According to Literary Devices, “Comedy is a literary genre and a type of dramatic work that is amusing and satirical in its tone, mostly having a cheerful ending. The motif of this dramatic work is triumph over unpleasant circumstance by creating comic effects, resulting in a happy or successful conclusion. There are five types of comedy in literature:
“Romantic comedy involves a theme of love leading to a happy conclusion. We find romantic comedy in Shakespearean plays and some Elizabethan contemporaries. These plays are concerned with idealized love affairs. It is a fact that true love never runs smoothly; however, love overcomes difficulties and ends in a happy union.
“Ben Johnson is the first dramatist who conceived and popularized comedy of humors. The term humor derives from the Latin word humor, which means “liquid.” It comes from a theory that the human body has four liquids, or humors, which include phelgm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile. It explains that, when human beings have a balance of these humors in their bodies, they remain healthy.
“Comedy of Manners deals with intrigues and relations of ladies and gentlemen living in a sophisticated society. This form relies upon high comedy, derived from sparkle and wit of dialogues, violations of social traditions, and good manners, by nonsense characters like jealous husbands, wives, and foppish dandies. We find its use in Restoration dramatists, particularly in the works of Wycherley and Congreve.
“Sentimental drama contains both comedy and sentimental tragedy. It appears in literary circles due to reaction of the middle class against obscenity and indecency of Restoration Comedy of Manners. This form, which incorporates scenes with extreme emotions evoking excessive pity, gained popularity among the middle class audiences in the eighteenth century.
“Tragicomedy contains both tragic and comedic elements. It blends both elements to lighten the overall mood of the play. Often, tragicomedy is a serious play that ends happily.”
English literature has a long history of comedic novels. “The phrase Romantic novel has several possible meanings. Here it refers to novels written during the Romantic era in literary history, which runs from the late 18th century until the beginning of the Victorian era in 1837. But to complicate matters there are novels written in the romance tradition by novelists like Sir Walter Scott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Meredith. In addition the phrase today is mostly used to refer to the popular fiction genre that focusses on romantic love. The Romantic period is especially associated with the poets William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Byron, Percy Shelley and John Keats, though two major novelists, Jane Austen and Walter Scott, also published in the early 19th century.” (English novel) Later, England gave us the likes of Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, etc.
One thing that is obvious when studying Austen’s works is that her books are not all great comic hits. Let’s face it: Persuasion, Emma, and Mansfield Park lack the comedic elements found in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and my comedic favorite, Lady Susan. Pride and Prejudice provides us with a parade of comedic characters: Mr. Bennet (charming , but indolence), Mrs. Bennet (obsessed with marrying off her daughters), Lydia and Kitty Bennet (silly girls), Mary Bennet (moralizing), Jane Bennet (too good to be true, crafted in Cinderella’s image), Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst (snobbish and conniving women), Sir William Lucas (living beyond his means), Mr. Collins (bungling and long-winded), and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (proud beyond reason). Only Darcy and Elizabeth escape the stroke of the comic elements for they are the “romance” in the romantic comedy. Although often they do not act with reason at times in the story, especially with their initial dismissal of each other as a potential mate, they are not characters to be laughed at. Note Austen’s many hints to that fact:
Elizabeth laughed heartily at this picture of herself, and said to Colonel Fitzwilliam, “Your cousin will give you a very pretty notion of me, and teach you not to believe a word I say. I am particularly unlucky in meeting with a person so well able to expose my real character, in a part of the world where I had hoped to pass myself off with some degree of credit. Indeed, Mr. Darcy, it is very ungenerous in you to mention all that you knew to my disadvantage in Hertfordshire — and, give me leave to say, very impolitic too — for it is provoking me to retaliate, and such things may come out, as will shock your relations to hear.”
“I am not afraid of you,” said he, smilingly.
“But upon my honour I do not. I do assure you that my intimacy has not yet taught me that. Teaze calmness of temper and presence of mind! No, no — I feel he may defy us there. And as to laughter, we will not expose ourselves, if you please, by attempting to laugh without a subject. Mr. Darcy may hug himself.”
“Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!” cried Elizabeth. “That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintance. I dearly love a laugh.”
“Miss Bingley,” said he, “has given me credit for more than can be. The wisest and the best of men, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.”
“Certainly,” replied Elizabeth — “there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. — But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.”
“Laugh as much as you chuse, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion. My dearest Lizzy, do but consider in what a disgraceful light it places Mr. Darcy, to be treating his father’s favourite in such a manner, — one, whom his father had promised to provide for. — It is impossible. No man of common humanity, no man who had any value for his character, could be capable of it. Can his most intimate friends be so excessively deceived in him? oh! no.”
In Austen’s works and others that followed, the comedy is used to depict a series of stumbles before the hero and heroine are joined in a “happily ever after” type marriage. The couple manages to fall into one mess after the other and climbs over, through, and around a number of obstacles before they can claim what the reader hopes will be an ideal marriage. Those obstacles follow a particular pattern or motif:
- intervention by a busybody, know-it all (i.e., Darcy and the Bingley sisters’ intervention in the life of Charles Bingley and Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Emma’s intervention in the life of Harriet Smith and Robert Martin in Emma)
- prior commitments (i.e., Darcy’s supposed engagement to his cousin Anne de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice and Edward Ferrars’s engagement to Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility)
- opposition of the old to the idea of young love (i.e., Lady Russell opposes Anne Elliot aligning herself with Captain Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion; Fanny Price’s coming to live at Mansfield Park was originally argued by Sir Thomas, who worried about his sons’ approximation with a girl of no fortune. Also in Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris is far more concerned with rank and status than her sister, Lady Bertram. She doesn’t view Fanny Price with same respect and care she reserves for her Bertram nieces, Maria and Julia. She is generally dismissive of Fanny especially, and is very callous about Fanny’s health and well-being—much to Edmund’s intense annoyance and displeasure.
- initial hostilities between the hero and heroine based on misunderstandings (i.e. Darcy and Elizabeth are placed behind the eight ball due to their faulty first impressions.)
- misjudging the true hero, preferring instead the “perfection” of the conniving pretty boy (i.e., Elizabeth Bennet’s preference for George Wickham and Marianne Dashwood’s preference for Mr. Willoughby)
- manipulations of the hero’s rival (i.e., George Wickham’s tales of woes to destroy Darcy’s reputations, George Wickham’s elopement with Lydia Bennet, and John Thorpe’s keeping Catherine Morland from Henry Tilney)
Some often criticize Austen for not adding more social commentary to her stories—the slave trade, the lack of rights of women, etc.—but such does not fit the characteristics of the romantic comedy. That does not mean that Austen does not address the realities of life during the Regency era. Austen includes characters such as Lady Russell in Persuasion, who speaks of Anne’s inability to live on her own while Captain Wentworth is away at war. Then there is James Morland in Northanger Abbey. James is a bit naive, though he seems to suspect that something is seriously amiss with Isabella’s behavior fairly early. James definitely learns a harsh lesson about trusting people and forming relationships in the book, and it is a lesson that he imparts to Catherine, like a good, protective older brother. We see the same sensibility from Charlotte Lucas, who in Pride and Prejudice, agrees to marry Mr. Collins, although she would rather remain unmarried. She accepts what she cannot change and makes the best of it. All these characters bring social injustices to light, but these failures of humanity do not swallow up the tale. The simply remind the reader of what could happen in the real world. They do not take away from the happy ending expected in a romantic comedy.