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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Jane Austen's Punning

“And....there must be so many more throughout her canon and letters that you have yet to find!”

Christy, given that I have never stopped finding them during the nearly 6 years I have been intensively researching her writings (I have found nearly a thousand of them so far, and have only shared a small percentage of them publicly in these groups), I too think it likely there are many many more.

“It certainly makes me wonder why this endeavor into finding the puns of Austen was never pursued in the past and elaborated on.”

Needless to say, I’ve given that question a great deal of thought over the years, and here are my best explanations:


First, it is useful to compare JA’s way of deploying puns and wordplay with that of Shakespeare, whose writings she knew so well. Many (but by all means NOT all) of Shakespeare’s puns and wordplay are deliberately made blatant and made obvious to the audience. It seems that most people take them as comic relief, especially when in the tragedies and court histories, and do not expect them to carry any special thematic meaning. This is particularly the case with the fools, and with certain unique characters like Hamlet and Falstaff who almost cannot speak a sentence without a pun. I think they are very wrong, because Shakespeare, even in his blatant and outrageous puns, almost always had ulterior motives, in terms of slipping in thematic significance.

But in terms of blatantness, JA is quite different from Shakespeare—she almost never makes an obvious pun, she almost always sets them up with total deniability, so that in each individual instance, if you just take them at face value, you can almost always conclude, ‘Oh, it was just unconscious, or, if conscious, a trifle’. It’s only when you realize that there are a thousand of them scattered through her novels, that you realize, this could not possibly be unconscious, or a trifle.
Samuel Johnson, in what is to me one of the most outrageously WRONG and narcissistic pontifications in the history of literary criticism, wrote the following about Shakespeare’s puns, which were also called “quibbles” in his day:

“A quibble is to Shakspeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profluidity of his disquisitions, whether he be enlarging knowledge, or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchanting it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it by the sacrifice of reason, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.”

Basically, Johnson did not get the joke, and blamed the jokester, instead of his own lack of insight.

It seems certain that JA was aware of the above pronouncement by Johnson. One thing I am certain of is that JA did NOT share Johnson’s low estimation of Shakespeare’s punning. But she knew of Johnson’s reputation and that, as a woman, her writing would be taken much less seriously than a man’s writing. So she probably made a mental note as a young adult that she would rise above the blatant punning and wordplay of her juvenilia and be much more subtle in her deployment of puns, precisely so that the Samuel Johnsons of the world would not condemn her own punning in this way.

Indeed, she could no more resist a pun than Shakespeare, but she went about her punning in a characteristically female way, i.e. covertly.


Again, Shakespeare is a touchstone for the second major reason why only a fraction of JA’s puns have been noticed by other scholars, and why I have apparently been the first to find so many of them. If you read the scholarly literature about Shakespeare, you find countless articles and book chapter which focus on particular words and clusters of words, and how Shakespeare uses wordplay thematically. Obviously, Johnson’s edict on Shakespeare’s puns has been laid by the wayside by mainstream Shakespeare literary critics, and so there has been an exhaustive, collective scholarly effort to excavate and explicate a large number of Shakespeare’s puns. There is a whole industry devoted to this effort, which continues apace.

Why? Because he’s Shakespeare, and he was the greatest writer, and he was a man, so everything he wrote has during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries been studied in enormous depth.

Compare that situation to the way JA’s writing has been approached by scholars. You can search high and low in the scholarly literature on her writing, as I have, and the number of papers which have focused on her usages of particular puns, wordplay, etc., make up only a small percentage of the aggregate of scholarly criticism of her work. I believe, pure and simple, it’s a kind of subconscious sexist dismissal, a sense that JA was not in Shakespeare’s league, and so was not worth delving so deeply into all of her arcana and small scale punning and wordplay.

Which is exactly the trap she set for her readers—she figured that if you come to her novels with no expectation that she would be doing anything ambitious or innovative as a writer, then she will give you the novel you expect. But she also took great pains to write so that if you come to her novels with large expectations that she would be doing daring and radically innovative writing, and was hiding stuff everywhere in plain sight, then THAT’s when her novels light up with puns and wordplay like Christmas trees.


The final reason why so many of these puns have been invisible is that detecting them is a specialized skill which requires a great deal of practice to perfect. Anyone who does NY Times crossword puzzles knows that you don’t just start doing the hardest puzzles (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) right away, you have to build up to doing them by starting with the Monday puzzles, and struggling to develop the ability to fill in the gaps in incomplete patterns. It’s a skill that takes time to develop, and then needs to be maintained (use it or lose it).

So, luckily for me, I happen to be a semi-worldclass crossword puzzle solver. When I competed in Will Shortz’s annual national tournament in 2007 after watching the movie Wordplay, I came in #300 out of 750 contestants. I was nowhere close to the level of the very best solvers (they leave me in the dust—and by the way, most of them are young adults), who can do, in 2 minutes, a hard puzzle that I can do in 15 minutes. But the average puzzle solver can’t even make a dent in the hard puzzles. There’s a wide range of ability out there.

Anyway, exactly the same skill is required in order to spot JA’s puns and wordplay. If you are someone who has never developed that skill, then they will be largely invisible to you as you read the text of the novels. But it is 100% certain that JA herself was a worldclass pattern spotter and puzzle solver.

I have spent the last 6 years working very hard to develop to a very high level, my own ability to spot and grasp the significance of, JA’s wordplay. It’s not an accident that I see them where others do not.

Now many Janeites will say, this is not a part of JA’s writing that makes her great. To which I reply, you are wrong, it is part and parcel of her overall greatness. In part, this is because I think JA was always making a very large point, which is that our world is one giant puzzle. To make sense of what is going on around us, we need to treat the world like a puzzle to be solved.

That’s why all her novels are obsessed with epistemology—how do we know what we know? How can be we be sure that what we think we see is real? First impressions, wrong guesses, mysteries—these are recurring themes in her novels because they are recurring themes in real life.

Cheers, ARNIE

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