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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, January 21, 2013

Kitty's Indiscreet Coughing in P&P: A Better Explanation


Nearly a year and a half ago, I wrote a post about Kitty Bennet's coughing in Chapter 2 of P&P, in which I provided an explanation for her coughing other than a physical ailment:

In the end of that post, I argued as follows that Kitty's coughing was an expression of sarcasm directed at her mother's carping about Mrs. Long:

"...Kitty’s coughing mysteriously begins, it seems, precisely at the moment when her mother called Mrs. Long “a selfish, hypocritical woman”. Kitty is clearly invoking, in so many words, the proverbial pot calling the kettle black! And that in turn explains Mrs. Bennet’s reaction—she
does not respond to Mr. Bennet’s droll comment, but instead lashes out at Kitty, not because she is afraid of her husband, but precisely because she has understood Kitty’s insulting innuendo was directed at Mrs. Bennet! But just as Kitty conveys her deeper meaning by implication, so too does Mrs. Bennet take her revenge by implication.
And here’s the best part--Mr. Bennet has also understood this subtextual duel between his wife and his daughter, and he weighs in with typical droll irony, pointing out ---with implied approval—that Kitty has been indiscreet in insulting her mother, and further approving of Kitty’s timing—it was “ill” timing only in Mrs. Bennet’s mind, but it was perfect timing from the point of view of delivering a real zinger. And then Kitty replies, in code, that she does not cough for her own amusement—but what she leaves unspoken, but nonetheless understood by her father, is that she did cough for his amusement---and she succeeded in amusing him, because he never misses a chance to laugh at his wife!"  END QUOTE

This morning, I realized that even though the above is indeed a plausible alternative explanation for Kitty's coughing, there is actually an even more elegant and fitting alternative explanation hiding in plain sight, which I missed  the first time around

The key was in look at the full context of the scene. What is going on in the beginning of Ch. 2, when Kitty coughs? From the very first word of Ch. 2, Mr. Bennet elegantly springs one of his patented, quasi-sadistic surprise "jokes" on his long suffering wife (and on his daughters, too, for good measure).

Note that it is he who revives the subject of Bingley at the beginning of Ch. 2, and then goads his nervous wife's into an irritated outburst, the better the "Gothcha!" when Mr. Bennet reveals that he has already visited Bingley.

The delight he takes in laughing at the expense of his female relatives is apparently enhanced when he treats the rest of them as puppets, drawing from them the exact responses he seeks, which of course depends  on their not  being in on the joke. He's quite the little stage director--in
other words, a real jerk.

But what I realized this morning is that there is actually at least one Bennet female present who is entirely onto Mr. Bennet's joke from the getgo, because she is actually, despite appearances to the contrary--and despite what Mr. Bennet says about her during the course of  the novel--a very sharp elf indeed.

She has her father's number, she recognizes the game he is playing from the moment he revs things up, but she chooses to be discreet about it, so as not to spoil his fun--of course I am talking about Kitty--that is the deepest meaning of her sarcastic coughing--she's in effect saying to him, "Come, now, papa, is this really  necessary?"

And  that best explains Mr. Bennet's final words---"Now, Kitty, you may cough as much as you choose,"---which is his tip of the hat to his clever daughter who has been the only aware member of the audience at his little "family theatrical", starring Mrs. Bennett as the Fool.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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