“If I Were Determined To Get a Rich Husband”: Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen, and the Life of the Common Human Routine
‘Your plan is a good one, where nothing is in question but the desire of being well married; and if I were determined to get a rich husband, or any husband, I dare say I should adopt it’.
Early in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet and her intimate friend Charlotte Lucas share a conversation that prefigures one of the most celebrated novels in the English language. Charlotte insists it must be the first priority of every sensible woman to attract the love of a prosperous man. Her emotions and convictions are anything but sentimental: she correctly conceives that the situation unmarried women confront in nineteenth-century Europe has all the characteristics of a Darwinian survivalist struggle.
Charlotte realizes that in the civilization in which she and her friend must make their lives, women exist as virtually a different species from men. Certainly single women exist at the financial and psychological mercy of men. In the early nineteenth-century world, unmarried women essentially are forbidden access to their own capacities and talents. They cannot support themselves economically. They are denied any autonomous position in polite society. Indeed, they are deprived of almost all independent structures of self-knowledge, identity, and purpose. The sole function of a single woman in nineteenth-century Europe is to make a marriage. A female can enter into adulthood and claim her small measure of sovereignty only by bonding herself to a male – to any male who will have her.
Charlotte believes an unwed woman must recognize this actuality, accommodate it, and achieve definition and support by making the best marriage she can. Either that, or suffer the perils of penury, pitifulness, loneliness, and irrelevance. In the context of her gender’s desperate circumstances, she contends, every unmarried woman may claim the exoneration of necessity. The imperative to avert immobility, subsist, and project herself as effectively she can is categorical. It licenses all means, and every measure.
An unwed women, she concludes, has virtually a biological duty to entice and ensnare the most established unattached male she can find. A single woman must conceive of life as a chase, and of men as quarry. With the coldness, trained skill, and dispatch of a huntress, she must launch her attack the moment an eligible spoil either opportunely or by her own design crosses her path.[i]
Elizabeth, who commands considerably greater resources of intellect, imagination, and, not incidentally, beauty, dissents from her friend’s bleak, cynical but undeniably reasonable conclusions. With her characteristic discernment, humor, and flair, she remarks: “‘Your plan is a good one, where nothing is in question but the desire of being well married; and if I were determined to get a rich husband, or any husband, I dare say I would adopt it.’”[ii]
We who are the auditors of this exchange cannot help but respect, like, and side with Elizabeth. Elizabeth is irresistibly attractive in her prideful, confident faith in her personal sufficiency. Compared with her cheerfully independent ambitious friend, Charlotte lacks all creditability and charm. She seems woefully materialistic, crass, and calculating. She possesses neither sweetness nor spontaneity. She has drive, and she has pluck. But she lacks the psychology of possibility, and she has abjured the spirit of romance.
At every stage as we read Pride and Prejudice, we feel certain that Jane Austen supports our judgment. But we cannot ignore the fact that the novel reacts in a protracted and most complicated manner to the issues Charlotte raises. In its drama, symbology, and language, the narrative often appears to affirm Charlotte’s austere sense of life and approve her implacable pragmatism.
This is apparent from the novel’s opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (1). This famous sentence does not necessarily support Charlotte’s character or endorse her mordant ethos. However, it does emphasize that she is neither eccentric nor pathogical. Within her community and culture Charlotte’s mentality evidently is normative, even conventional. Elizabeth’s is unusual and provocative.
Let us examine this daedal opening more closely.[iii] Austen proclaims every unmarried man needs and wants “a wife” – any wife – in order to complete his character and accomplish a due measure of happiness. She implies every unmarried woman at least equally needs and wants to marry “a single man of good fortune” – any single man of good fortune.
She does not explain why this is the case. Her brief perfect sentence is so forceful exactly because she assumes we already understand the reasons; and because she presumes the reasons discomfort us. She is observing that men and women marry principally for motives of economic and social necessity. Marriage gives adults access to cultural identification, financial security, emotional stability, and perhaps – this is not stated – appropriate and appropriately contained erotic satisfaction.
