Monday, August 29, 2016

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice


Opening Passage:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Summary: The story of the Bennet girls is well known, but the strength of Pride and Prejudice is found in the fact that there is always more to discover in the story. It has a tightly woven plot, rich characterization, and the humor is varied and abundant. (You know you have hit the sweet spot in reading Pride and Prejudice when you find yourself laughing on almost every page. There is always more to it than mere jokes, but it is a very humorous work.) Indeed, the difficult thing in writing about Pride and Prejudice is that there are so many things one could talk about.

A consistent theme throughout the work is that first impressions are often misleading, but that we must work with them nonetheless. Note that the idea is not that first impressions are often wrong. The way people impress you may be just however they happen to impress you; there's nothing necessarily right nor wrong about that. But we often need more than just the bare first impression, and it's the inferences we draw from the first impression that often land in error. This can often easily be corrected, but it's when the inferences we make are close to the truth, and to the extent that they are close to the truth, that they can lead us very astray. Mr Darcy is indeed reserved, and pride is one element in that reserve; Wickham is indeed handsome and agreeable and gentlemanly in manner. There is more to be seen, even on first impression, than this, but this is where prejudice enters into the picture: our presuppositions affect how we interpret. Elizabeth, for instance, is inclined to believe Wickham's claims because of his agreeable manner and also because she has prejudged Mr Darcy. This leads her in the interpretation of her first impressions to focus on what fits with her expectations (Mr Darcy's pride) and ignore what does not (his friendship with Mr Bingley, for instance); it also leads her to overlook the question of what first impression her family might make on others. Only when her first impressions are conquered by new information, and new impressions of Mr Darcy's good taste, does her estimate of him begin to take on something like a true form. Mr Darcy's estimate of her goes through a similar process, although, of course, we know of that only indirectly.

The title as it now exists, Pride and Prejudice, is sometimes thought to be a reference to Fanny Burney's Cecilia, in which a character explains that pride and prejudice kept the lovers apart and yet it was pride and prejudice brought them together again. A question raised in the comments of the introductory post was whether this was true with regard to Pride and Prejudice as well -- and I believe that it is. Pride separates Mr Darcy and Elizabeth, but it's also true that Lady Catherine's pride and prejudice drives them together, since, ironically, her arrogant insistence that they cannot possibly be allowed to marry, as she has heard rumored that they intend, leads Elizabeth to declare that there is nothing to prevent the marriage if he would ask; and her pride leads Lady Catherine to tell Mr Darcy, which encourages him to approach Elizabeth once more and try again.

There is an interesting diversity of views on marriage throughout the work -- Mr Bennet is disappointed in marriage, Charlotte Lucas sees it as a matter of financial situation, Lady Catherine as a family matter. Lydia's, of course is frivolous, and opens her completely to the likelihood of being misused; and, having reached marriage, she does not have any sense that she has gone about anything badly. Lydia, indeed, like Wickham, expects others to deal with the consequences of her mistakes; which, being family, they will, although not always to her liking.

Favorite Passage: It's hard to choose one when every page has gold, but this one jumped out at me this time around:

As he quitted the room, Elizabeth felt how improbable it was that they should ever see each other again on such terms of cordiality as had marked their several meetings in Derbyshire; and as she threw a retrospective glance over the whole of their acquaintance, so full of contradictions and varieties, sighed at the perverseness of those feelings which would now have promoted its continuance, and would formerly have rejoiced in its termination.

If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth's change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise—if regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill success might, perhaps, authorise her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment. Be that as it may, she saw him go with regret; and in this early example of what Lydia's infamy must produce, found additional anguish as she reflected on that wretched business. Never, since reading Jane's second letter, had she entertained a hope of Wickham's meaning to marry her. No one but Jane, she thought, could flatter herself with such an expectation. Surprise was the least of her feelings on this development. While the contents of the first letter remained in her mind, she was all surprise—all astonishment that Wickham should marry a girl whom it was impossible he could marry for money; and how Lydia could ever have attached him had appeared incomprehensible. But now it was all too natural. For such an attachment as this she might have sufficient charms; and though she did not suppose Lydia to be deliberately engaging in an elopement without the intention of marriage, she had no difficulty in believing that neither her virtue nor her understanding would preserve her from falling an easy prey.

Recommendation: It's Jane Austen; of course it's Highly Recommended.

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