Saturday, November 6, 2010

Some Comments on "Pride and Prejudice"

Irony, the Pervasive Quality of the Novel
They have, however, not yet done with the irony that has dogged them from the beginning. They still have to explain themselves to their sceptical friends and relations. The reader has learned to look out for irony in every twist of the story, and particularly in the speeches, many of which have had to be unsaid by the speakers, or wished unsaid, not least by Elizabeth.
It penetrates the whole structure of the novel. Observe how skilfully Wickham's rascality is made the chief agency in the reconciliation of Elizabeth and Darcy, providing a signal occasion for Darcy's magnanimity to transpire. Note how the pompous stupidity of Mr. Collins's proposal to Elizabeth, the crowning example in fiction of pertinacious and unac­ceptable addresses, softens by contrast the infatuated assurance of Darcy's, which speedily follows. Jane Austen herself pauses to count the nails which Miss Bingley hammers into her own coffin when she teases Elizabeth, in Darcy's presence, about the departure of the officers, including Wickham, little aware of the pain she is inflicting by reminding him of Wickham's nearly successful attempt to run off with his sister Georgiana. It is Darcy, his solemnity gone now that he is an accepted lover, who points out the irony of his aunt's intervention: "Lady Catherine has been of infinite use, which ought to make her happy, for she loves to be of use." Elizabeth, with her formidable wit, can hold her own with anyone; she can also be humorous, about herself, as when she answers Jane's inquiry when she first did find out that she loved Darcy, "It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began; but"—and this is only half raillery—" I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley." It was not the grounds that were the grounds for the change, but she was right about the date. Irony is the soul of Jane Austen's comedy; the comic aspects of life are the ironical aspects, visible to good sense in its contemplation of erroneous judgments and bigoted or merely indolent persistence in error, of the contradiction between our desires and the good that we desire. Mrs. Gardiner was not far wrong about Darcy, who is a comic figure alongwith the rest of them, when she remarked, "I fancy, Lizzie, that obstinacy is the real defect of his character, after all."                                                  — EA. Baker
The Minor Characters in the Novel
For it is not only the protagonists that engross interest, the minor characters are as perfectly studied, in their due perspective. Leaving Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine out of account, not as extraneous, however, for together they provide a magnificent comic pendant to the more intense drama of Elizabeth and Darcy, look at the others. The Bennets are a comedy in themselves, and Mary is a failure only because she remains an unfinished sketch. But the two elder sisters, so finely contrasted, and the pair of hoydens, the empty-headed, flirting Lydia, and Kitty who so narrowly escapes the same fate; and their friends, the over-genial, babbling Sir William Lucas, so uplifted with his knighthood; his womenfolk, and the officers from Meryton; every one is individualized with masterly precision. With such figures may be coupled that amiable, colourless young fellow Bingley, and his insincere sister, and the easy-going scamp Wickham, whose worst faults are left unprobed. Mrs. Bennet is a comic production of high order. Silly, incredibly ignorant, and irresponsible, she was a dreadful infliction for those who were in any way dependent upon her. She alone would justify all Darcy's strictures upon the Bennet family, and what a thorn in the flesh she must have been to Elizabeth! Yet she is never made an object of satire. On the contrary, it is an exquisitely kind touch on Jane Austen's part when her namesake, who has regained the laggard Bingley, will not lose a moment before consoling her mother with the glad news. Elizabeth, with less tenderness if equal affection, thinks first of her father, when Darcy's suit is in question, and the interview is one to be read with mixed feelings. In drawing the hare-brained, vulgar, incontinent Lydia, Jane Austen seems at times to be trembling on the verge of some personal resentment. Regarded less indulgently, Lydia would be a terrible example of moral and mental recklessness, and can be made to point the lesson which it is easy to draw from this history, that education, discipline, and self-control are all-important, and that parental Laodiceanism bears pernicious fruits. Her father and mother are another Mr. and Mrs. Shandy. He has cultivated impassivity as an antidote to his wife's shallow effusiveness, and the attitude has set. Lizzie, the only member of the family who inherits his sense of humour, comprehends him; to his wife he is as inscrutable as Mr. Shandy was to his better half. Sterne was one of the classic authors whom Jane Austen knew well enough to quote from.