Austen knows the nature of these gratifications has everything to do with subordination and stasis. Marriage expresses its participants’ unqualified assent to the primacy of civilization. In return, civilization provides its communicants with definition and finality. In the absoluteness of their declared sociality, the husband and wife acquire immunity from further expectation. They may settle into an impregnable contentment, rooted in the comforting concept of their suitability and wholeness.
To be sure, their experience will continue. They will commence new relationships, undertake new roles, and create unique and important wedded histories. As essences, though, as psyches and souls, they have fulfilled their purpose and accomplished the apotheosis of their potential. Because they have discharged their communal obligations, they need do little or no more work of invention and delineation. Partners, pillars, permanences, a husband and wife constitute a statuary of maturity, an iconography of culmination.
In its inspired opening sentence, Pride and Prejudice declares the nineteenth-century European culture regards married persons as having attained moral and psychological completion. As metaphors and facts, married people are “universally acknowledged” to be entirely complemental to the prevailing civic and psychical order.
It is notable that in this society persons who marry may procreate, but they need not. They may care for one another, love one another, and find happiness. But they need not. Their necessary and defining act is to wed. Procreation and contentment are so secondary as obligations or choices as not to require statement.
Austen’s deliberately disconcerting language carefully distinguishes between the authorities and motivations that characterize men’s lives and those that shape women’s. Her sentence asserts it is males who are the active, construing agents in the formation of human relationships and social events. Men desire. Men decide. Men define.
Austen affiliates with men the authority to intend and the ability to determine. She also ascribes to men the power to own. Possessing is the primary political and behavioral masculine characteristic. Proprietorship delineates and fulfills a male’s most significant purpose. Acquiring goods and exhibiting their concomitant social and psychical status constitutes a man’s fundament, and discharges his primary passion.
Austen associates opposite traits with females. She refers to women solely in the terms of their potential or actual spousal role. She speaks exclusively about “a wife,” not “a woman.”
What is a wife? What elements and aspects of a woman’s wifehood may be conceived as parallel to a husband’s will and wealth?
Austen does not say. She knows it is not necessary to say. She expects every reader will realize a woman is indispensable and therefore adjunct to “a single man in possession of a good fortune” because she possesses a quiver of commodities he desires: a satisfactory measure of attractiveness, a suitable repertoire of social skills, a general compliancy of temperament. This “property” is in her keeping. She exchanges it – she sells it – in order to obtain a share of a man’s civil establishment.
Nothing is said here about compatibility, caring, needing, or cherishing. At its core, Austen archly tells us, marriage is a transaction. Male property acquires by purchase the commodity of female propriety and its emoluments. Female property acquires by sale the commodity of male financial support and social sanction. Marriage is a tort in which validation, rank, entitlement, and, possibly, planned or accidental happiness are contracted and bought.
Austen does not infer men consciously conceive, coherently interpret, and actively seek their domineering roles in this construct. Nor do women in a fully aware manner identify themselves as passive, subservient, willingly expropriated creatures: a type of merchandise. The fact that a mythos is “universally acknowledged” does not mean it always is completely comprehended, rightly interpreted, or thoroughly accepted.
Nor does it mean the mythos is true. The multiple ironies of Austen’s language require us to realize she is lampooning rather than sharing a universal misconception. In reality, she delicately suggests, men only delude themselves into believing in their own primacy. Women merely affect to be pliant, obsequious, and helpless possessions.
In the narrative that follows upon her renowned opening sentence, Austen makes it hilariously clear that beneath their public and internal masks of decisiveness and strength, men are often irresolute and inept, easily maneuvered, and frequently gulled or outright controlled by women. She makes it equally evident and amusing that, beneath their social façade of hapless acquiescence, women are at least as motivated and manipulative as males.
