Manners have survived throughout the many passing years of history and culture to influence the ways human beings interact even today in the way we relate to one another: what is acceptable and unacceptable social behavior. Proper manners in everything from conversation to eating have long been distinguishing mark of social status. Even now they are often important in business and social situations. But in the eighteenth century, manners were paramount.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, set at the end of the eighteenth century, explores the many humorous eccentricities in a world of etiquette and proper conduct. When love, pride, clumsiness and transparency are all run through the gauntlet of delicate manners, a whimsical sort of satire is achieved. The context of propriety creates the cunning irony that brings this book to life.
A perfect example of the irony in Pride and Prejudice is seen in the relationship of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. While Mrs. Bennet is constantly theatrical and melodramatic, Mr. Bennet is very quiet and reserved. Mr. Bennet is always toying with his wife's tendencies to exaggeration. When Elizabeth Bennet refuses to marry the dim-witted and unattractive Mr. Collins, her mother is inconsolable. She bursts into a fit and tells Elizabeth that if she doesn't marry Mr. Collins, then she will disown her as a daughter. Mr. Bennet at this point steps in and provides the ironical relief:
"An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. --Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do." (p...
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From the bumbling Mr. Collins, who means less than he says, to the ironical parries of Ms. Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice is certainly a comedy of manners. Each character, in their own way is either outside the traditional bounds of propriety, or bound within them so clumsily that even sincerity often comes across as humorous. In each situation shown, the characters began in a context of manners that set stage for the illuminating irony each character in some way sets forth. As shown through the situations and characters in the novel, Pride and Prejudice is a book brought to life by the context of propriety. Within this context are created the many ironical contradictions and pretenses exposed by its various colorful characters.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Airmont Books, 1992.
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