Classic Remarks: The Funniest Moment in Pride and Prejudice

Classic Remarks

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.

Krysta 64

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10 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: The Funniest Moment in Pride and Prejudice

  1. clairerwong says:

    My favourite moment is when Lady Catherine tries to shut Lizzie down for giving her opinion too strongly especially as she’s so young. She says “You cannot be twenty” and Lizzie corrects her with “I am not one and twenty”. You can just hear the stony silence as Lady Catherine resents being proven wrong on something by her guest!

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  2. Dennis Fleming says:

    Part of Austen’s charm is how her heroine battles with her equals. in this respect, neither Mr Collins nor Lady Catherine are her equals. It’s a rollick to see how Lizzie runs circles around them, but for my money she shines pitted against Darcy. Three scenes come to mind, though I cannot place them precisely in the story.
    1. I believe that Elizabeth is dancing or otherwise engaged singly with Mr Darcy. She sees his haughtiness and comments to him something like, “Oh, you’re just like me. I don’t like to say anything ever unless it is of the utmost importance…”. She criticises herself but really is criticising him.
    2. Miss Bingley has asked Elizabeth to walk with her around the room. Miss Bingley asks Mr Darcy to join them and he says that he won’t. Miss Bingley asks what he should mean and Elizabeth says that they should punish Darcy by not asking him why. Miss Bingley persists and Darcy says that they wouldn’t want him walking with them because either they have something intimate to discuss and he would be in the way or they want to show off their form and he could better appreciate them seated.
    3. Darcy talks about what sort of woman he could love. She must be this, she must be that, etc. He claims that only 4 or 5 women in England have such virtues. Mr Bingley adds some more virtues and Lizzie add some more and when Darcy says, yes those are needed, Elizabeth says, ‘5, I wonder that you can find any at all.’

    Austen is part of the bourgeoisie. This is in the good (pre Marx) sense where value is placed on accomplishment rather than position. Lady Catherine was born to her position, but has no character. Mr Collins owes his position to his toadying up to Lady Catherine. The clergy always seem to suffer under Austen. But Lizzie is capable and she lives in a world where capable women without means are condemned to destitution. Thank god our Lizzie can insult the man of her dreams and get away with it.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I do admit that I love to see Darcy put down Miss Bingley. She clearly isn’t on the intellectual level of Lizzie or Darcy, but it’s still always surprising to see Mr. Darcy give her that subtle dig. And, of course, Miss Bingley isn’t really allowed to reply to it–unless she can think of something clever, which she can’t–because she’s not allowed to call Mr. Darcy impolite outright.

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  3. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    I haven’t read the book, but my favourite funny moment from the BBC adaptation is when they start randomly walking around the room. I just find it so bizarre. 😂 I’m pretty sure it’s in the book as well. 😛

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      • Dennis Fleming says:

        I blathered about this scene earlier, but I think you’ve nailed it. “Mr. Darcy makes fun of it for all of us.” We often look at him as someone who is a bit of a prig, but sometimes he nails it.
        This also suggests a slightly different topic: which movie do you prefer.
        Myself, I have different pulls.
        Weirdly, I do like the Greer Garson/Larry Olivier version. It’s fun, though its relation to the original is as close as lime is to lime jello in flavour. Plus it was written by Aldous Huxley, so it’s something like: Brave Old World.
        I found the 1995 Colin firth version trying. I felt that Lizzie was a bit too petulant and unsure of herself to be believable.
        I did lick the 2005 Keira Knightly version very much. Elizabeth was wilful, strong and capable. Her beauty was diminished by the very lovely (Bond girl) Rosamund Pike’s Jane. Mr Collins was firmly established as a boob and Lady Catherine was somehow out of her league. But what puts it firmly in my mind is Charlotte Lucas’ explanation as to why she is marrying Mr. Collins. The realisation that any of these women could be instantly destitute shines in that exchange.
        I didn’t see the 2003 adaptation, so I can’t comment.
        I did see the 1990 TV adaptation. I remember liking it, I remember liking it more than the 1995 version. I remember liking Colin Firth better when I saw him. I remember nothing more.

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        • Krysta says:

          I’ve always been partial to the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle version. The characters are all pretty much how I imagine them and I love that the mini series format allows the inclusion of just about every moment from the book. The Knightley version condenses the material very successfully, however, and I think that Knightley brings a sharper wit to her performance. At any rate, she seems more daring than Ehle, and often betrays that her remarks are really meant to be insults.

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  4. Nora says:

    Honestly, I think the narrator is the funniest character in P&P. From the first iconic line to the descriptions of how the villagers of Meryton handle any piece of news to my personal favorite moment when Miss Bingley is trying one more time to make fun of Elizabeth, and Darcy bursts out that no, actually, he thinks Elizabeth is really pretty, thankyouverymuch, and “Miss Bingley was left to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself.”
    Makes me cackle every time.

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