This is one of the novel’s major themes. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, we are made to realize that nominally disenfranchised women are in truth determinedly and often maliciously directorial. At many junctures in this seemingly lighthearted narrative, we confront a spectacle of “universal” sordidness in which willful, contriving mothers connive to capture for their daughters husbands of real or imagined utility. Daughters conspiratorially tease and tantalize men for whom they feel no emotion other than that of most unabashedly venal cupidity. Almost every woman in Pride and Prejudice regards every passably presentable male as “the rightful property of some one or other” (1) unmarried female. Women of all gradations of intelligence and refinement routinely regard all bachelors and widowers as if they were objects of possible possession, sources of potential entitlement, beasts of privileging prey.
Let us examine several examples.
At an early point in the novel, Mrs. Bennet ebulliently identifies Mr. Bingley as a wealthy, unattached, acquirable “thing.” She exclaims to her long-suffering husband: “‘Oh! [Mr. Bingley] is single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune, four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!’” (1-2).
Much later, after many Gordian contretemps, Mrs. Bennet feels confident that her daughter Jane successfully will “get” or snare this prize game trophy:
“Mrs. Bennet … was in very great spirits; she had seen enough of Bingley’s behaviour to Jane, to be convinced that she would get him at last; and her expectations of advantage to her family … were so far beyond reason, that she was quite disappointed at not seeing him there again the next day to make his proposals” (255).
Mrs. Bennet is an extraordinarily vulgar being. We soon learn, however, there is nothing merely characterological or idiosyncratic about her viewpoints and behaviors. Virtually all women in Pride and Prejudice share Mrs. Bennet’s instinct to define every unwed male as a prospective source of personal and familial “advantage.”
This is particularly the case when the unwed male is moneyed. Consider the lenient manner in which Darcy is regarded. Everyone in Hertfordshire originally perceives him to be an unpleasant, arrogant, caustic, even crude person. However, the fact he is stupendously affluent exempts him from many women’s adverse judgment. In their unapologetically rapacious view, a male’s wealth establishes his worth. With no satiric intent, Charlotte explains:
‘[Darcy’s] pride does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, everything in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud’ (13).
There evidently are no limits to the lengths the novel’s women will go to accomplish “the business” (39; 93) of nuptial recruitment. About Charlotte, Austen comments:
Her reflections were in general satisfactory. Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband.—Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without ever having been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it (93).
Caroline Bingley carries the imagery and activity of hunt, ensnarement, and premeditated “captivation” (29), to its logical extreme. She targets Darcy, and systematically discharges upon him the full gamut of her sexuality: “Miss Bingley … got up and walked about the room. Her figure was elegant, and she walked well, —but Darcy, at whom it was all aimed, was still inflexibly studious” (41).
Is there no woman in Pride and Prejudice who can resist the magnetism of money? Is there no woman in the novel who consciously recognizes, resents, and rejects her society’s dehumanizing dynamics of feminine vassalage, insecurity, and greed?
Only Elizabeth. She alone among the novel’s women feels aware of and outraged by the materialism and manipulativeness that characterize her civilization’s attitudes about love and marriage. She alone can discriminate between the allure of wealth and the claims of character; the demands of socialization and the authority of her own individualism.
She cannot often speak openly about her dismay and anger. She does speak when she can. To the relative with whom she most unreservedly can communicate, she cries: “Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive? Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?” (116).
Austen tells us Elizabeth’s rejection of her community’s distorted values is holistic, and is infused with commitment, mettle, and tenacity: “Elizabeth’s courage did not fail her. She had heard nothing of Lady Catherine that spoke her awful, from any extraordinary talents or miraculous virtue, and the mere stateliness of money and rank, she thought she could withstand without trepidation” (122).
The fearlessness with which Elizabeth receives her insights is a constituent component and an important indicator of her heroic identity. Many of her statements and actions give heartening evidence of her sanity and wholesomeness. But as we read the novel and delight in its heroine’s mental and moral strengths, we cannot mistake or overlook the significance of the fact that she loses much of her perspicuousness and even something of her integrity when great wealth and immense prestige are attached to a male rather than a female. Specifically, she is not proof against the power Darcy commands.
