Irony and Family in Dickens and Austen

The exact reverse of every claim Jane Austen's Mrs. Bennet makes is true: she derives great pleasure from talking to people in general and to her children specifically; people who "suffer" as much as she have a great inclination for talking; everyone knows how much she suffers; and, appropriately, she receives very litle pity, especially from Mr. Bennet or Elizabeth. In comparison, such irony is rarely used in Great Expectations, and rightly so, for Dickens' purpose is not mainly satiric.

Thematically, however, Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations are closely related: marriage is a central concern of both works, and the same pattern of interest-frustration-happy resolution occurs for Elizabeth, Jane, and Pip — it is not until the ends of the books, really the last few pages, that all three "live happily ever after." Similarly, all three are bereft of good examples of happy marriage early on — Elizabeth and Jane caught between a vacuous mother and a concerned but ineffectual father, and Pip influenced by a harridan on one hand and a lunatic ghoul on the other (Mrs. Joe a tyrant within marriage, Havisham obsessed without it.)

Although neither Dickens nor Austen portrays parent figures in a positive light, their respective bad parents are diverse in personality, and a few times contrast sharply. The best example of the later phenomenon I can think of involves the pivotal wives of each book, Mrs. Joe and Mrs. Bennet or (in traditional terms of literary misogyny) the Shrew as Harpy and the True Shrew. The ironic parallel: both torment their offspring, but one raises by hand and the other by mouth.

Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000