Friday, February 01, 2013

Intrinsic Value: Thoughts on Pride and Prejudice

This week marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, which seemed like the perfect excuse--if any were needed--to reread it.  It also seemed like a good opportunity to write about it, especially since it's the only Austen novel I haven't written about in the course of this blog's existence (well, to be precise, one of the very first Austen-related entries posted to this blog--and the one of its earliest entries of any kind to gain real popularity--was about this book, but "4 Popular Misconceptions About Pride and Prejudice" is, as its title suggests, a response to the way others tend to perceive the book, not an essay about my own reactions to it).  Here I was more hesitant, however.  In fact, when I realized, a few years ago, that my ad hoc essays about Austen's novels were turning into an irregular series, it didn't occur to me that Pride and Prejudice would one day be included in it.  The book felt like too great an edifice, too familiar and too well-loved--unlike Mansfield Park, Emma, and Northanger Abbey, which I returned to on this blog for the first time since my teens in order to confront a novel I hadn't cared for originally, or Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, which I reread in order to work out my difficulties with an otherwise beloved work--for me to be able to find anything new or meaningful to say.

That feeling only became stronger when I looked back through my records of previous years' reading and discovered--to my utter astonishment--that the last time I reread Pride and Prejudice was in 2003.  It seemed impossible that a novel that was so fresh in my mind when I sat down with it a week ago is also one that I haven't revisited in a decade (in comparison, during that same period I reread Sense and Sensibility twice and Persuasion three times).  But then, it's not as if I've lived a Pride and Prejudice-free life during that period.  There have been the adaptations--flawed ones like Bride and Prejudice and Joe Wright's Wuthering Heights-style film, as well as more viewings than I could count of Andrew Davies's excellent miniseries (one adaptation I haven't gotten to yet is the increasingly interesting-sounding Lizzie Bennet Diaries--being a completist, I'm waiting for the series to be over before I start).  Even more than that, Pride and Prejudice has been so present in the conversation--about Austen and pop culture in general--during all that time, never allowed to fade from my consciousness.  Unlike Austen's other novels, it felt like a work that had been fully processed and digested, one that, for all the enjoyment I still took from it, no longer had the power to surprise me.

But of course, Pride and Prejudice did end up surprising me.  Sometimes in the ways that strike me anew every time I reread it, like how well-paced is the first half of the novel, which is essentially about setting up quite a few characters and subplots in preparation for the first proposal, and how comparatively overloaded are its final chapters, in which one almost seems to feel Austen panting as she squares away every single subplot before finally being allowed to finish the story.  And sometimes in ways that I'd never noticed before, such as the fact that until the very moment of Darcy's fateful slight against her, Elizabeth isn't singled out as a point of view character--before that moment she is one of the five Bennet daughters, discussed by their parents and treated by the narrative as a single entity.  Or the realization that though a lot of commenters have noted the similarities between Elizabeth and Darcy and Much Ado About Nothing's Benedick and Beatrice, one of Austen's cleverest choices in the novel is to split the savory and unsavory aspects of that play's secondary couple between two different pairings--Lydia and Wickham are Hero and Claudio as the mercenary, opportunistic match, forced to marry in order to save her from the reputation-destroying effects of his actions, while Jane and Bingley are Hero and Claudio, the young, innocent lovers nearly torn apart by the evil designs of those around them.

None of this, however, was something I could build an essay on, and it wasn't until about a quarter of the way into the novel, when Elizabeth and Darcy were brought into constant contact with each other during her stay at Netherfield to nurse Jane, that something new occurred to me about Pride and Prejudice.  It's generally accepted (note how I avoided the obvious joke there) that the pride and prejudice of the title refer, respectively, to Darcy and Elizabeth.  He's proud of his birth and intelligence, which leads him to behave dismissively towards anyone not deemed worthy of his company, and to interfere in their lives.  And she's prejudiced because of his slight against her in their first meeting, which leads her to interpret his behavior in the worst possible light even when he's trying to be ingratiating.  There is some truth to this, obviously.  Pride is of course the defining trait through which Darcy is discussed throughout the novel, and for all of Elizabeth's rationally stated reasons for disliking him--the ones that are justified, such as his interference in Jane and Bingley's affairs and his behavior during the first proposal, the ones that turn out to be false, such as his alleged disinheriting of Wickham, and the ones that she ends up sympathizing with while still decrying, such as his openly disdainful attitude towards her uncouth family and neighbors--there is an irrational core to her actions that has no real justification.

