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ConnieAnnKirk
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Austen's Wit

Here's a question from our B&N Classics edition of the novel (p. 423):
 
"Jane Austen is famous for her wit, but she is not witty in general; her wit, like that of Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain, is at the expense of something or someone.  What are the objects of Austen's wit?  Can you draw up a list of characteristics or a general structure of her wit?"
 
I'm not sure Austen uses wit at the expense of someone so much as she does at the conventions of her day, such as in courtship, property ownership, etc.  What do others of you think?
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Everyman
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Re: Austen's Wit

Well, let's take, for example, two related early passages from Chapter 1, both concerning Mrs Norris:

Mrs N speaking: "Is she not a sister's child? and could I bear to see her want, while I had a bit of bread to give her? My dear Sir Thomas, with all my faults I have a warm heart: and, poor as I am, wold rather dny myself the necessaries of life than do an ungenerous thing."

a paragraph later, Austen speaking: As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others: but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.

Now, isn't this sly wit at the expense of Mrs. N?
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dulcinea3
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Re: Austen's Wit

[ Edited ]
I think that Austen often has characters in her novels that she uses to comic effect.  As Everyman noted, Mrs. Norris is one such character in Mansfield Park.  I think that Lady Bertram is another.  She is just so indolent, and is sometimes described as being barely conscious, or when she has the least emotion, it is a profound moment, as well as her concerns about her pug and how she just cannot do without Fanny, unless someone else is available.
 
Characters from other novels that come to mind are Sir Walter, with his overblown pride, and sister Mary, with her hypochondria, from Persuasion, Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, and Mrs. Elton, again with a superiority complex, from Emma.  Miss Bates is also a figure of fun, but apparently Austen finds it acceptable for herself, as the author, to make fun, but not characters in the novel, because we know what happens when Emma herself does so.
 
It seems to me that Austen often uses these characters to criticise certain personality traits, such as arrogant pride (Sir Walter, Mary, Mrs. Elton), or sucking up to others in order to advance one's own social standing (Mrs. Norris, Mr. Collins).  She is merciless with characters such as these.  On the other hand, there is a more benevolent fun that she is having with some characters, such as Lady Bertram or Miss Bates, who are essentially good people.  I think that the term 'at their expense' applies more to the first type of characters, but not the second.


Message Edited by dulcinea3 on 05-15-2008 11:27 AM
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Re: Austen's Wit

I like most of your post, but I'm not sure I agree that Lady Bertram is used as an object of wit, even kindly wit. I see her as primarily a background for the other characters to move against, basically not there but every now and them raising her spirit enough to make an insipid remark. If there is a joke there, perhaps it's in the extreme contrast between the amount of energy shown by the two sisters, Lady B and Mrs N. That and drawing a picture of how unattached to life it was possible for the wife of an aristocrat to be in those days. And not only possible, but perhaps for a country life virtually inevitable.

With servants to take care of the house and grounds, nurses and governesses to raise the children, and few if any neighbors worthy of one of her rank to visit, really, what do we expect her to do with her days? (I know -- we here would the whole day reading and love it, but she doesn't appear to be as addicted to books as we are!)


dulcinea3 wrote:
I think that Austen often has characters in her novels that she uses to comic effect. As Everyman noted, Mrs. Norris is one such character in Mansfield Park. I think that Lady Bertram is another. She is just so indolent, and is sometimes described as being barely conscious, or when she has the least emotion, it is a profound moment, as well as her concerns about her pug and how she just cannot do without Fanny, unless someone else is available.
Characters from other novels that come to mind are Sir Walter, with his overblown pride, and sister Mary, with her hypochondria, from Persuasion, Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, and Mrs. Elton, again with a superiority complex, from Emma. Miss Bates is also a figure of fun, but apparently Austen finds it acceptable for herself, as the author, to make fun, but not characters in the novel, because we know what happens when Emma herself does so.
It seems to me that Austen often uses these characters to criticise certain personality traits, such as arrogant pride (Sir Walter, Mary, Mrs. Elton), or sucking up to others in order to advance one's own social standing (Mrs. Norris, Mr. Collins). She is merciless with characters such as these. On the other hand, there is a more benevolent fun that she is having with some characters, such as Lady Bertram or Miss Bates, who are essentially good people. I think that the term 'at their expense' applies more to the first type of characters, but not the second.


Message Edited by dulcinea3 on 05-15-2008 11:27 AM


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dulcinea3
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Re: Austen's Wit

I do see a gentle wit being used for Lady Bertram.  Of course, there are all the mentions of her indolence.  Just little jabs, like her not understanding why anyone should need to exercise, since she would never think of it herself, her being surprised that Mrs. Grant was married comfortably, when she was not handsome (and apparently repeating this over and over while Mrs. Norris complained about Mrs. Grant's lack of frugality), and that sort of thing.  The card game at the Parsonage where she first had to have her husband decide which game she would prefer, and then she could not understand the rules at all, and Henry Crawford had not only to play her hands but keep her from breaking the rules, was rather amusing. 
 
