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The role of the comic heroine : a study of the relationship between subject matter and the comic form in the novels of Jane Austen Parker, Margaret Anne

Abstract

Throughout her novels, Jane Austen exhibits an acute awareness of the problems facing the sensitive, intelligent women of her day in a society which effectively keeps them in a position of inferiority. She exposes their faulty moral training, their inadequate education, their lack of opportunity for independence or any gainful employment, their social and economic dependence on the male and the resulting, inevitable and often defective preparation for marriage around which their youth is centered. Despite her concern for the individual woman, from which tragic implications occasionally emerge, her focus remains on society as a whole, and especially on the problems of male egoism and sentimentalism which block, by the subjugation of women, the evolution of a freer and possibly more creative society. All these social manifestations seem to be manifestations of the comic form as defined by such critics as George Meredith, Henri Bergson, Susanne Langer and particularly Northrop Frye, who specifically outlines the archetypal pattern of comic action. The subjection of women can be seen as the "absurd or irrational law" which Frye contends the action of comedy moves toward breaking; in Bergson's terms, it is an example of something mechanical, automatic and rigid superimposed on living society, which only laughter can remove; in Meredith's, the cause of "the basic insincerity of the relations between the sexes," and a demonstration of the vanity, self-deception and lack of consideration for others, which he considers legitimate targets for the Comic Spirit; in Langer's, a grave threat to "the continuous balance of sheer vitality that belongs to society" and which it is the function of comedy to maintain. Parents and all other members of the society, whether young or old, male or female, who consciously or unconsciously endorse the concept of female inferiority, are identifiable as the obstructing, usurping characters who, in Frye's terms, are in control at the beginning of a comedy. The comic heroine's struggle for self-realization against the obstacles they place in her path—particularly her defective and misdirected education and the traditional pattern of courtship to which they try to force her to conform—constitutes the comic action. The comic resolution is, of course, her eventual victory which enables her to find self-fulfilment in the marriage of her choice. Ever since its emergence as a form from the ancient Greek death-and-resurrection rites, comedy has been a celebration of life, of the absolute value of the group and of the forces through which society is perpetually regenerated. As the comic form has evolved, however, its social and moral implications have widened. Bergson and Meredith believe that comedy, because it works toward removing the anti-social, is "a premise to civilization." Jane Austen's novels reflect this view and demonstrate Frye's parallel contention that the movement of comedy is toward a more ideal society which forms around the redemptive marriage of the hero and heroine and which tends to include rather than reject the obstructing characters. Based on the potential equality of men and women, the new society envisioned at the conclusion of Jane Austen's novels replaces the old, anti-social isolation with a new and vital communication among the members, and thus provides a framework within which men and women can work together, each contributing his special talents toward the public interest. Since this new, ideal society is not only the goal of the comic action but also the only area in which the heroine can find self-realization, it represents the ultimate conjunction of the comic form and the role of the comic heroine to be found in Jane Austen's work.

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