There's a reason, I think, why the famous slight at Elizabeth and Darcy's first meeting, for all that it looms over the novel (and over the common perception of it) is never brought up again after it occurs, as if even Elizabeth realizes that you can't actually decide to hate a person for unwittingly insulting you that one time (and especially in a way that even the novel treats as the thoughtless, peevish expostulation of an introvert desperately trying to tamp down their anxiety at being forced into company with so many strangers).  Elizabeth even seems to go out of her way to avoid mentioning the insult.  It's not in the laundry list of Darcy's faults she lays at his feet during the first proposal, when they both seem to be going out of their way to hurt each other's feelings.  And a few days earlier, when Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam jokingly solicit her for an example of Darcy's bad behavior among strangers--when, at a point where her dislike of him is nearly at its highest (she hasn't yet learned how much Darcy did to break Jane and Bingley up), Elizabeth has the chance to make him look genuinely bad--she instead says archly
The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball--and at this ball, what do you think he did?  He danced only four dances!  I am sorry to pain you--but it was so.  He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner.
And yet, in her unguarded moments, there is a profound bitterness that underpins Elizabeth's attitude towards Darcy.  "I like her appearance," she says when catches sight of Miss de Burgh, whom she believes to be intended as Darcy's wife.  "She looks sickly and cross.--Yes, she will do for him very well.  She will make him a very proper wife."  It's in moments like this that we catch a glimpse of the genuine nastiness that lies at the root of Elizabeth's humor, and particularly her needling of Darcy and refusal to take him seriously--a nastiness that can't be explained by any single act on Darcy's part (and again, at this point the worst that Elizabeth knows of him is that he deprived Wickham of his inheritance) as much as it can be by a determination on Elizabeth's part to dislike him.

For all that the spark that ignites Elizabeth's dislike of Darcy can be described as prejudice, however, the further I read into the novel the more it seemed to me that Elizabeth and Darcy's flaws and failings were actually much more similar than the conventional wisdom surrounding the novel would have it, and that they both end up at the nadir of the first proposal through very similar behavior.  It's not that Darcy is pride and Elizabeth is prejudice, so much as that they are both pride, and that the novel's plot is the narrative of those two egos first clashing against each other, and then learning to accommodate one another.

When you think about it, there's something almost shockingly self-regarding about Elizabeth's behavior in the first half of the novel.  Not many of us would be able to convincingly laugh off as bald-faced an insult as she receives from Darcy in the novel's opening chapters (for all that, as I've discussed, it's clear that that insult does rankle her deep down), and throughout the novel's first half she continues to laugh off his and his friends' disapproval of her choices, behavior, and general person, even when she's surrounded by that disapproval at every turn--when she stays at Netherfield, and later when she's a guest of Lady Catherine de Burgh at Rosings.  It's hard not to feel that Caroline Bingley has a point when she describes Elizabeth as possessing a "conceited independence."  Caroline, of course, means this as a criticism, whereas we might take it as a compliment, but either way there's no denying that Elizabeth's belief in her own worth, especially in the face of disapprobation from people like Darcy and Lady Catherine, whom the rest of her acquaintance treats with obsequiousness and servility, is surprising and unusual in someone of her age, gender, era, and class.

That Elizabeth's ego is healthy enough to allow her to ignore the criticism of those she deems unworthy makes her a very similar type of person to Darcy, for all that their respective senses of pride are treated very differently by the characters around them--Darcy, as a wealthy man from a highly connected family, is considered justified in his pride, while Elizabeth, an unmarried woman with little money, few connections, and relatives in trade, is not.  Austen herself, however, takes a very similar approach, of mingled criticism and approval, to both characters' pride.  Darcy's belief that his birth and station justify his pride is punctured throughout the novel, not only by Elizabeth's pointing out how un-gentlemanly his behavior towards her has been, but by the realization that his upper class social circle offers no more guarantees of good company than Elizabeth's crass Meryton crowd--after rolling his eyes at Mrs. Bennet and her younger daughters' behavior, Darcy is shown to be justly embarrassed when Lady Catherine turns out to have equally bad manners, and the relatives that he and Elizabeth turn out to love and admire the most are the Gardiners, a lawyer and his wife.  But at the same time, the novel, through Elizabeth's changing perspective on Darcy, slowly comes to validate his sense of worth.  By its end, though Darcy has learned to be more circumspect and tolerant of Elizabeth's aggravating relatives, Elizabeth has learned some of his disapproval of her family--including her father--and is actively shielding him from their presence.

