True Understanding In Janes Austens Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen Explained)
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Afterward, a stricken-looking student came up to me to ask if it was true. But my feelings toward her evolved over the years, starting in grad school, when a combination of literary theory and learning that Mary Shelley had written these rather spectacular other novels convinced me that I was wasting my time with Jane. Austen was for girls, and I was a woman. Nothing in Austen could compete with that. They insisted there was simply no way to write a dissertation on the novel without talking about Jane so I gave in.
I remember in college reading the critic F. Even back then, when I had more youthful angst than critical acumen, my gut told me the 19th-century authors that scholars canonize are those like Austen, whose fiction played with, but ultimately conformed to, the social conventions of their time. Still I was surprised by what I found, what I continue to find, in literature from that period, particularly when it comes to the inclusion of people of color. I was late in my doctoral studies before I even stumbled upon my first black character in 19th-century British literature.
They also used their fiction and poems to contribute to the debates about abolition, in concert with women who circulated petitions, raised funds for the cause, and boycotted sugar from the West Indies. I can appreciate her skill but feel an urgent need to teach and write about these other stories. No matter how sparkling the wit of Austen and her characters, no matter the pleasure of the familiar texts, I want to spend my time and energy elsewhere, in another historical Britain, with authors like Maria Edgeworth, Hannah More, and Amelia Opie who grappled directly with the more pressing social issues of their time—not because I agree with or love the stories they tell, but because those stories show the fuller range of British culture in the s.
Their meetings and pamphlets received wide attention. As a result of all this, Austen was clearly aware of and touched by the socio-political movements of the period. So when a fierce war was raging in a neighbouring country, and aristocrats were being beheaded, how could she be engrossed in a tale of country girls, their dresses and dances, their affairs of love and marriage? To this, there is a simple, incontrovertible response, that contrary to the generally held belief, and in spite of her own advice to her niece, Austen was not writing simply about three or four families in a country village.
Great writers consciously or subconsciously reflect truths of life and the happenings in society in their writing. No creativity, not even in a tale of fantasy or science fiction, can describe something that is untouched by the trends and values of society, either current or pertaining to some period in history. Life is the raw material from which the creative imagination of great writers generates works of fiction that are truer than life—truer because they probe and reveal more deeply its real character.
Life, no matter how disguised as fiction, is the reality they portray in people and events. Some writers describe them explicitly. They weave historical events into their story, the very plot is based on these events. Other writers describe historical movements more implicitly. There are yet other writers whose works capture social changes more subtly. This is where Austen fits. The more subtle the message, the more powerful it comes across.
Moreover, she had a compulsion to be subtle. Mindless violence rapidly replaced the ideals of the Revolution across the English Channel. Then England became engaged in prolonged wars with Napoleonic France. The English government that had not gagged the press initially became stringent. Any pro-Revolution sentiment became treasonous.
Not only the views challenging the monarchy, but any view that seemed to question the status quo in society, be it the social structure, law, government policy, or the power of the church was considered treasonous. The climate of fear, insecurity and uncertainty that prevailed in the country induced as well as provided an opportunity for the government to crush any revolutionary and reformist ideas.
In order to limit the spread of ideas and information, the government imposed a substantial stamp duty on newspapers, which the working class press was unable to afford.
This restricted the spread of ideas among people of the working class. Authors, printers and publishers could be prosecuted for seditious libel, a tactic used by the government to silence criticism and quell any demand for reform. In , discussion and comment on the Revolution were prohibited on theater stages. Even fiction could not broach on a radical idea. At such a time, Austen could not but be subtle in her critical social commentary. Pride and Prejudice , to which we limit our focus here, is about the French Revolution, and the peaceful social evolution in England as a response to it.
Through the characters and events in the story, Austen makes a critical social statement in an atmosphere that does not permit her to state her case more explicitly. She portrays what is happening around her in so subtle a manner that we almost miss it. But in every dialogue and description, Austen captures truths of society.