For example, she is not in the least ashamed to define Darcy as his ownership of Pemberley. Without embarrassment, she describes him as coessential with his estate; consubstantial with his acreage, his manor, and its trappings: “[Darcy] is a man of very large property in Derbyshire, I understand” (58).
Later Austen provides a far more direct indication that Elizabeth is subconsciously susceptible to her civilization’s culture of materialism. Elizabeth initially detests Darcy, and she indignantly rejects his first overture of marriage. Her aversion notwithstanding, she realizes she cannot distinguish the man from his money and his status in the world; and she receives it as a pleasing laudation that a male of his magnitude and consequence should desire her. Austen pointedly comments: “In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection … (142).[iv]
It also becomes evident that Elizabeth is not immune from the reflexive, in this society the gender-instinctive, impulse to entice a male by orchestrated flirtation. When she feels attracted to Wickham, she conceives of him and behaves toward him in a manner that does not differ morally from the attitudes and behaviors of such lesser persons as Charlotte and the odious Caroline. It is startling and disturbing when Austen shows us how methodically, how insidiously Elizabeth bedecks herself for a ballroom beguiling of Wickham: “She had dressed with more than usual care, and prepared in the highest spirits for the conquest of all that remained unsubdued of his heart, trusting that it was not more than might be won in the course of an evening” (67).
Elizabeth is the focal point of merit and hope in the novel. Yet, even she is frequently drawn into and subsumed by the social system in which she lives.
As we read Pride and Prejudice, we do not ever find ourselves pitying the men whom Mrs. Bennet, Charlotte, Caroline, and all the other women in the book misconceive and mistreat. It is true that females implicitly or explicitly objectify and ill-use males. But males misunderstand, machinate, and maltreat women with equal propensity.
Throughout the narrative we discover men compulsively think about and respond to women as repositories of their parents’ social station and income, sexual vessels, and incarnations of various rarefied bourgeois adornments and talents. We repeatedly see that men regard women first and foremost as instruments for vicarious distinction and symbols for appetitive gratification.
Mr. Bingley, for example, first reacts to Jane Bennet as an aesthetic currency. It does not occur to him to conceal this distortion. Indeed, he trumpets it: “O,” he exclaims. “She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! … [I] could not conceive an angel more beautiful” (7;11).
Darcy always admires and in time learns to love Elizabeth’s intelligence, humor, and moral intelligence. Yet, he finds it in no respect inappropriate or discomforting to say about her: “I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes can bestow” (19). He later declares: “It has been many months since I have considered her one of the most handsome women of my acquaintance” (201).
Caroline, who obsessively records and maniacally attempts to satisfy all male tastes and desires, concludes men demand from the women with whom they consort nothing more than attractiveness and compliance. She exhaustively catalogues the multitudinous qualifications – the properties – men believe a woman must manifest and supply:
‘A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages, to deserve the word, and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved’ (29).
Darcy insists a woman’s “power of pleasing” (193) must incorporate even more than this voluminous inventory includes. “‘All this she must possess,’” Darcy solemnly intones, “‘and to all this she must yet add another something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading’” (29).
No man in the novel (with the important exception of the satanic Wickham) wittingly intends to express anything pernicious, exploitative, or destructive in his biases about and conduct toward women. Nevertheless, every male character to whose mentality we are given access systematically misconstrues the true character and violates the dignity of every woman he knows. Males in this community invariably fail to register the fact that women are independent, self-governing persons. They cavalierly regard every married woman predominantly as an asset or chattel of her male spouse. They blithely designate every unmarried female as the potential accouterment of “a single man” who is “in possession of” that other elusive and indispensable accessory, “a good fortune.”
The psychologies and processes of the sexes’ mutual misrecognition and mistreatment are reciprocal. They also are incrementally expansionary. Men malign and maim women. Women abase and abuse men. Each gender unwittingly confirms the other’s most absurd and injurious fallacies. The parallel perversities grow ever more extensive. Eventually the delusions and damages they cause evolve into impermeable structures. Ignorance, error, and pain become endemic in the culture and in each citizen’s sensibility.
