The following post is on a novel that is very dear to my heart. It is my favorite work by Jane Austen and one of my favorite novels ever. It is, to me, lovely and perfect in every way and the author is one I credit with getting me interested in literature while I was high school. Up to that point in my life, my interest had mainly been on writing and not so much reading. My mom basically informed me that the movie “Clueless” (one of my all-time favorite movies) was taken from Austen’s book Emma, and that was the end of it. Also, Pride and Prejudice is one of those books that actually get better for me every time I am forced to read it by a professor. Actually, it is the only book that has done that to me, as every other book I have been forced to reread, no matter how much I like it I begin to resent it a little although the level of enjoyment remains pretty much the same. If you have yet to discover Jane Austen, I recommend Pride and Prejudice as your starting post as it is one of her more popular novels and it is fairly short.
The phrase “comedy of manners” might be the best way to describe this novel. Also the word “satire” will fit very well too. Both labels fit very well with the general theme (to be discussed more later on) of the importance of environment and upbringing on the development of young people. While Elizabeth Bennet is of a lower social order than that of Mr. Darcy, she is still intelligent and witty, and in the end proves to be a better match for him than someone of higher breeding, such as Caroline Bingley. Mr. Darcy, who is incredibly wealthy and well-bred, is, at least in the beginning of the novel, extremely distant, rude, and over-bearing. And both of them, despite their intelligence, are guilty of misjudging the character and motives of others. But even beyond the novels primary couple are many examples of both the successes and accidents that being either “well-bred” or not can bring about. For instance, while Elizabeth is intelligent and well-adjusted despite her breeding, her youngest sister, Lydia, is not, and therefore enters into a ruinous situation and marriage as she does not manage to shake off the influence of her father’s apparent apathy and mother’s silliness (which she seems to have inherited).
Austen makes it very clear that neither being well-off or not so well-off makes a person immune to behaving badly. There are examples of good and bad on both sides and the results can be traced back to their upbringing. And like many satires, while a lot of the situations are comical, there is a very serious side to them where the reader realizes that if these people and situations were placed in the real world, they would not be as comical so much as somewhat tragic.
As already mentioned and somewhat discussed, the theme of upbringing and its effects on young people is extremely prevalent. To illustrate this even more, I will work with mostly the Bennet family. Mr. Bennet, it is made clear, married the ridiculous Mrs. Bennet because she was pretty. She is indeed ridiculous, and now they have five daughters. He now secludes himself in his library for the most part and basically avoids his wife and at least four of his daughters. Since Elizabeth is his clear favorite and the one that most takes after him, he is closer to her than he is to basically anyone else in the family. Mrs. Bennet’s ridiculousness has seemingly been transferred mostly to the youngest daughter Lydia, who is just as silly, and has managed to get the second youngest, Kitty, to follow along with her in ever asinine endeavor she comes up with. In the middle is Mary, who has inherited her father’s loves of books, but is not at all social and doesn’t really desire to be. And then there is Jane, the oldest and the sister Elizabeth is closest too. She is, simply put, all that is sweet and pure and good. But, that is all that she is. She isn’t assertive in any sense, probably because she has never found any reason to be with her silly but determined mother on one side, and intelligent but fiercely independent Elizabeth on the other.
The pitiful marriage between the girl’s parents has affected them each differently. It isn’t about social standing and wealth for Austen when it comes to how children will be affected. Lydia’s fate isn’t blamed on the fact that she was brought up in a lower social order, but the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet both have failed as parents.
Another theme I think worth exploring is that of marriage, as there is a lot of it. I always like to go through the five main marriages or couples in the novel and try to determine which are successful and which are not:
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet: This marriage is almost (or maybe completely, as I have yet to see anyone successfully argue otherwise) unanimously believed to be a failure. Mr. Bennet no longer participates within the family at all while Mrs. Bennet is a silly fool whose only occupation is to see her daughters married to anyone who will take them, no matter how unworthy. She takes ill when Lydia, her silliest yet favorite daughter, runs off with the reprehensible Mr. Wickham as this mean her reputation is ruined, but she is miraculously cured once she hears that they have married. One article I read asserts that there marriage is not even a joke, as there is not much funny about it. Ouch.
Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth: Success! Biggest success story of the novel. They are both intelligent and (in the end) deserving of each other AND they will further challenge each other to grow. I could never praise this couple enough, so I’ll stop here.
Mr. Bingley and Jane: This is the one that hurts my heart, because while we root for these two crazy kids to get together, I cannot, in good conscience, rule this marriage a success, because while they are two pure and sweet and good people who found each other, they won’t challenge each other in any way or grow together. I envision their marriage as consisting of long sitting sessions on the porch of their giant house just sitting and staring at each other shyly without either having the will enough to start a real conversation. Sad but true.
Mr. Wickham and Lydia: Tragic failure of the worst kind. She runs off with this guy, who already tried to take advantage of Mr. Darcy’s younger sister years before, and he has no intention of marrying her. Mr. Darcy has to swoop in and save the day, basically paying Mr. Wickham to marry Lydia so that she and her family are saved from social disgrace. Now this guy is married to this awful girl, and being paid money he didn’t earn, and in the end he still ends up squandering it, leaving the two of them in perpetual need. Basically, the cycle is starting all over again the these tow taking the place of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, although this time, things seem somehow much much worse.
Mr. Collins and Charlotte: The jury is still out on this one, because while we like Charlotte, but think Mr. Collins is an idiot, and readers typically hate the fact that Charlotte feels she has to marry this awful person in order to avoid being an old maid, she does get to marry someone in order to avoid being an old maid and therefore being a burden on her family. Poor Charlotte doesn’t have many prospects, so she accepts the proposal of someone who wishes to marry her. It is just too bad that the someone is a dry, annoying, small-minded man. We feel bad for Charlotte, but she professes she is happy to finally be able to run her own home. It isn’t the best deal ever, but it works for her. Kind of.
The novel was originally titled First Impressions, which I think is extremely appropriate given that the reason so many of the conflicts in the story come about is because of first meetings not going the way they should have because rumors and preconceived notions get in the way. People more or less make up their mind about someone before they have officially met just by the way they walk into a room.
The title was eventually changed before publication, upon which it was received favorably and has remained popular ever since. There are forever film and television versions of the story coming out, as well as novels that attempt to continue the storyline where Austen had left off.
Also, Austen wrote about what she knew. This whole business of women scrambling to get married once they hit their teens or “come out” was a very real issue. Women could not own property, so the problem with the Bennets having five daughters is that once Mr. Bennet passes on, there will be no one to take care of them or their mother. My question has always been, if all five daughters do get married and Mr. Bennet dies, who is taking in the mother? That is a conversation I wish Austen had written about.
I am not sure what I will cover next week. Most likely it will be something optional as the required texts I have left are too heavy for me to attempt to read with any sort of critical eye while class is still going on. There will be something though, maybe…well, hopefully.