Their friendships and relationships are determined by them. The success and failure of their initiatives echo universal truths. There is no mention of war or revolution in Pride and Prejudice. However, when we look beneath the surface of the story, we find the clear impact of the movement across the Channel on British society.
Helena Kelly, in her book Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, 1 analyzes in great detail every line of Austen, and shows how the author reveals views on political and social issues of the day when one reads between the lines. Living and writing at a time when any criticism of the status quo was seen as disloyal to the country, Austen had to write warily. But Kelly has stopped short of taking the analysis to its logical conclusion. What is more important is the nature of reality revealed in and through her works. That is the true purpose of literary criticism and of all art.
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England had seen its own revolution a century earlier. It did not need such a violent uprooting of its social values. It had subconsciously imbibed the principles that formed the basis of the French Revolution. In fact, this was the reason its own version of the revolution, the Glorious Revolution of , had been of a very different nature from the French. It had been bloodless and paved the way for the modern English parliamentary democracy. England was thus spared a revolution because it adopted a peaceful evolution. The British society was stratified and class distinctions were present.
But unlike in France, the distinctions were not rigid. With every century and then every decade, it became more and more easy to cross these boundaries. One could be born in the working class, and find a way up the social hierarchy, to the trading, middle, landed, and even the aristocratic classes. Work, income, fortune, marriage, valour, ambition, enterprise and talent were different paths that could take one into the highest circles of British society.
Whereas in France, birth quite determined everything in life from the beginning till the end. This absolute rigidity resulted in the French aristocrats losing their heads to the guillotine. The contrasting flexibility in British society, giving a thought to others below, lending a hand to those in the lower rungs, and accepting new entrants into their circles saved the aristocrats their heads. They were not always done voluntarily or willingly, but the social progression followed that general direction.
The English historian G. Trevelyan said that if the French nobility had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt. It is on the record that on that July day in when the Bastille was stormed, some miles away in Hampshire, the Earl of Winchilsea was playing cricket, and was bowled out before he could score a single run, by an untitled man named William Bullen.
Cricket, football, or any other sport would have served the purpose, it was the underlying principle. The British played without segregation, aristocracy, gentry, traders, workers and all. This interplay across classes allowed integration in society. Pride and Prejudice begins with news of the arrival of a wealthy bachelor, Charles Bingley, at Netherfield Hall in Hertfordshire. But actually, the story begins much earlier. Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Bennet had been a young gentleman with an estate that provided him a comfortable pounds a year. He had been fairly successful and left his daughter with pounds.
Her brother was employed in trade in London. Bennet had however set her sights higher. She was silly and foolish, but also very beautiful and vivacious. She wished to rise in society. Work and the trading class were not for her. Neighborhood dances and parties brought her and Mr. Bennet, the landlord of Longbourn estate, together. The charm of her youth and beauty, combined with the indiscretion of his own youth, led to their marriage. The first seed of social evolution that harmoniously wedded the landed upper class and the rising middle class was sown.
Bennet is now the mistress of Longbourn, and of the most prominent family in the neighborhood. Her sister, brother and their families are welcome at Longbourn, and her own daughters visit them in Meryton and London regularly. The girls have among their friends daughters of tradesmen and wives of soldiers. They are particularly close to the family of a neighboring knight. This union of one man and one woman symbolizes the larger union of two classes. It results at a macro level, in a gradual merging of various diverse sections of people and social groups.
Having become the mistress of Longbourn and found a foothold in the upper class, she sets about the task of having her daughters elevated further. Colonization and expanding trade were beginning to change the economic climate of the country. People were no longer dependent on the farmland for sustenance. Colonies supplied raw materials and served as vast new markets; railroad and shipping industries were developing; factories were coming up; and towns and cities were developing and expanding.
