1. "'Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whome you are to pass your life.'
'You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act this way yourself.'" (p 16)
This passage does much to outline the changing conceptions of family and partnership that are central to Austen's text. Here, the reader can see two very distinct partnership ideologies, voiced by Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet. The two women's partnership strategies, are then informed by these ideologies, which set against each other as two modes of thinking about the role of love in partnership as it had historically been defined in Western society, and the way it is changing. Much of this change away from Charlotte's notion of the practicality and economics of partnership has to do with the rise of individualism throughout the 18th century; a change that noted the rise of affected individualism — meaning an outlook on personal relationships that emphasizes the emotional rewards to, and autonomy of, each individual and his or her personal sense of self-satisfaction.
After Charlotte has voiced her personal views (which are echoed in the text also in the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet), the more progressive Elizabeth reacts with laughter, assuming that Charlotte's strategies are in actuality much like her own, and that she would never actually act the way she says she would. Only later, on page 84, do we find that Elizabeth is wrong, and see their different partnership strategies collide when Elizabeth rejects Mr. Collins because she does not love him, followed quickly by Charlotte accepting his marriage proposal out of practicality. How do the other characters represent these changing views on the social institutions of marriage and the family? How would these aspects of the novel be different if it were set or written a few decades earlier or later? (Alexis Adams)
2. The reader's first impression of Mary Bennet is formed through the words of her father when he asks for her view on visiting Netherfield: "What say you, Mary? for you are a young lady of deep reflection I know, and read great books, and make extracts." Perhaps this is said with the tinge of sarcasm so often used by Mr. Bennet when talking to/of his wife and younger daughters. In any event, it sounds like a good recommendation, especially in comparison to the flighty, flirtatious Lydia. The virtues of a woman educated in the way of books are further praised by Darcy when he adds to Bingeley's list of an accomplished woman's characteristics, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading." Mary certainly reads extensively, yet she is not spared Austen's criticism during the ball at Netherfield when she grabs the opportunity to "exhibit" her musical talents (or lack thereof) and is pointedly cut off by Mr. Bennett. How can we reconcile this seeming discrepancy between Austen's description of an "accomplished woman" and the portrayal of Mary's character? (Tien-Tien Chen)
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
"However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters." — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
In these opening lines, Jane Austen establishes the unmoving bedrock upon which her novel rests: the socially constructed individual. Social and romantic relationships are subject to the perturbations created by the temperaments, psychology and training (in a social and moral sense) of the individuals involved, and it is out of these perturbations that the plot of the novel evolves. Nonetheless, in any "neighborhood," or society, there is a "truth universally acknowledged" and "fixed in the minds of the surrounding families." That this truth is that a man of means must want to marry one of the daughters of the neighborhood is secondary to the universality of that truth in the minds of all who live there. All of Austen's characters are thus socially constructed subjects who live in a totalizing culture. Their "feelings and views" occur only within and with reference to this social construct and their moral choices relate to how fathfully and dircetly they carry forward the social construct.
It is tempting at this historical distance to believe that novels like Austen's can be sustained only within and set within small, homogenous communities, but in fact don't her novels reveal the way in which all individuals are socially constructed ? Although a novel by Dickens, set in the larger world of London with characters whose interactions offer clashes of classes and manners, aren't they all constructed by the same "universal truth" of culture, and defined by what they possess or lack in relation to it? And aren't we all as well so. (Susanna Cole)
"His guilt and his descent appear by your account to be the same," said Elizabeth angrily; for I have heard you accuse him of nothing worse than of being the son of Mr. Darcy's steward, and of that, I can assure you, he informed me himself."
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen plays with people's roles and ideas of rank. She often challenges society's assumptions and classifications, as she does in the passage above. Through Elizabeth, she questions the tendency to judge personal merit based on income and status. Elizabeth has faith that Wickham is a good man although of low social status, and she believes that Darcy, though rich, is a detestable person. Yet in the end Wickham proves to be a despicable character and Darcy an honorable, caring, "good" — and rich — man. This seems to support society's original attitudes and prejudices.
Austen also employs satire to challenge such typical assumptions, and the lines between satire and straight, and satirist and victim, are cleverly blurred. Some characters, particularly Elizabeth, are endowed with considerable interiority, while others serve specific functions without greater depth and are often simply ridiculed by the author. Austen deals with female, male, central, and peripheral characters quite differently. The resulting portrait of society can seem full of conflicting views.
Can these variations be reconciled to fit a comprehensive vision of society? At the conclusion of the novel, does Austen seem to agree that one's personal merit can be equated with one's socio-economic position, or does she stand by Elizabeth's original assertion above that the two are not linked? (Wendy Eberhart)
"'Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others.'" p.14
In Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, the issue of pride is a central one. Both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are disliked at separate points for their pride — Darcy is described towards the beginning as the "proudest, most disagreeable man in the world (p.7)." Aat one point Miss Bingley says to Darcy, about Elizabeth, to "endeavor to check that little something, bordering on conceit and impertinence, which your lady possesses." She is referred to as having an "abomidable sort of conceited independance" (p.26); her manners are described by the others as "very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence" (p.25). And yet Elizabeth is the main character, the one we are to identify with — the only one, it seems, who has any self respect.
