Pride and Prejudice as an Argument for an Open Society

First Year Seminar II

C. Callanan

“They tell us that art is a mirror – a mirror held up to nature. I think this is a false image... In a society like ours, art is not a mirror but a hammer. It is a weapon in our hands to see and say what is right and good and beautiful, and hammer it out as the mould and pattern of men's actions.”

- John Grierson Art is often a reaction to society and Jane Austen's Pride an Prejudice certainly displays elements of this. Jane Austen wrote about the world she knew, and the society in which she lived in was much more closed than the one in which we live today. This is reflected in the actions of her characters. They are constantly encouraged by one another to refrain from overstepping their social boundaries. Such a boundary might be breached by many actions, such as overtly displaying inappropriate emotion in public, or discussing private matters with those one is not intimately acquainted with. While these boundaries are continuously enforced throughout the novel, a close reading will reveal that Pride and Prejudice is in fact a criticism of these social institutions and contains strong arguments for progression towards a less rigid, more open society. Perhaps the most evident example of this is found the relationship between Jane and Charles Bingley. These two lovers seem ideally suited to each other; Elizabeth tells Jane, “No one who has ever seen you together, can doubt his affection” (82, XXI), and she is not alone in this opinion; her mother speaks “freely, openly, and of nothing else but of her expectation that Jane would soon be married to Mr. Bingley” (68, XVIII). Despite Mrs. Bennett's certainties Jane and Mr. Bingley's courtship does not initially result in marriage when Mr. Bingley rather abruptly breaks it off. This is not without precedent; in a conversation about Jane, Charlotte tells Elizabeth that “[i]f a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark... In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better shew more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not

help him on” (13-14, VI). We discover later, in Mr. Darcy's letter to Elizabeth, that one of the main reasons why he played a part in detaching Mr. Bingley from Jane was his carefully studied opinion that she felt no particular attachment to Mr. Bingley. “Her look and manner were open, cheerful and as engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard, and I remained convinced from the evening's scrutiny, that though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment” (134, XXXV). Darcy goes on to admit that as Elizabeth is her sister, she would be better inclined to know Jane's feelings towards Bingley, but there were no inclinations for him to suspect that she reciprocated Bingley's affection. This notion was so strong in Mr. Darcy that, combined with his concerns about Jane's familial connections, he engaged in an act of deception to prevent his friend from making a poor decision in marriage. Mr. Darcy has strong moral convictions and for him to take such a course of action is highly irregular; indeed, it is the one thing he truly regrets in his part of the affair. That he would “[condescend] to adopt measures of art” (135, XXXV) shows his certainty in Jane's dearth of affection towards Mr. Bingley. This suggests that Jane, in deference to sensibilities of her time, was intentionally concealing her feelings for Mr. Bingley for the sake of respectability. Even after hope of engagement to Mr. Bingley seems to all but have disappeared, she denies her true feelings for him: “He may live in my memory as the most amiable man of my acquaintance, but that is all. I have nothing either to hope or fear, and nothing to reproach him with” (92, XXIV). Elizabeth, however, notes many changes in Jane's personality that show how very much Mr. Bingley's forsaking has affected her. When examining letters from her, she notes “in all, and in almost every line of each, there was a want of that cheerfulness

which had been used to characterize her style, and which, proceeding from the serenity of a mind at ease with itself, and kindly disposed towards every one, had been scarcely ever clouded” (128, XXXIV). Even Mrs. Gardiner notices the change in Jane's mood, and mentions it in a conversation with Elizabeth (104, XXVII). There seems no other apparent cause than Mr. Bingley's rejection. Though all may seem lost for the young lovebirds, an act of admission brings them back together. Darcy, a man whom all thought incapable of admission of wrong doing, admits to Elizabeth that he had informed Mr. Bingley of his prior transgression, as well as his reconsideration of his opinion of Jane's affections. This, however, required a change in Jane's actions as well; when Elizabeth inquired as to whether Darcy truly felt that Jane loved Bingley or whether he had simply said so on account of Elizabeth's statements, he replies in affirmation of the former: “I had narrowly observed her during the two visits which I had lately made here; and I was convinced of her affection” (250, LVIII). If Darcy was to come to this conclusion independently from the observation of two visitations, there clearly must have been a radical change in Jane's manner. Whether this had been due to acceptance of Mr. Bingley's rejection, or a renewed desire to win him back is debatable; nonetheless, Jane had allowed herself to express her true feelings for Bingley, which lead to greater happiness for everyone involved, especially herself; whereas previously she had been described as “dejected” (104, XXVII) and “not in spirits” (124, XXXIII), after her engagement to Mr. Bingley she is absolutely ecstatic: “'Tis too much! By far too much. I do not deserve it. Oh! why is not every body as happy?'' (232, LV). Even beyond his involvement in the Jane-Bingley affair, Mr. Darcy possibly

