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THEMES - Pride and Prejudice - 

The meanings of a novel emerge indirectly or implicitly via the vicarious personal involvement or identification and empathy of us the responders. Writers write to depict their perspectives of life which become evident through their characters, plots and outcomes. 


Jane Austen writes satire so that we can perceive her outlook on life through how she portrays her characters, either sympathetically, disinterestedly or derisively.   What comes across clearly is Austen’s detached cynical outlook as she mocks individuals and situations. She is aware of life’s contradictions, paradoxes and imponderables.  Mr Bennet's various pronouncements may be indicative of how she views life.   Nothing is ever what it appears to be and we the reader are left to make our own judgments.  

Marriage:

Marriage is important to individuals for companionship and support and for society to create stability.  Women who were not provided for were especially vulnerable to penury.

Throughout the novel, the author describes the various types of marriages and reasons behind them. Not many of them appear to be happy or successful with the exception of the Gardiners.   

Austen documents a change in the traditions of marriage.  Courtship and true romantic love, rather than arranged marriages is increasingly becoming the acceptable mode.  Note how Lady Catherine de Bourgh claims that Darcy was promised to her daughter, Ann.

Marriage out of economic compulsions can be seen in Charlotte’s marriage to Collins. Marriage due to sensual pleasure can be seen in Lydia’s marriage to Wickham. The marriage of Jane and Elizabeth are the outcome of true love between well-matched persons.

 

Women today compared to Austen’s time

 

It is important to understand the difference between what men and women want and why. Just one part of this, for example, is that ironically the tables seem to have turned today; women do not need a man or marriage for the traditional reasons such as financial security. It is the women who have now realised that they are the Petri dish, they are the carriers of life and it seems now that they are waiting for the best quality man they can get. Women today are happier to be single, independent and just have a lot of fun rather than settle for less than Mr Right.

Pride and prejudice

Pride and prejudice both stand in the way of relationships, as embodied in the persons of Darcy and Elizabeth respectively. The characters were written to be the perfect opposites because in the end both have to give up their own prejudice’s that prevent them from seeing how perfect they are for each other.  The plot revolves around the undermining of their mutual prejudices and how each is forced to re-assess their conditioning.  Darcy is forced, by his besotted emotions and visceral urges, to modify his horror of her family and lower status, mesmerised by her eyes, playful carefree nature and clearsightedness.  For Elizabeth, the possibility of being mistress of Pemberley begins her journey to overcome her objections.

Pride narrows the vision of a person and causes one to underestimate other mortals. Prejudice blinds the vision and leads to false perceptions about others. Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice come in the way of understanding each other and keep them apart. Only when Darcy becomes more humble and Elizabeth becomes more accepting can they relate to one another and find happiness together.

Andrew H Wright suggests:

To say that Darcy is proud and Elizabeth prejudiced is to tell but half the story. Pride and prejudice are faults; but they are also the necessary defects of desirable merits: self-respect and intelligence. Moreover, the novel makes clear the fact that Darcy’s pride leads to prejudice and Elizabeth’s prejudice stems from a pride in her own perceptions. So the ironic theme of the book might be said to centre on the dangers of intellectual complexity.

Jane Austen’s Novels  - Andrew H Wright  Penguin Books 1972.

Elizabeth Bennet is forced to make humiliating changes to her beliefs in response to the new evidence contained in Mr Darcy’s letter. As she “weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality — deliberated on the probability of each statement.. . reconsidering events, determining probabilities”, Elizabeth came to see that her previous opinions of Darcy and Wickham’s characters were based on vanity and were now insupportable.

Jane Austen goes through each piece of evidence carefully, explaining its relation to the whole (“How could she deny that credit to his assertions, in one instance, which she had been obliged to give in the other? — He declared himself to have been totally unsuspicious of her sister’s attachment; — and she could not help remembering what Charlotte’s opinion had always been.

 Neither could she deny the justice of his description of Jane . .

If Austen could return, she would- have some acid comments to make on aspects of modern “civilisation Bridget Jones’s Diary, for one. (How can the plot structure of Pride and Prejudice be filled with characters - totally lacking in concern for one 1 another?) She would be surprised at how little progress has been made in understanding the kind of probability she spoke of, despite two centuries o advances in science, logic and mathematics.

The probability of which Elizabeth speaks has nothing to do with dice, coins or lotteries, it is about the relationship between theories and their evidence. Was it Darcy or Wickham who was the scoundrel, on the evidence now to hand? That is the same sort of question as the one the judge puts to the jury in a criminal case: on the evidence b the court, is the accused guilty beyond reasonable doubt? 1

1 James Franklin,  John Hopkins University Press

Appearance versus reality:

Austen stresses that a person cannot be judged by his/her outer being. During the course of the book, several characters are not properly judged, for good conduct does not necessarily mean good character, just as a pretty face does not indicate a pure soul.

