Saturday, November 6, 2010

"Pride and Prejudice": A Critical Assessment

The Characters
This novel tells the story of the gradual union of two people, one held back by unconquerable pride and the other blinded by prejudice. In spite of the thin plot, the interest is sustained throughout the book. The characters are drawn with humour, delicary, and an ultimate knowledge of men and women that Jane Austen always shows.
Mr. Bennet, amiable and peace-loving, leaves to Mrs. Bennet, his querulous, ambitious, and narrow-minded wife, the difficult task of marrying off his five daughters. His daughter Elizabeth, though not so beautiful as Jane, is the brightest and most attractive member of the family. She has a lively disposition, frank, pleasing manners, and a warm heart; and, though bitterly prejudiced against Mr. Darcy, the wealthy, dignified hero, his excellent qualities and faithful devotion win her at last, and she forgives the pride from which he stooped to conquer her. Among the minor characters are George Wickham, fascinating and unprincipled, who elopes with Lydia Bennet; Mr. Bingley, Darcy's handsome friend who marries Jane Bennet; and Mr. Collins, a small-souled, strait-laced clergyman. The scene is laid in England in the countryside; and the characters are the ladies and gentlemen Jane Austen describes so well in her novels.
The Author's Dramatic Power
In the sustained scenes between the more developed characters where the dialogue is highly charged, Jane Austen shows dramatic power of a high order. One of the best of these scenes is that between Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in which Elizabeth, like a good swordsman, light on her feet and ever ready, completely disarms her lumbering opponent.
Miss Bingley
As in Northanger Abbey, so in this novel, the subsidiary characters tend to demonstrate further aspects of the main theme. Thus, we have the theme of pride and its adjunct, flattery and sycophancy, repeated in the characterization. Darcy's status and his pride attract Miss Bingley who constantly flatters him and tries to ingratiate herself with him. There is no possibility of her succeeding in her aim of marrying him, and she lacks the shrewdness of a Lucy Steele in such matters. She is frequently discomfited, and does not cause Elizabeth any real unhappiness.
Lady Catherine
Lady Catherine de Bourgh is an extension of the Darcy pride to the limits of caricature. She has all his pride of family and position plus an unfailing sense of her own personal superiority. It is a sad reflection on Lady Catherine's self-esteem that she requires and can tolerate a flatterer so obvious as Mr. Collins who is an out-and-out sycophant.
Mr. Collins
Mr. Collins's proposal to Elizabeth is in its way an early parody of Mr. Darcy’s proposal. Mr. Collins, running through his reasons for marriage, can find three good ones without ever mentioning Elizabeth. And Mr. Darcy's proposal rests primarily on his sense of her inferiority, of the obstacles provided by her situation in life and by her family.
Mrs. Bennet, Mary, and Mr. Bennet
Mrs. Bennet is pure stupidity, and she develops a prejudice against Mr. Darcy stronger and more blind than Elizabeth's. Mary is perhaps the only comic character who is not a success; she proves to be a source only of tedium, though Mr. Bennet's wit compensates us for that tedium.
The Element of Caricature
Elizabeth is certainly attractive and convincing as a woman, and Jane in her own way is equally convincing, but the comic characters generally go too far towards caricature. And for this reason we often have the feeling that the heroine is moving among a world of grotesques who do not really convince us of their truth to life.
Reasons for the Popularity of this Novel
Pride and Prejudice is by far the most popular of all Jane Austen's novels. Jane Austen said of it that it "is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade"; and this is perhaps the reason for its popularity. The precision and vivacity of style carry the reader through the novel with ease and spirit; there is a sparkling life about the characters and a freshness about the scenery which combine to make this the gayest of Jane Austen's novels, in spite of deeper overtones which emerge when Charlotte Lucas agrees to marry the egregious Mr. Collins or when Lydia is discovered to have run off with Mr. Wickham with no prospect of marriage. The speed and skill with which the author moves into the story are remarkable:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
The pace never falters, and even in that middle section of the book when Mr. Bingley and company have left the neighbourhood apparently for good, the plot continues to unfold with new and arresting developments, each arising naturally out of the preceding action and leading as naturally to the conclusion.