At the same time, though much of Elizabeth's point of view in the second half of the novel, and particularly after she receives Darcy's letter, is focused on her shame at her past behavior, and particularly her realization that she has put too much stock in her ability to judge and evaluate character, the end result of this is by no means to diminish her pride.  She speaks to Lady Catherine in their final confrontation with the same tone of independent self-regard with which she confronted Darcy during the first proposal.  "You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner," she tells him, and "you are not entitled to know [my concerns]; nor will such behavior as this, ever induce me to be more explicit," she tells Lady Catherine.  In both cases, Elizabeth has too much of an awareness of her own worth to be willing to tolerate those who ignore it, and the novel validates that behavior.

But then, Pride and Prejudice is full of people who think they know their own worth, whose behavior is guided by pride.  People like Lady Catherine, Mr Collins, and Caroline Bingley, who take the most profound pleasure in the belief that they are better than some meaningful segment of their acquaintance.  There are, in fact, more of these than there are genuinely humble characters like Bingley or Jane.  Darcy and Elizabeth are singled out for Austen's authorial approval of their pride because, unlike many of the novel's other characters, it is rooted in more than their social status, and because they take it seriously.  Unlike characters like Mr Bennet and Charlotte Lucas, who know that they are better than their surroundings but ignore that knowledge in order to get along or get ahead, Darcy and Elizabeth aren't willing to sell out their pride for the sake of convenience (this is more obvious in Elizabeth's case, but Darcy too is faced with situations where it would be easier to fall back on his social status than to reach for what he knows himself to deserve--as Elizabeth thinks when she considers that Lady Catherine might appeal to Darcy's pride to prevent him from connecting himself with the Bennets and with Wickham, "If he is satisfied with only regretting me, when he might have obtained my affections and hand, I shall soon cease to regret him at all").  Charlotte in particular is a character that readers often feel is treated too harshly by her author for her decision to marry Mr Collins.  Wright's adaptation even includes a scene in which she angrily and tearfully chastises Elizabeth for her disapproval of that decision, exclaiming that this is her last chance for a future and financial stability, but this strikes me as getting it backwards.  If anything, Elizabeth is the one who should be desperate to get married.  She's the one who has no financial future except as a wife (something that she seems almost unrealistically unconcerned with throughout the novel), while Charlotte is the daughter of a wealthy minor baronet whose recently purchased estate is not entailed away from his daughters as Mr Bennet's is.  Charlotte doesn't need to get married; she wants to, and to achieve that goal she is willing to put up with a husband she despises, and to kowtow to Lady Catherine and her daughter.  Both Charlotte and Elizabeth know that there is more intrinsic value in being Miss Lucas or Miss Bennet than in being Mrs. Collins, and that nevertheless society will always attach greater status to a Mrs than a Miss.  Only Charlotte chooses the social construction of value over what she knows to be its true form, which is why both Elizabeth and Austen disapprove of her.

Still, you can get into a lot of trouble with that notion of intrinsic value, and especially in a novel published 200 years ago.  How can Elizabeth and Darcy be justified in feeling their own worth so strongly, if they alone are the determiners of that worth?  Austen's answer is that as well as having well-developed egos, Elizabeth and Darcy have strong superegos.  They may not be guided by convention, but they do have a sense of right and wrong.  We see this, of course, when they're both confronted by their bad behavior at the novel's midpoint, and instead of retreating into their pride, acknowledge their own faults and seek to correct them.  Elizabeth, for example, believes that Darcy will never renew his advances towards her because his pride would be too wounded by her refusal to allow him to humiliate himself in a second attempt, but Darcy is more affected by his realization that a lot of her accusations towards him were justified; his pride is satisfied not by forgetting Elizabeth but by seeking to become a man she'd approve of.  But we also see it in the moments where Elizabeth and Darcy's flouting of convention stops short--at the point where, to their mind, convention ends, and morality begins. 

Elizabeth is often compared to Mary Crawford, another character who is lively and has a tendency to poke fun at social mores, and like Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park's final crisis takes the form of an elopement between two morally bankrupt characters.  The crucial difference between Elizabeth and Mary is that Mary treats this failing too as a social convention--her response to her brother's elopement with a married woman is to begin to scheme how to restore their social status, while giving no thought to the possibility that they might have actually done something wrong.  Elizabeth, meanwhile, is morally horrified by her sister Lydia's elopement with Wickham, and embarrassed by Lydia's lack of embarrassment over it--"I do not particularly like your way of getting husbands," she tartly informs the self-satisfied Lydia.

