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The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, Page 2

Jane Austen

  It is in this last aspect that Pride and Prejudice stands out from Jane Austen's other novels. In the central romantic plots in her other novels, the error that prevents the consummation of the principals' love —whether it be a commitment to an unworthy lover, an indulgence in a foolish fantasy, or an unwarranted hostility or resentment toward the other —comes primarily from one of the principals. In three cases—Northanger Abbey, the Marianne plot of Sense and Sensibility, and Emma —it comes from the heroine. In three others —the Elinor plot of Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion —it comes from the hero (in the last case the heroine also made a crucial error in earlier refusing the hero, but that error took place long before the action of the novel and no longer forms a barrier on her side). But in Pride and Prejudice both hero and heroine are in the wrong on important matters, and both bear a significant responsibility for the estrangement that lasts for most of the novel. Furthermore, their mutual errors and mutual misunderstandings create an antagonism between the two principals exceeding that of any other novel. Other Jane Austen romantic pairs tend to like each other throughout the story, however much something keeps them apart romantically; at worst, one of the two stands aloof from the other. In contrast, Pride and Prejudice's hero is both aloof at times toward the heroine and frequently uncomprehending of her, while its heroine develops a positive loathing for the hero, and informs him fully of this feeling.

  These two distinct features of Pride and Prejudice offer a number of advantages. First, the hostility between the two protagonists allows the novel to present a running battle of wits and intellects between the two. This battle lets them both display vividly their distinctive characters; it also provides a particular thrill for the reader through the presentation of two combatants who are actually made for each other and who will both end up having to eat many of their words. This is a long established formula, perhaps seen most memorably in the sparring of Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. It is even possible that Shakespeare's play influenced Pride and Prejudice, for Jane Austen was familiar with Shakespeare, though there is no evidence indicating she drew on that source. Second, the mutuality of error gives the story a neat symmetry and equality, for both the hero and heroine are forced to reform and learn lessons, and neither enjoys a clear advantage over the other. Third, the sharp estrangement of the protagonists allows for a highly dramatic reversal of fortune, in which for a long while all looks hopeless and then in the end all turns out right.

  Finally, the many plot developments necessarily involved in such a sharp reversal of fortune mean that much, both good and bad, occurs between the hero and heroine, which allows the novel to focus continual attention on their relationship. This is another unique characteristic of Pride and Prejudice. In no other Jane Austen novel does the romance between the hero and heroine occupy such center stage (except for the slight Northanger Abbey): in Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion the pairs of lovers have only limited contact with each other over the course of the novel; in Mansfield Park and Emma they have extensive contact, but until the end it is only in the capacity of friends. In contrast, Elizabeth and Darcy have frequent contacts, and the issue of love between them is almost always on at least one of their minds. Such focusing of attention has obvious advantages in a novel whose main subject is this very love.

  Along with offering such advantages, these distinctive features of Pride and Prejudice also pose a critical challenge, one that determines the nature of the story and that leads to difficulties of its own. The challenge is how to reconcile two conflicting imperatives, that of showing a strong enough compatibility between the hero and heroine to make their eventual union both believable and satisfying, and that of also making plausible a severe rupture between two such compatible souls. In other words, how can two who are destined to love and comprehend each other so deeply, stumble instead into hating or misunderstanding so strongly? For writers of a romantic stamp, who dwell on extreme passions, often of a type that can easily change into other extreme passions, and who emphasize the mysteriousness or unpredictability or perversity of the human heart, such reversal of sentiment would not present a serious problem, or even perhaps a need for much explanation. But it does for Jane Austen, who has a strong commitment to clear and rational explanations and whose novels depict people acting in ways that, while often irrational, are still comprehensible.

  One way she reconciles these conflicting imperatives is through the differing social positions she provides for the hero and heroine. In all her novels Jane Austen concentrates almost exclusively on the class to which she and her family belonged, and which she knew best, the class generally known as the gentry. The gentry meant the broad mass of those who were considered genteel, which in effect meant moderately wealthy landowners along with the clergy and most military officers. Above it stood the aristocracy or nobility (though the line between it and the gentry was not a firm one), the class of those with privileged titles, tremendous wealth in land, and great political power. Below the gentry stood a generally urban middle class, consisting of merchants and manufacturers as well as the members of most professions. Pride and Prejudice is distinctive for focusing more on these other two classes than any other Jane Austen novel. Darcy, the grandson of an earl and the possessor of wealth comparable to many titled lords, is almost part of the aristocracy; his relatives Lady Catherine and Colonel Fitzwilliam, both the children of earls, are certainly part of it. Elizabeth, in contrast, has a mother who, as the daughter of an attorney, definitely comes from the middle class, and a pair of aunts and uncles who remain in that class; her initial love interest, Wickham, is also someone of middle-class origin. Moreover, Elizabeth's lack of almost any inheritance creates the prospect that she might have to marry someone ofthat level, and thereby lose her own membership in the gentry (since a woman's position derived from that of her husband).