Structurally, the novel shows the highest degree of craftsmanship. We begin with the Bennet family and their interest in the new tenant of Netherfield Park; Jane and Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, come together (helped by Jane's illness) and, in the process, produce the appropriate revelations of character from Miss Bingley and others. The appearance of Mr. Wickham, who first claims Elizabeth's attention, diversifies the picture and prepares the way for developments which are to be so necessary to the later working-out of the plot. The ball at Netherfield Park helps to centre the action and concentrates Elizabeth's dislike of Mr. Darcy as well as providing a clue to Mr. Wickham's true character by making it clear that he avoids the ball to escape a confrontation with Mr. Darcy. Uptill now the characters have circled round each other in an almost ballet movement: beautiful and kind-hearted Jane, witty and high-spirited Elizabeth, charming Mr. Bingley, proud Mr. Darcy, gallant Mr. Wickham, scheming Miss Bingley, not to mention foolish and garrulous Mrs. Bennet and her self-defensively offensive husband. Each reveals his or her character in conversation, helped out by an occasional flashing forth by the author of a brief but pungent descriptive remark.
The Problem of Marrying Off the Elder Bennet Girls
The problem posed in what might be called the first movement of the novel is the marrying off of the elder Bennet girls. They have beauty and intelligence, but inconsiderable fortune. Mrs. Bennet's desire to have them married, though her
expression of that desire reveals the defects of her character in a richly comic manner, is in itself both natural and laudable; for girls of negligible fortune genteelly brought up must secure their men while they may, or face a precarious shabby-genteel spinsterhood with few opportunities of personal satisfaction or
social esteem. The problem as originally posed has its comic side, but the arrival of Mr. Collins shows it in another light though he himself is a highly comic figure.
Economic Security and Marriage
Mr. Collins is a kind of grotesque, who takes his place in the stately ballet of social life in a surprisingly awkward manner. By his proposal of marriage to Elizabeth (again, a richly comic incident in itself) he points up another side of the marriage-seeking business; economic security can be won at too great a cost. When Elizabeth's friend Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr. Collins, we are for the first time made fully aware of some of the ugly realities underlying the stately social ballet. It is a dance on the sunlit grass, but some of the dancers at least are in earnest, and if they do not secure a permanent partner before the end of the day they will be alone for ever on the dark and deserted lawn, or forced to find refuge in the pathless woods which surround the trimly-kept grassy plot. Rather than face such a fate-rather, that is, than be left with no prospect of social or economic security in an age when few means of earning an independent livelihood were open to the daughters of gentlemen — Charlotte Lucas, an intelligent girl, marries the grotesque Mr. Collins. She knows that it is her last chance, and she takes it deliberately, weighing the future husband's intolerable character against the security and social position he offers. Elizabeth is shocked, but Jane Austen takes some pains to let her readers know how hopeless the choice was, and how in fact Charlotte has chosen the lesser of two evils.
The Re-introduction of Mr. Darcy
Elizabeth's visit to the Collinses after their marriage gives the author her opportunity of clarifying this aspect of marriage and showing how calmly and deliberately Charlotte makes a livable way of life out of her situation — a scene in which Jane Austen shows her underlying compassionate awareness of the ordinari­ness of ordinary life that both sets off and in a way enriches her sharp irony. With skilful structural economy, she uses the same episode to re-introduce Mr. Darcy in connection with Mr. Collins's patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The re-introduction, which gives Mr. Darcy an opportunity to propose to Elizabeth and be refused, marks the turning-point in the relationship of these two, for the refusal is followed by Mr. Darcy's letter of explanation about Mr. Wickham, so that from this point Mr. Darcy is in the ascendant and Mr. Wickham's stock is steadily falling. It also marks the movement of Mr. Darcy away from pride to a genuine awareness of values hitherto outside his class-bound scheme of things, and a similar movement in Elizabeth away from undue dependence on her own judgment and a greater concession to the social view. For these two originally represented the two extremes, each of which must be modified if happiness is to be achieved — the extreme of putting social position and obligation before private feeling, and the extreme of depending entirely on individual judgment rather than on the public or social view. Happiness is achieved by the proper combination of character and fortune. Society is kept going by its members continually compromising between the individual impression and desire on the one hand and public tradition and duty on the other. And the basis of such a view, which underlies all Jane Austen's novels, is a clearly apprehended moral vision.
