr. Collins admits he does not possess the wit and intelligence to come up with a compliment on the spot. Rather, he prepares them ahead of time in the hopes of presenting himself as socially smooth. But he’s not smooth enough to keep up the charade when questioned. Indeed, he is so socially inept that he readily admits that his compliments are canned without realizing that this is rather an insult to the ladies who receive them from him!
It’s easy to laugh at Mr. Collins, of course, but Pride and Prejudice is full of such subtle moments. Austen’s trick is that the readers have to feel that they are on the intellectual level of Lizzie Bennet to get the joke. Because you have realized what Mr. Collins has not, that compliments ought to be spontaneous and for the individual, you the reader can feel assured of your social grace and chuckle a little. Jane Austen just made you laugh by making you feel clever.