Anyone with enterprise and diligence could improve his fortune. A new middle class was formed, that constantly sought to imitate and eventually join the wealthy classes. The social climate sanctioned this aspiration. He has given up trade since the wealthy did not work or need to earn a living. He spends all his time hunting, riding and in such leisure activities. He keeps a house in London and an estate in the country. His friends are from circles that are more suited to his new life style. His closest friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, belongs to an old, landed family. Bingley looks up to Darcy, is almost subservient to him, and brings him along to his new country home near the Bennet family.
Just like the marriage between Mrs. Bennet, the friendship between Bingley and Darcy is another facet of the social evolution that Austen captures in her story. Britain provided the opportunity for people to work their way up from the lower classes in one generation. The next generation found acceptance, sometimes readily, sometimes reluctantly, in the social circles above. Darcy follows Bingley readily enough to his new estate, Netherfield Hall. However, he is more reluctant to accompany Bingley to the dances and dinners in the country. However, Darcy refuses to mix with the people of Hertfordshire.
They are not exclusive enough for his taste. He is affronted when they speak to him. He finds their manners and values vulgar. He is eager to maintain his distance and distinction socially, if not physically. He comes to the first ball and is haughty and aloof. He does not find any girl good enough to dance with. To do so would be a punishment, he says, within earshot of the second Bennet girl, Elizabeth. Finally, it is this same girl to whom he proposes marriage, not once but twice.
His friend Bingley becomes engaged to the eldest Bennet girl, Jane, and the story concludes with the double weddings of the two friends with the two sisters.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
The highest levels of the landed gentry forged lasting relationships with the lower levels, erasing social boundaries. Darcy who was among the first circles in the land marries a girl without a fortune, the daughter of a modest landowner, with ties to the working class in the country and tradespeople in London. Austen captures this same movement in numerous events in the story. He enjoys his social elevation; she needs his sycophancy for her own self-aggrandizement. In this symbiotic relationship between two classes, Austen deftly paints many pictures.
The merging of two ends of the classes is reflected again here. He had happened to receive a knighthood, and promptly closed shop to retire in the country and enjoy his knighthood. His daughter, Charlotte, is an unmarried twenty seven year old girl without beauty or fortune. Austen takes this girl who has been visiting Longbourn estate for many years to meet her friends the Bennets, and makes her its mistress.
After her marriage to Collins, who is the heir to the Longbourn estate, Charlotte is set to succeed Mrs. Bennet in the position of prominence in the locality. Lowly people are raised to heights they have never imagined, and find entry into circles they had earlier admired from a distance. Where his father had been happy to serve, Wickham wants to be master. Two employees of the Darcy estate daring to breach the social boundaries violently and commit this act of social violence on Miss Darcy shows the daring in the lower classes, and the weakness in the upper.
An unexpected visit by Darcy results in the detection and prevention of the scheme. Later, Wickham carries out something similar with Lydia, the youngest Bennet girl. Darcy has all his life disliked Wickham, with very good reason. In his brief acquaintance with Lydia, he has seen no reason to think well of her. He belongs to a wealthy, distinguished family, and used to consider contact with anyone outside his social sphere a pollution.
But the changing conditions, aided by his love for Elizabeth, make Darcy go in search of Wickham and Lydia, in areas he would otherwise not visit, with the assistance of people he would much rather avoid. The highest in the land stoops to save, for a number of reasons, a low scoundrel, a thoughtless girl and a family he initially considered unfit to relate to. Whereas the earlier generation among the lower classes was happy to be at the service of aristocrats, the next generation is no longer content to be in the subservient position.
The social climate permits Wickham his ambition. The Bennets and Darcys continue to support him and his wife, and grudgingly accept him into their family circle. She is titled, and even higher than Darcy in the social order. She is forced by circumstances to go to Longbourn, to attempt to bully and coerce Elizabeth into giving up Darcy. When her threats fail to have any impact on Elizabeth, Lady Catherine is unable to comprehend it! She is steeped in class consciousness, and tries to maintain the old order. She is unable to understand, let alone accept, change. But her attitudes and beliefs are fast losing ground, and in the face of the powerful changes taking place in society, she and her opinions are swept aside.