A New Twist to the Plot
Elizabeth's visit to Derbyshire with the Gardiners is neatly contrived to bring Mr. Darcy into the picture again, and in a still more favourable light, but the interruption of the visit by news of Lydia's elopement with Mr. Wickham gives the plot an effective new twist. Mr. Wickham's past is itself so tied up with that of Mr. Darcy that, instead of the elopement alienating Mr. Darcy from the Bennet family (as Elizabeth fears), it gives him the opportunity of showing his love for Elizabeth by using his influence to make Mr. Wickham marry Lydia.
The Possible Fate of the Indiscreet or
Unfortunate Marriage-Seeker
At the same time the episode of the elopement gives us once again a glimpse of the abyss that yawns for the indiscreet or unfortunate marriage-seeker. The lot of the "fallen woman" in this kind of society is indeed hopeless, and reckless or stupid playing of one's cards might, as it almost did with Lydia, lead one to that final degradation. It is significant that the shock of Lydia's behaviour forces Mr. Bennet for once out of his mood of sardonic teasing into genuine suffering and self-reproach.
The Development in the Character of Elizabeth
and of Mr. Darcy
The tying up of the action, with the cunning use of Lady Catherine de Bourgh's offensive intrusion into Elizabeth's affairs to produce a result exactly the reverse of what she intended, could not be more neatly done. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have each discovered themselves and each other in their loss of pride and prejudice, while the other characters (who, unlike these two, achieve no real development) settle back into their accustomed modes of behaviour, symbolized by Mr. Bennet's remarking, after giving his consent to Elizabeth's marriage with Mr. Darcy so soon after having done the same for Jane and Bingley: "If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at leisure." And, a little later on: "I admire all my sons-in-law highly", said he. "Wickham, perhaps, is my favourite; but I think I shall like your husband quite as well and Jane's".
A Disastrous Marriage
The characters of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet illustrate clearly how Jane Austen could use comic characterization to reveal a marital situation which, if fully explored, would show its tragic aspect. Mr. Bennet had been captivated by a pretty face, and the resulting marriage tied him to a foolish and vulgar woman for the rest of his life. Mrs. Bennet, in the genteel world where eligible marriages are young ladies' chief objectives, had succeeded in her aim, using her good looks while she had them. The result was disastrous to Mr. Bennet's character: he was forced into an unnatural isolation from his family, into virtual retirement in his study, and the cultivation of a bitter amusement at his wife's folly and vulgarity. He, thus, as is made clear in the latter part of the novel, in some degree abdicated his role as husband and father, with Lydia's behaviour as one of the results. He is shocked into momentary self-reproach in talking to Elizabeth after Lydia's escapade, but he only really lifts the mask once, in discussing with Elizabeth her engagement to Mr. Darcy: "My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life".
Jane Austen's Attitude to the Class Structure of her Time
In the gradual unfolding of the truth about Mr. Darcy's character, the revelation of his goodness to his tenants and in general of his playing the part of the land-owner who understands the social duties that ownership implies (we see this in the housekeeper's talk to Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle at Pemberley) represents a crucial stage. Jane Austen had a strong sense of class duty and a contempt for any claims for superiority based merely on noble birth or social snobbery. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a monstrous caricature of Mr. Darcy; she represents pride without intelligence, moral understanding, or understanding of the obligations conferred by rank. Jane Austen of course accepts the class structure of English society as she knew it; but she accepts it as a type of human society in which privilege implies duty. Her view of life is both moral and hierarchical. But it is far from snobbish, if by snobbery we mean the admiration of rank or social position as such.

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