"I hope your ladyship is pleased with the game."

"Oh dear, yes! very entertaining indeed.  A very odd game.
I do not know what it is all about.  I am never to see
my cards; and Mr. Crawford does all the rest."
 
Then, there are her repeated self-congratulatory references to having sent her maid up to Fanny before the ball, and therefore taking all the credit for Fanny's appearance (although Fanny didn't even use the maid) for days afterwards.
 
"Yes, she does look very well," was Lady Bertram's placid reply.
"Chapman helped her to dress.  I sent Chapman to her."
Not but that she was really pleased to have Fanny admired;
but she was so much more struck with her own kindness
in sending Chapman to her, that she could not get it out
of her head.
 
And later, after Crawford has made his intentions known:
 
"I will tell you what, Fanny," said she, "I am sure he
fell in love with you at the ball; I am sure the mischief
was done that evening.  You did look remarkably well.
Everybody said so.  Sir Thomas said so.  And you know
you had Chapman to help you to dress.  I am very glad
I sent Chapman to you.  I shall tell Sir Thomas that I
am sure it was done that evening."
 
I like these quotes:
 
The preparations meanwhile went on, and Lady Bertram continued
to sit on her sofa without any inconvenience from them.
 
She was almost at the door,
and not chusing by any means to take so much trouble in vain,
she still went on,...
 
Lady Bertram's
being just on the other side of the table was a trifle,
for she might always be considered as only half-awake,...
 
By one of the suffering party within they were expected
with such impatience as she had never known before.
Fanny had scarcely passed the solemn-looking servants,
when Lady Bertram came from the drawing-room to meet her;
came with no indolent step; and falling on her neck, said,
"Dear Fanny! now I shall be comfortable."


I find these passages quite amusing.  I think that Austen is making a bit of fun of Lady Bertram, although she is not trying to make her a disagreeable character by it.
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Audrey555
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Re: Austen's Wit

I think the objects of Austen's wit are several groups, 1) Wealthy people, 2) Clergymen and 3) Pleasing ones.
 
Austen respects wealthy people who perform their duties as landlords and masters, but she despises those who misuse their positions and class in the society.
 
Clergymen constantly appear in Austen's novels.  She praises the ones who live their lives as they preach (Edmund in MP), but she criticizes the ones who do not (Dr. Grant loves food and drink). 
 
Austen also does not respect people who love to please.  For example, in MP, Mrs. Norris loves to please everyone except Fanny. 
 
Author
ConnieAnnKirk
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Re: Austen's Wit

Good points here, Audrey555!  Your observations make me think how much influence her father's occupation (as a clergyman) and her brother's as the same most likely influenced her. 
 
~ConnieK
 


Audrey555 wrote:
I think the objects of Austen's wit are several groups, 1) Wealthy people, 2) Clergymen and 3) Pleasing ones.
 
Austen respects wealthy people who perform their duties as landlords and masters, but she despises those who misuse their positions and class in the society.
 
Clergymen constantly appear in Austen's novels.  She praises the ones who live their lives as they preach (Edmund in MP), but she criticizes the ones who do not (Dr. Grant loves food and drink). 
 
Austen also does not respect people who love to please.  For example, in MP, Mrs. Norris loves to please everyone except Fanny. 
 



~ConnieAnnKirk




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dulcinea3
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Re: Austen's Wit



Audrey555 wrote:
 
Austen also does not respect people who love to please.  For example, in MP, Mrs. Norris loves to please everyone except Fanny. 

Like the other categories you point out, Austen also makes a distinction here.  Fanny is even more anxious to please everyone (even Mrs. Norris most of the time), but that is out of gratitude and also a real concern about others.  Whereas Mrs. Norris' motivations are from wanting to suck up to people of a higher social standing than herself.
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Laurel
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Re: Austen's Wit

Good point.

dulcinea3 wrote:


Audrey555 wrote:
Austen also does not respect people who love to please. For example, in MP, Mrs. Norris loves to please everyone except Fanny.

Like the other categories you point out, Austen also makes a distinction here. Fanny is even more anxious to please everyone (even Mrs. Norris most of the time), but that is out of gratitude and also a real concern about others. Whereas Mrs. Norris' motivations are from wanting to suck up to people of a higher social standing than herself.



"Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it." ~~G.K. Chesterton
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Audrey555
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Re: Austen's Wit

Yes, I agree with your point completely. 
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