What is Jane Austen's real definition of pride? Who, if anyone, does she think is prideful, and is it a good or a bad thing? Is there significance to the fact that it is Elizabeth and Darcy who are most accused of being too full of pride? Is it in fact the other members of their society who should be shunned? Is Jane Austen's attack on her own main characters in fact meant in some ways to be a satire on the real nature of pride in such a society? (Nellie Hermann)
Her father [Mr. Bennet], captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humor, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence has vanished forever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. (152)
Jane Austen does not exemplify the relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet as a model of love and matrimony which should be in any way aspired to. The antagonism, or simply misunderstanding between husband and wife serves to set each character into a kind of relief where faults and foolishness become highlited. This man and woman, already caricatures of "types" of people (meddling mother, disdainful, intellectual father . . . ) are rendered even more strongly by the description and communications of their marriage. Does Austen intend for the Bennet's to take on some kind of symbolic significance, and if so, what? How do the oddities of Mr and Mrs. Bennet affect their daughters, and how do they appear as a unit to the outside world? Is one character more sympathetic than the other?
". . . We gotta go scandalous and boogie this terror out of our bones." Jamika Ajalon (Alison Kotin)
7. After Elizabeth reads a letter from Mr. Darcy explaining his treatment of Wickham and Jane, she realizes suddenly, "How despicably have I acted!" she cried. — "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! — I, who have valued myself on my abilities!" (p. 135) Until this point in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth has always clearly been the heroine. The very discernment and abilities that she laments, were her strengths. Her reason won over prejudice, the narrow-minded thoughts that society dictated. Her reason would never allow her to marry for security rather than love, as Charlotte Lucas does, nor let the love of her life slip away as Jane lets Mr. Bingley do so. However, in matters concerning herself, her reason falters and gives way to prejudice. She engages in the waves of opinion that wash in and out of town: Mr. Darcy is disliked, but Mr. Wickham liked, for example. In the end, Elizabeth is saved from her prejudice, because she utilizes her capacity to learn to reason in matters dear to herself. After reading Mr. Darcy's letter, she recognizes her prejudice, is able to change, and to actively engage in a relationship with Mr. Darcy. (The importance of learning as a theme in this novel was pointed out in lecture by Ms. Emerson) Elizabeth's experience, however, is definitely unique in the novel, and it seems it would be unique in Austen's world.
Austen suggests that most females were like Charlotte Lucas who could not think beyond fortune and social status of a potential husband or like Jane who let the potential husband dictate the status of their relationship. If a female of that time were lucky, like Jane, she entered a marriage of love and fortune, and if unlucky, like Charlotte, a marriage without love. From an optimistic view, even if Jane hadn't been so lucky, if all of the three females followed Elizabeth's example of learning, would they have all ended up happily in marriages of love and fortune (i.e. does Austen use Elizabeth's story as a formula for female readers to follow so they can find marriages of love and fortune?)? Or, from a more pessimistic view, did the marriages of these three females, Elizabeth, Jane, and Charlotte, turn out the way they did greatly because of their personalities and therefore, there is a limit on how much a female can control her destiny even if she desired to learn (i.e. Elizabeth was the lively mind that had capacity to learn, Jane was gentle and generous, and would have been bowled over if she hadn't been lucky, and Charlotte was unimaginative and resigned herself to a tolerable existence)? (Juliet Liu)
8. In Pride and Predjudice Austen explores the tension between the construction of feminity and selfhood. It appears from many passages in the novel that the paradigms of female behavior preclude honest display of self. In the following passage Elizabeth Bennet attempts to assert herself in her refusal of Mr. Collins' offer of marriage:
"I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honor you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it...Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart." (p. 94)
Despite her entreaty, Mr. Collins refuses to be persuaded that she means to reject him, instead insisting that her statement is characteristic of female courtship ritual. The reader may believe Mr. Collins dense, yet his behavior is in keeping with the exploration of female identity and aspirations in much of the novel; female achievement of matrimony and its economic necessity sustains the plot of Pride and Predjudice. Yet Elizabeth's comments illustrate the disparity bewteen the internal feelings and thought of a female individual and their socially acceptable exterior manifestations. If "elegance" consists of dissembling and falsifying of feeling, Elizabeth surely cannot satisfy the societal standard — "My feelings in every respect forbid it". She herself points out the dichotomy between femininity and being true to oneself: "Do not consider me now as an elegant female...but [rather] as a rational creature speaking the truth". Elizabeth then resolves to appeal to her father for help in quashing Mr. Collins' advances, whose "negative might be uttered in such a manner as must be decisive, and whose behaviour at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female" (p.95).
If Elizabeth is correct in assuming that it falls to men to be decisive, rational and truthful, why does she persist in her irrational belief in Mr. Darcy's guilt in the Wickham affair? Although she does not hide her dislike of Darcy from him, she is scarcely "rational" in her >dealings with him. Ironically, it is her departure from the conventions of femininity that seduce Darcy, as when she arrives at Pemberley with muddy petticoats and having walked. However, she is exceedingly self-deceptive in her judgment of and feelings for Darcy throughout much of the novel. (Kathryn Wellin)
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000