While Austen follows adheres to the traditional “Civil code of Behaviour” and values amiability and cordiality, she is acutely aware that outwardly manners and style can mask the true character of people.  She is more concerned with sincerity of feeling rather than a show of manners.

There are many examples of deception throughout the novel. 

Miss Bingley dupes Jane into believing they are true friends “I confess myself to have been entirely deceived in Miss Bingley’s regard for me”.  (102)  Jane is determined not to fall for it again.

George Wickham deceives the entire neighbourhood and especially Elizabeth despite cautionary warnings about the credibility of his stories.  

Good sense:

Good sense, a vitally important characteristic, a person must possess intelligence, sensitivity, and responsibility. Each of the major characters in the novel is judged against these three important criteria. They must not surrender to impulse emotion or desperation but rather use sense and rationality.

Discretion:

 While Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy is a figure of great discretion, many of the other characters sadly fail.  Mrs Bennet and her society of ladies thrive on gossip as do Miss Bingley and her cohorts.  Wickham tells nasty untruths about others, Darcy is a model of rectitude and his gentlemanly discretion prevents him from setting Elizabeth straight until her rash outburst.

Feminism in Austen:

 Germaine Greer – Jane Austen and the Getting of Wisdom

The Austen hero’s intelligence is not simply quickness; it is grounded in moral insight and emotional truth. Even within the family, only where the Austen heroine esteems does she allow herself to love and her love is unshakeable. Elizabeth Bennet loves Jane better than her other sisters. When it comes to falling in love, the Austen heroine will not allow herself to fall for a man she cannot respect.

As long as Elizabeth thinks Darcy is proud, conceited, cold-hearted, unjust and tyrannical she will not allow herself to love him. The Austen heroine is often contrasted with other female characters whose emotions are out of control, who cannot rise above their disappointment, their jealousy and their sense of grievance — or their feelings of sexual attraction. Time and again we are shown the feverish excitement that develops among young women when a handsome man makes himself agreeable. The Austen heroine is aware of male appeal but knows better than to succumb to it. Stupid people some times complain that there is no sex in Austen’s novels. In fact, they are driven by the oceanic force of suppressed female desire, which dwarfs any opportunity for enactment. Actual sexual intercourse is the off-stage climax. The possibility that defloration may be an anti-climax is to be found in the tingling ironies that cling to every word that Austen writes. Will Elizabeth Bennet be sexually fulfilled as the wife of Mr Darcy? Possibly not. Her new life as the mistress of Pemberley will present as many challenges as the old; we trust her to deal with them.

Though the Austen heroine may endure the most abject misery and hopelessness, she does so in private; with other people she is always mistress of her feelings. Other people are not to be distressed or incommoded by any awareness of what the heroine is going through.

Germaine Greer – Jane Austen and the Getting of Wisdom

Darcy on Women:

A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved." 

"All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."

 Elizabeth:

"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any."

An Alternate point of view is presented in Northanger Abbey

A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

But Catherine did not know her own advantages -- did not know that a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward. - said tongue in cheek?

 The first time is when Mr Darcy takes advantage -of the fact that she is home alone with a headache to burst in on her and declare that despite the inferiority of her connections he is in love with her. Elizabeth takes a deep breath and answers:

In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that such an obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot. I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. it has been most unconsciously done however, and, I hope, will be of short duration.

Commanding her feelings and marshalling her thoughts on this occasion costs Elizabeth so much that when Darcy has gone, she cries for half an hour and then takes herself off to bed.

Again, when she refuses to assure the intimidating Lady Catherine de Bourgh that she would never marry Mr Darcy, she needs all her courage and presence of mind. Lady Catherine rebukes her;

Miss Bennet, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this. I am almost the nearest relation [Darcy] has in the world, and am entitled to know all his dearest concerns.

Unabashed, Elizabeth replies:

But you are not entitled to know mine; nor will such behaviour as this ever induce me to be explicit.

Austen’s heroines are middle class, ordinary with no special advantages of looks or education or wealth and yet they are heroes. The battles they fight are the battles of every day They struggle for self control in agonising circumstances.  They turn aside so that other people can’t see the hot tears that star eyes. For hot tears do start into their eyes: Austen’s heroines are all passionate, all proud, all sensitive They must deal with the common trials of every young woman’s life, bullying, disappointment, misunderstanding, and most unbearable helplessness to influence the course of events. Though 190 years have passed since Austen’s death, women’s emotional lives still present the same challenges.

Germaine Greer – Jane Austen and the Getting of Wisdom


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