The stratification of society was in fact based on real differences in cultural attainment. A class that owned vast acres of land and great wealth had the leisure and means to improve itself culturally and intellectually. This further widened the social differences between itself and the rest of the population, and raised real barriers to compatibility and harmony between the classes. These differences were self-reinforcing.
The barriers which egalitarian modern society today tends to dismiss as mere prejudice did exist, as Lady Catherine insists. The long gradual decline of aristocracy leads us to overlook the real cultural attainments which characterized their ascendency and long period of social dominance. However, the barriers were fast becoming flexible, thanks to developments in science, trade, travel, empire building, education and economic progress.
That is how the sons of traders are able to enter higher social circles and daughters of country attorneys can marry the landed gentry. She declares she will have nothing to do with the couple anymore. In the story, she represents the last citadel of the old world order that crumbles, giving way to a more integrated and inclusive society. Austen shows how those who bowed to change, gracefully or otherwise, survive.
Pemberley that had been the seat of the distinguished family of the Darcys is now open to the relations of Elizabeth. The runaway sister and her soldier husband visit. Most welcome are her uncle and aunt, the Gardiners. This uncle in trade who lives in an unprestigious locality in London has impressed Darcy with his culture, refinement, intelligence and fine values. He makes Darcy renounce the stereotypes he had formed of people outside his social sphere.
A young man from one of the highest levels in the land receives an important lesson from a city tradesman, and is thankful for it. The English aristocrat gave up his superiority, and saved his head, unlike his French counterparts who absolutely refused to bow down, and ultimately lost all. The British government had banned any mention of the French Revolution in fiction, and even if Austen had wanted to talk about it, she could not have. But instead, she depicted without commentary the changes that were taking place in British society, changes that had prevented a similar revolution there.
Pride and Prejudice is the story of romance in the Bennet household, and Elizabeth and Darcy are its hero and heroine. But at the same time, Pride and Prejudice is also the story of the peaceful social evolution that took place in Britain, as a subconscious reaction to the movement across the Channel. Upward social mobility replaced the relatively static barriers that prevented social movement between the classes.
Whereas in France, the impenetrable walls of class compelled violent revolution. This is one of the profound insights that can be drawn from the book about the social process that was taking place at that time, and about the process of social evolution in general. If one novel can provide us such a perspective of human history, what would a deeper understanding of all literature give us? And this perspective is only a fraction of what Pride and Prejudice itself can offer. The genius of Austen goes far beyond tracing social processes.
Literature that is true to life offers intuitive knowledge about human nature, rarely found in textbooks on psychology, history or biography. Is everything that comes to us related to us in one way or another? Do we sanction, subconsciously, every act in our lives? Do aspects of the non-physical plane, such as our words, thoughts, emotions and attitudes have the power to manifest themselves in the physical plane? Does every outer event reflect the inner state of our consciousness? In Pride and Prejudice , Austen shows the unmistakable connections between the inner and outer worlds.
She depicts five unique characters in the five Bennet girls, but at the same time shows us with mathematical precision how each of the five girls is a combination of the various characteristics of Mrs. Bennet belongs to the landed gentry. He is an educated and well-bred gentleman, with an estate and a comfortable income.
He has high values and principles. He is not mercenary. On hearing that Elizabeth is engaged to Darcy, he warns her against marrying for money.
How do I understand the language in Pride — Pride and Q&A
He has been born and brought up in plenty, and has no petty traits. He is also intelligent. He is perhaps the one person in Meryton who sees through Wickham from day one. But Mr. Bennet sees the truth behind the development. He realises that a huge amount of money must have changed hands before this can be brought about. If he can see through Wickham, then why does he not stop his daughter Lydia from going to Brighton?