The problem here is that, no matter how expertly Austen stacks the deck, as readers in 2013 we can be reasonably expected to be more sympathetic towards Mary's stance than Elizabeth's, and particularly in the case of Lydia and Wickham, in which a young girl is punished for being led on by an older, unscrupulous man by being forced to spend the rest of her life with him.  In the chapters dealing with Lydia and Wickham's marriage, Austen juxtaposes Mary Bennet's pronouncement that "loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable--that one false step involves her in endless ruin" with Jane's comforting reply to Elizabeth's castigating herself for not exposing Wickham once she learned the truth about him (including the fact that he had once tried to seduce and elope with Darcy's sister Georgianna) that "to expose the former faults of any person, without knowing what their present feelings were, seemed unjustifiable."  Though we're clearly meant to view Mary as a blowhard (and along with her, Mr Collins, who writes to Mr Bennet to self-importantly pronounce that "The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this"), it was hard for me not to be reminded of very recent incidents in which the presumption that sexual predators (which, in the circumstances of the novel, Wickham most certainly is) feel bad about their past indiscretions and deserve a clean slate was treated as more important than the right of women not to be thrown, unsuspecting, into their company.  If the most blatant example of Elizabeth's intrinsic value is the fact that she largely agrees with this stance (though, in fairness to her, she continues to feel guilty for not exposing Wickham, and upon learning of his upcoming marriage to Lydia exclaims "Yet he is such a man!"), that value can seem hard to accept.

On the other hand, maybe the most blatant example of Elizabeth's (and Darcy's) intrinsic value isn't what they do, but what they don't do.  As much as it is a novel about pride, self-regard, and knowing your own worth, Pride and Prejudice also reminded me of Persuasion, a novel about being part of a community.  Like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, Elizabeth is an intelligent, refined woman in a community that is beneath her.  Darcy, too, is spending a lot of his time among people, like Bingley's sisters, who are merely flatterers and posers.  (If I like both of these characters better than Anne, it is because Austen acknowledges their tendency towards self-gratifying superiority, while in Persuasion I felt that I was reading it into the character against her author's intention.)  Their journey over the course of the novel is not only about finding each other, but forming a new society, with Jane and Bingley, Georgianna, and the Gardiners.  But Pride and Prejudice is not only about knowing when to detach yourself from company that is beneath you; it is also about knowing when not to choose detachment.  Elizabeth and Darcy both start the novel as people who take the greatest pleasure from standing back and observing others, often with satirical intent.  But as we and they soon come to realize, there's no such thing as being completely detached from society--the novel's characters are divided into those, like Mrs Bennet and Lydia, who don't care that they are making a spectacle of themselves, and those who think that they are standing back, observing and judging everyone else, but don't realize that they are being observed and judged in turn--as Darcy clearly doesn't realize that while he was falling in love with Elizabeth, he was creating a terrible impression on her and her friends.  The sole exceptions are the cynics, people like Mr Bennet, who cuts himself off from the world in his study and only emerges to comment on the silliness of everyone around him, and Charlotte Lucas, who is a much more clear-eyed observer of humanity than Elizabeth, seeing, for example, that Jane is being too reserved in her expressions of affection towards Bingley, and realizing Darcy's feelings for Elizabeth sooner than any other character in the novel (including Darcy himself).  If there's an illustration of their intrinsic worth in Elizabeth and Darcy's behavior, it is perhaps in the fact that they once they realize that they must be part of society even when it disgusts them, they don't give in to that cynicism.

It would have been very easy for both Elizabeth and Darcy to fall into the same trap as Mary and Henry Crawford--two people who so flatter each other's sense of worth, and their belief in being superior to everyone around them, that they exaggerate each other's worst qualities and become fit for nobody else's company.  To an extent, Elizabeth and Darcy are spared this fate through luck--his sister is too young and nervous to amplify his pride the way Mary does Henry's and vice versa, and her sister is the sort of person who hates to think ill of anyone, and instead encourages Elizabeth's better nature.  But throughout the novel Elizabeth and Darcy are repeatedly confronted with the opportunity to form that sort of alliance of snideness with a potential romantic partner--Caroline Bingley and Wickham both try to encourage Darcy and Elizabeth's sense of superiority, and try to bond with them over the shared joy of poking fun at others' foibles.  Both characters indulge in this sort of mean girl cattiness for a time--Darcy's "I should as soon call her mother a wit"--but ultimately they recoil from it, and learn to take more pleasure in the company of people they can respect.  And as Elizabeth says to Darcy when he laments his bad behavior at the end of the novel, it's in that refusal to fully give in to bad impulses that their own value is best expressed.  The fact that they can recognize the intrinsic value of others, and learn to seek out their company without regard to social class or convention, is the best proof of Elizabeth and Darcy's own worth.