                                                                              —E A. Baker.
The Structure and form of the Novels
of Jane Austen's Novels
But, if her range was thus limited, within it she was supreme. Absolutely sure of her material, undistracted by external interests, she wrote with a singular freedom from uncertainty; and her novels have, in consequence, an exactness of structure and a symmetry of form which are to be found more often in French literature than in English. Of this precision, Pride and Prejudice is an admirable example. Here the plot is the chief interest; simple, but pervasive; controlling every incident, but itself depending for its outcome upon the development or revelation of the principal characters. Surrounding these characters is the world of provincial folk which Miss Austen handled brilliantly—cynical Mr. Bennet and his fatuous wife; Mary Bennet, the pedant, and Lydia, the flirt; Mr. Collins, the type of pretentious conceit, and Sir William Lucas, of feeble dullness. These "humours" Miss Austen develops chiefly through her wonderful faculty for saying the thing appropriate to the character at the moment.... Miss Austen's later stories, Mansfield Park and Emma, are longer and slightly more elaborate than Pride and Prejudice, but in them the essentials of her art are still the same: a well-defined story, growing naturally out of the influence of character on character, and developed in the midst of a society full of the mild humours of provincial life.
                                                                  —Moody and Lovett.
Some of the Comic Elements in the Novel
The logic underlying this position is that in the long run good breeding goes back to property and privilege, so that the genteel principle need not be violated by a marriage with the poor. Elizabeth Bennet (in Pride and Prejudice) is given a decided advantage over the stiff and snobbish Mr. Darcy, who is brought so reluctantly to propose marriage; her pride is justified by his lofty condescension; yet the principle of gentility tells us he was essentially right in not wishing to lower himself, and he can easily be forgiven when once he comes to acknowledge that her personal worth makes her his social equal. But while it lasts, his conflict of sentiments makes him a very funny person. He is the ideal English gentleman as comedy sees that type, honourable and sure of himself, dense and stiff, and easily made a fool of. Broader comedy is provided by the cruder snobbishness of Lady de Bourgh and the oily sycophantic clergyman, Collins; and the plot is managed by misunderstandings over matters of fact coming to reinforce the misunderstand­ings bred by sensitiveness and pride.
                                                                              —J.W. Beach
The Portrayal of Mrs. Bennet and of Mr. Collins
The fool simple is soon exhausted; but when a collection of fixed ideas is grafted upon him, he becomes a theme for endless variations. Mrs. Bennet is one of this kind. She is no sooner introduced than she is defined. She is "a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper". That makes up the fool negative. Her positive qualities are these: "When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news." Her fixed ideas of the happiness of catching any young man for any of her daughters, of the inequality of an entail which prevented their succeeding to her husband's estate, and of her weak nerves, make up the staple of her talk, always amusing because never to the purpose. Another fool of the same novel is Mr. Collins, somewhat of a caricature and, therefore, easier to analyze. He has a mean understanding, and is a bore to boot; that is, he esteems himself worthy to be always occupying a place in the notice of those with whom he associates, and he thinks it incumbent upon him always elaborately to explain his motives and his reasons. At the same time, he has some sense of the necessity of humility and lays claim to this virtue by always speaking of himself and his belongings as "humble", and by the most expansive display of humility towards his patrons, and towards any one of a rank above his own. To his own personal claims he adds the official claim derived from his being a rector in the Church of England, which gives him occasion to obtrude his advice, always wrong in the various vicissitudes of the tale. The contrast between his empty head and heart and his fixed ideas constitutes the diversion of the portrait. He is perfect when he expects a father to forgive his erring daughter like a Christian, and never to speak to her again. —Richard Simpson

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