Bennet does not because he cannot be bothered to take the trouble. Having erred in his choice of wife, he prefers to distance himself from her ambitions and schemes, taking refuge in books in the solitude of his library rather than facing her in open combat for supremacy in the daily life of the family. Bennet is content with watching and being amused, he does not act. Be it Mrs. He has failed to provide for his family. He does not attempt to control his wife or discipline his daughters. He refuses to exert himself. He lacks the energy and mental will for the task.
His wife is a quite perfect contrast to him. Bennet, the beautiful daughter of a country attorney, has married a land owning gentleman and risen in society. She wants her five daughters to rise further. She relentlessly pursues the task of finding suitable—that is wealthy—husbands for her girls. Her aspiration is so great she simply seems to draw eligible men from all parts of England towards Longbourn.
While her husband thinks and understands more, and talks and acts less, Mrs. Bennet wastes no time in exercising her mind. She believes only in taking initiative. She is strong, seems to have infinite energy, and never gives up. When Bingley arrives in town, she plans and schemes to make him fall in love with Jane. She has no sense of social propriety. She is only aware of what she wants. The five Bennet girls are all unique, each with her own characteristics. Jane is pleasant, beautiful, and thinks well of everyone. Elizabeth is a strong individual, intelligent and with positive values.
Mary is dull and lacks energy. Kitty is petulant and irresponsible. Lydia is foolish, strong willed and full of energy. But none of them have even a single aspect of their nature that cannot be traced to one or the other of their parents. Jane receives all her beauty from her mother. Like her, she is also without keen intelligence. She gets her natural goodness from her father. Like him, she is also without much energy or initiative. Next is Elizabeth who owes her strength of will and energy to her mother, and intelligence, positive values and pleasant manners to her father. If Elizabeth has got the best combination from her parents, the exact opposite seems to have been reserved for the next daughter.
Such irresponsible behaviour is from the father. She finds nothing wrong in eloping, her sense of right and wrong coming from her mother. This again is like her father. All the rest of her nature, the impulsiveness, initiative, foolishness and wild energy, are from the mother. Austen goes further in her analysis of human character.
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One likes the child who is most like oneself. Of Mrs. Jane and Lydia happen to be her favourite children. Bennet is endowed with values and intellect that he has passed on to Elizabeth, sparing a little for Jane. Not surprisingly, his two favourite daughters are Elizabeth and Jane, in that order. Just as parents are able to identify most with the children who are like themselves, they seem to identify least with the children who are most like the partner, especially in a not so harmonious partnership as in the case of the Bennets.
Elizabeth is the least favorite of Mrs.
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Bennet is glad to keep a distance from Lydia. There is a constant tension, sometimes humorous, sometimes bitter, between Mrs. When Mrs. Bennet and her daughters return from the assembly where they meet Bingley for the first time, Mr. Bennet is unusually awake late in the night, waiting for their return. With an astonishing insight for a young unmarried woman to perceive in parental relations, Austen tells us that Mr.
Bennet stays up hoping to hear that his wife is disappointed in Bingley. But the rivalry with the wife is so intense that it overrides even his goodwill for his daughters. So he would like to hear that Bingley turned out to be a disappointment, there is no chance of one of his daughters profiting by the new connection, and Mrs. Bennet has no reason to celebrate.
Charlotte gets engaged to Collins instead, leaving Mrs. Bennet disappointed and enraged. Bennet has five unmarried daughters on his hands, the estate is entailed to cousin Collins, neighbour Charlotte Lucas is to become its mistress. But all that Mr. Apart from the rivalry between Mrs.
Bennet, this tension is also an outcome of the marriage between the two classes to which they belong, the working class that is striving to rise and the upper class that is struggling to accept the new world order. Austen has captured such minute elements of human psychology in her portrayal of the Bennet family. Shakespeare critic A. Such knowledge is impossible to obtain from a textbook of psychology for the simple reason that experiential, subjective truths that touch the emotions have a greater learning impact than abstract scientific knowledge in a textbook. Such knowledge that touches the human emotions can be found only in literature.