It occurs to me that these three novels--Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion--are ultimately explorations of different aspects of the same question--the dilemma of being smart, sensitive, and observant among people who are, for the most part, none of these things.  Where is the line between refusing to participate in the stupidity and crassness of the people around you, and just being disdainful and rude?  Where is the line between convention and morality?  Where is the line between detaching yourself from society in order to find your own level, and doing so in order to bask in your own superiority?  To sum it all up, where is the line between knowing your own worth, and being too wrapped up in it?  (It may or may not be a coincidence that these are also the three of Austen's novels in which the hero, as well as the heroine, undergoes a process of change and growth, though of the three, Pride and Prejudice is the only one in which the hero can be said to have his own point of view.)  I don't think I'm reading too much into it by assuming that this is also a question that would have occupied Austen in her own life, and I think that, in Pride and Prejudice, she may have given it her most complete (if, perhaps, too neat) answer.  Unlike Mansfield Park, it's not a novel that gets bogged down in the question of style versus substance, in somewhat piously decrying the kind of flashy wit that made Austen the writer she was.  And unlike Persuasion, it is a novel willing to expose its heroine's faults and even leave them in place--if somewhat counteracted by her situation--at its end.  And it's a romance that still feels the most satisfying, the most heartfelt, the most equal, and the most uplifting to both of its partners, than any other in her novels.  As much as it sometimes seems that I am too steeped in Pride and Prejudice to learn anything new about it, it's good to be reminded--if only once every ten years--of just how fine a novel it is.


CrazyCris said...

Wow. Excellent essay! You've really got me thinking along new lines about a novel that, like you, I no longer expected to find anything new in...
I think you're perfectly right in stating that Elizabeth and Darcy are two Egos confronted with each other, Pride is a much more serious block to their relationship than the Prejudice part. As Elizabeth stated "I could more easily forgive his pride had it not injured mine" (or something along those lines).

"it's a romance that still feels the most satisfying, the most heartfelt, the most equal, and the most uplifting to both of its partners, than any other in her novels." YES! I think that's the reason it's the most popular of them as well...

Great read! I don't think I've seen your other Austen essays so I'm off to read them! Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Excellent indeed -- makes me see things I had not seen in P&P before, and also clarify things I felt but could not put properly to words.

Rich Horton

ibmiller said...

I really like your insight into how their siblings are really important in the way they shape the heroine and hero's characters!

So do you feel like you've "completed" your series of Austen posts, now?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

So do you feel like you've "completed" your series of Austen posts, now?

Well, I doubt that this is the last time I'll be reading any of these novels, and I'm sure that there are new perspectives I'll gain on them in time - I tend to have the reaction that once I've written about something, I've fully processed it and have nothing more to add, but looking back at my earlier Austen posts there's definitely stuff there that I might put differently today or that I've learned to think differently about. Plus, just coming away from P&P this time around, there's stuff I didn't get around to discussing that I might want to at some point (somebody needs to take a closer look at Caroline Bingley and how Darcy reacts to her over the course of the book, for example, because I don't think either one of them comes away from that relationship clothed in glory). I have no plans, at the moment, to start my Austen cycle again, but I'm certainly not ruling out the possibility that I'll write some more about her books at some point in the future.

ibmiller said...

Interesting! I find the Caroline character very interesting - I have a hard time Darcy merely tolerated her on Bingley's account, but we are given so little insight into her mindset or motives or history (at least not directly). I think it would be extremely interesting to do a bit of extrapolation characterization, seeing which characters Caroline most resembles in Austen's other novels and seeing if any of their motives might make sense of her actions in P&P.

Mistermoman said...

Just discovered your blog and am reading this post over a year after you wrote it. Loved it, as a P&P fan. Wondering if it involves a shift in the analysis you offered in your Shavuot / Book of Ruth / Austen posting from several years earlier?

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