presents the best argument for a social critique interpretation of Pride and Prejudice. This is rather ironic, as Mr. Darcy is quite probably the biggest proponent of the very social structure that he ends up representing negatively. Darcy is so very aware of his high status in society that he appears to snub every person he speaks with. The initial opinion of him from the ball at Netherfield is more or less universal: “He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and every body hoped he would never come there again” (6, III). Even Mrs. Bennett, who is prone to looking at the best in people, especially if they happen to be well off, cannot stand him, “for he is a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing... I quite detest the man” (8, III). Mrs. Bennett has good reason, too. When Mr. Bingley suggests that he dance with Elizabeth he responds rather crudely, ``She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me” (7, III), all within earshot of Elizabeth. Later on, he becomes progressively more generous in his evaluation of Elizabeth: “But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. T hough he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. Of this she was perfectly unaware; -- to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable no where, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with.” (15, VI) Elizabeth tells him after they have become engaged, “My beauty you had early withstood” (256, LX), and she is right. His early treatment towards Elizabeth is a result of his need to fit a certain image. All of his snobbery is merely a facade, a wall built around

him by years of good breeding. His pretensions come back to haunt him when he first proposes marriage to Elizabeth. While the proposal itself is surprisingly frank, and rather insulting, the reasons Elizabeth gives for refusing it all relate back to problems stemming from Darcy's stern adherence to his social boundaries. The first is the matter of her sister Jane, which is discussed above, and the second refers to Darcy's part in Wickham's loss of his inheritance. Elizabeth had, upon initially meeting Wickham, thought him to be a wholly trustworthy sort of man, and had taken his account of Mr. Darcy's treatment of him with utmost regard. Indeed, this was one of the most defining points in her formation of her opinion of Mr. Darcy: ``I had not thought Mr. Darcy so bad as this -- though I have never liked him, I had not thought so very ill of him -- I had supposed him to be despising his fellow-creatures in general, but did not suspect him of descending to such malicious revenge, such injustice, such inhumanity as this!'' (55, XVI). Darcy, reluctant to expose the misjudgments of himself, his father, his sister, and Colonel Fitzwilliam, had not revealed the truth behind the affair with Wickham. This resulted in nearly every character misunderstanding both himself and Wickham, which in turn resulted in the near disastrous elopement of Lydia and Wickham. Had Wickham not been forced to marry Lydia by Darcy, Lydia would have been disowned, and the Bennetts would have been ruined. While Darcy's admission comes too late and is not widely spread enough to prevent Lydia from eloping, it does help to change Elizabeth's mind about her decision on Darcy's marriage proposal. If Darcy had been more open about the fiasco with Wickham, Lydia might have been saved from the catastrophic chain of events that followed her visit to Brighton, and it is entirely possible that Elizabeth might have accepted his initial proposal. Nonetheless, Darcy was able to overcome his ingrained pride, and he and

Elizabeth were married and lived quite happily ever after via a trite, cliché ending. Perhaps the biggest counterargument to this view of Pride and Prejudice is George Wickham. He is the sort of person with whom one is immediately comfortable: “His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty -- a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address” (49, XV). Wickham is very open, even with complete strangers, which is perhaps some of his appeal. Indeed, it is not until after she reads Darcy's letter that it occurs to Elizabeth how inappropriate his initial conduct had been: “She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before. She saw the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done, and the inconsistency of his professions with his conduct” (140, XXXVI). Here we see the main villain practicing the same activity that I claim Jane Austen advocates! Yet, one must take note that, though he is very open, the information he chooses to disclose is, if not outright false, certainly misleading. It is somewhat reminiscent of Miss Bingley's paradoxical statement on books: “How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! -- When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library” (37, XI). Indeed, Wickham's openness is as much of a symptom, if not more, of this society, as is Darcy's dogmatic adherence to social laws. It is necessary that the rest of the members of society become more open so people like Wickham do not have the opportunity to wreak havoc. Throughout Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen has carefully constructed her characters into their intricate webs. Those who read Pride and Prejudice with the notion that it is simply a long, drawn out love story are severely mistaken. Pride and Prejudice is so much more. It is a portrait of British society among the gentry as Jane Austen saw

and knew it. She plays with her characters, manipulating them perfectly to show exactly how their actions affect each other, and the end result is biting social criticism. Pride and Prejudice is not a story, but an analysis of the trappings of society. Though we have changed much in 200 years and a continent away, we still are caught in many of these social webs. By reading Pride and Prejudice we may hope to further hammer out our dents and kinks.

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