  The resulting social gulf between Darcy and Elizabeth plays a critical role in keeping them apart, despite the compatibility of their personalities. Initially it keeps Darcy from even considering marriage to Elizabeth, regardless of her attractions; in fact, his fear of becoming attracted to her motivates him at times to be even more aloof than usual in his conduct toward her. Moreover, Darcy's social superiority to Elizabeth, as well as to those around her, encourages his early arrogant behavior, as well as his actions to separate Bingley and Jane. Even when he does decide to pursue Elizabeth, his superior position makes him assume she would welcome any offer of marriage from him, and thus reduces any incentive for him to behave more agreeably or to propose more courteously. On Elizabeth's side, awareness of his high position makes her unwilling to imagine he could be interested in her, which in turn makes her misinterpret his behavior, and it makes Wickham's slanders against Darcy more believable, since a powerful man could more easily have caused the great harm that Wickham alleges.

  Yet even as it thereby alienates Elizabeth and Darcy, the gulf between them does not rule out ultimate union. Prevailing norms were not so rigid as to keep people from disregarding social differences at times; nor are Elizabeth and Darcy so far apart socially, for they ultimately belong to the same class, even if they stand on opposite edges of it. In addition, because a degree of social pride was perfectly acceptable in this society, outward expressions of it like Darcy's do not necessarily indicate a bad character. What this means for the story is that it is possible for Darcy to behave in ways that severely offend and alienate Elizabeth, even while being a fundamentally decent man who will prove worthy of her in the end.

  Jane Austen also accomplishes her dual imperatives of estranging and reconciling the protagonists through the mechanics of the plot, which assume a particular prominence in this novel. Several plot devices further the estrangement of the two. The first, and most important, is Darcy and Elizabeth's being such total strangers to each other. This plays an essential role in her misassessment of him, for when she perceives unpleasant behavior in him, and hears a bad report of hi
m, she has no good means of receiving a truer picture of his character. It is highly unlikely that an intelligent person like Elizabeth would have judged so wrongly, had Darcy lived long in her neighborhood, or shared important acquaintances or relations with her; instead, the first contact she has with him is when she hears him utter insulting words about herself. The second device is the love affair between Darcy's best friend and Elizabeth's sister, which gives Elizabeth greater reason to dislike Darcy when she learns of his role in separating the two lovers. The third is the introduction of a character, Wickham, who has a coincidental relationship with, and grudge against, the hero; when he also proves attractive to the heroine, she is led to believe terrible slanders about the hero. Here again Elizabeth's lack of acquaintance or connection with Darcy plays a vital role, for it means she has no alternative source of knowledge for learning the real truth of Wickham's charges.

  All this provides a good basis for antagonism between the principals; the difficulty is that such antagonism, along with the lack of personal connections between the two, gives them little reason to interact with one another, and it is such interaction that moves the plot along and provides much of the interest of the novel. It thus become essential for the author, even while keeping Elizabeth and Darcy estranged from each other, to arrange reasons for their continued meeting. One means for this is provided by the situation of Jane and Bingley, for the former's illness while visiting the latter's residence prompts Elizabeth, against her wishes, to spend many days in the same house with Darcy; the resulting several days of exchanges and disputes between the two are one of the highlights of the novel. Another means, one that leads to even more significant meetings between them, is the introduction of characters, Mr. Collins along with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, who have coincidental links to both hero and heroine. Mr. Collins, through his ties to Darcy's aunt along with Elizabeth's visit to him after his marriage to her best friend, provides a basis for a meeting between Elizabeth and Darcy after his departure from Nether-field seemed to ensure they would never see each other again. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, thanks to her former residence near Darcy's home, give Elizabeth occasion to encounter Darcy at a time when she, while no longer disliking him, still prefers to avoid him, and when he, having been badly burned in his proposal, is not likely to seek her out.

  Coincidences like this, in fact, loom large in the whole development of the plot. Elizabeth's and Darcy's time together at the Collinses and Lady Catherine's occurs not only because of their mutual connection to one of those households, but also because Darcy's two to three week visit there happens to fall in the middle of Elizabeth's six week visit. Elizabeth's vehemence in rejecting Darcy, which in turn helps spur his crucial letter to her and his ultimate reformation, is exacerbated because it was that very day that she learned of his role in separating Bingley and Jane. Elizabeth's encounter with Darcy at Pemberley is especially dependent on chance: they only meet because he was scheduled to arrive the following day, which makes her think it safe to visit, but he in fact advances his plans and arrives during her visit. Finally, in addition to the coincidence of Wickham's running off with Elizabeth's sister, the essential development of Darcy's learning of the affair, without which Lydia would probably have been ruined and Elizabeth in consequence too tainted socially to marry him, happens only because he arrives at Elizabeth's room at the moment when she, having just finished reading about Wickham and Lydia, is in too agitated a state to maintain normal discretion about a terrible family secret.

  These various coincidences serve the novel in many ways: by repeatedly connecting the various characters, by ensuring that important characters like Wickham can continue to play a major role, and by allowing all the main story lines to be neatly wrapped up. Yet the repeated use of coincidence conflicts with one of Jane Austen's most cherished literary values, fidelity to real life, a life in which coincidence normally plays a far smaller role than it does in this novel. This feature of the work does not destroy the general realism of its presentation of people and society, but it does give it some affinity to the earlier novels that Jane Austen had ridiculed for their reliance on unexpected encounters and improbable connections.

  This affinity to earlier novels appears in various aspects oi Pride and Prejudice, which is the last completed, and the best, of Jane Austen's early novels, the ones that she started in the 1790's and that bear the strongest traces of the fiction she had absorbed in her youth. In contrast, her later novels—Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion— possess a slightly different manner, one that includes a lesser reliance on coincidence or highly dramatic events in the plot, and a greater restraint and realism in the characterization and language. The early novels present characters who are almost larger than life, and who at times resemble the “types” —i.e., deliberately exaggerated representatives of specific emotions or propensities —who dominate much of eighteenth-century literature. Lady Catherine, Mrs. Bennet, and Mr. Collins (especially the last) are the strongest examples of this in Pride and Prejudice, characters who are memorable in part because they border on caricature.

  Similarly, the language and dialogue of the early novels tends to be more pointed and emphatic. Pride and Prejudice in particular is distinguished by the lapidary polish of its prose. Jane Austen spoke in a letter of having “lopt & cropt” the novel, and it does seem to be the most carefully edited and reworked of her novels. She also wrote of the “playfulness and Epigrammatism of its general stile [sic]” a feature seen in its many clever epigrams and specimens of wit that come from both the narrators and the characters, especially the main character of Elizabeth. This gives the novel tremendous stylistic force, but at the cost of a little artificiality, for it is hard to imagine that the type of ordinary people who populate the novel would ever be so quick with so many ingenious and pithily phrased rejoinders to one another. This may be a reason why Jane Austen, just before mentioning this “Epigrammatism,” wonders if the novel is “too light & bright & sparkling.”

  None of this means, however, that the novel should be judged negatively. Any work of literature has to choose between different imperatives, not all of which can be satisfied. Pride and Prejudice may lack some of the subtlety and profundity of her later novels, but it has a brilliancy that in many respects surpasses those works. Its dialogue is not as consistently close to that of real life as the dialogue of her later novels, but that also means it avoids the tendency of these later novels to present speeches and exchanges that are sometimes as long-winded, or even occasionally as tedious, as those found in real life. Mr. Collins is a more exaggerated character than any of those in the later novels; but those exaggerated features make him probably the funniest character in all Jane Austen's novels.

  As for Pride and Prejudice's plot, while it may occasionally border on the improbable in its coincidences, it achieves, in part through those coincidences, a distinctive harmony and symmetry in its structure. Both the early and later parts of the novel contain important and dramatic developments, ensuring that reader interest never flags and that the overall story is well-balanced; such balance is emphasized by having both the critical marriage proposal, and the heroine's realization of her errors, occur at the exact center point of the novel. The story also proceeds by a careful alternation of sections focusing on Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship with intervals when they are not together, which means that the main plot is never too long absent, but that it also never absorbs so much attention that other elements in the story are forgotten. Moreover, the intervals prepare the ground for the next development in the main plot. The final lengthy one, the affair of Wickham and Lydia, has a particularly resonant relationship to the main plot, for it both appears, while it is happening, to rule out a happy resolution of Darcy and Elizabeth's romance, while in fact it gives Darcy his best opportunity to prove his love for her and overcome any doubts she may still harbor. The last section of the book exhibits a similar aptness, for in it the major romantic tangles are resolved in ascending order of both their
importance for the plot and the worth of the participants —i.e., Lydia and Wickham, then Jane and Bingley, and finally Elizabeth and Darcy.

  Pride and Prejudice also achieves a particular deftness and sparkle in the person of its heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. Jane Austen called her, “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print,” and legions of readers have felt similarly. Her psychology is not explored with the depth and intensity of the heroines of the next two novels, Mansfield Park and Emma, but the charm and humor of her character make her equally memorable, and an ideal embodiment of the general wit and buoyancy of the novel. Her character in fact represents a departure from the usual pattern of novels —seen consistently in such predecessors as Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney and more often than not in Jane Austen —whereby the romantic principals are presented mostly in a serious mode, and supporting figures are relied upon for any comedy that exists. In fact, Elizabeth's strongest literary affinity is probably with a character who is a mostly humorous supporting figure: Charlotte Grandison, the sister of the hero in Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, and in many ways the most interesting and vital figure in that novel. The interest she held for Jane Austen is signaled by a short dramatic adaptation she did of Richardson's novel, in which she gives Charlotte more than twice the lines of any other character. Charlotte is a character who combines a brilliant wit, high intelligence, and fundamental decency with a refusal to take anything seriously, which in turn causes her, even with her many charms, to antagonize those around her and nearly to destroy her marriage before she finally accepts the need to check some of her constant teasing and ridicule of others.