Even the most excellent characters share the misguided cognitions and corrupt judgments of such less developed beings as Charlotte Lucas and Caroline Bingley. Like Charlotte, like Caroline, they cannot identify what is genuinely distinctive and of pure and constant value in themselves, in other people, or in any of their relationships. For almost every person in the novel property, income, social position, superficial attainments, and physical beauty are prepotent commodities. They perceive synthetic, factitious endowments as real competencies and stable capabilities. Intellect, compassion, tenderness, and loyalty scarcely matter to them.
Consequently, these persons rarely can create informed and genuinely intimate human interactions. In all their relationships and in most of their colloquies we commonly observe miscoding, miscommunication, bewilderment, and frustration. Individuals seldom can function as precious and persisting resources for one another.
Many of the book’s women and men persuade themselves that they give and receive love. Many wed. However, attraction, devotion, and sheer congeniality do not seem importantly to condition these people’s experiences of romance and union. They cohere rather than love; and they cohere mainly for the purpose of obtaining material advantage from one another.
In this respect, the large majority of the novel’s characters are unalloyed capitalists. They associate with one another chiefly with the goal of extracting from each other perceived emotional or actual monetary profit.
The social order these people inhabit requires more than gender-based misconstruction and manipulation. It necessitates misconstruction and manipulation in every arena of ideation and every arena conduct. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Austen shows us that the European culture of her time – by extension, civilization in general – almost invariably enforces exploitation and hypocrisy as its preferred ethos and style. Frequently it demands overt imposture.
The falsity the novel describes is intricate and encyclopedic. It manifests itself partially as a subliminal, seemingly innocuous system of decorum; and partially as a conscious, continuous contriving of affect and expression. In both its benign and malignant forms, the social organization is hugely fictitious, deceitful, and harmful.
With few exceptions, no one in the novel is straightforward. With few exceptions, no one is spontaneous. In almost all situations and settings, the characters shrewdly fabricate or artfully conceal their nature, thoughts, feelings, motives, wishes, and drives in order to mislead others.
Let us examine the grounds upon which Bingley first wins and later sustains his character and place in the community:
He was quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable… Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion (5-6).
Jane exemplifies her community’s reaction to Bingley when she says of him: “‘He is just what a young man ought to be, sensible, good humoured, lively, and I never saw such happy manners!—so much ease, with such perfect good breeding!” (9).
The effect of this language is to introduce us to the most benevolent of the civilization’s emphases on exteriority, confusion of surface for substance, and elevation of stylized “manner” above unmediated fundament. We see that in the social landscape of Pride and Prejudice people literally present themselves as their “countenance.” It is the essential tactic of the self in this culture to represent: to exhibit one’s looks, preferably “handsome” or beautiful, as the authoritative summary of one’s essence; and to broadcast a way of acting, a bearing preferably “agreeable,” as the indicator of one’s inmost nature and the image of one’s quality as a person. As if Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela were to be discerned and responded to chiefly on the bases of their “countenance,” costume, and “air.”
The community endorses this scheme, and continually reinforces it. Everyone in Hertfordshire is at some level aware that Bingley’s character is merely mimed by his outward appearance and ingratiating deportment, and therefore is not knowable. Yet everyone consents to receive him as a gentleman – a broadly empowering category – because he is “gentlemanlike,” and because his sisters seem chic. Everyone construes Bingley to be a good man because he is “good looking.” Everyone likes and welcomes him into congress with their lives because he is “pleasant;” because his “ease” and civility, his expert self-portraiture, suggest he is of like mind and spirit with themselves. Everyone treats his sisters as “fine women” – they are anything but – on the basis of their feigned, replicative elegance. Their “air of decided fashion” trumps their palpable shallowness, vanity, greed, and cruelty.
The key construct of this conspiracy is to emit, receive, and reciprocate intimations as though they were realities; to treat “airs” as though they comprised actual and perseverant elements. The conspiracy is incompletely conscious among all concerned. Yet, we soon discover, it is principled, perhaps even ideological. Throughout the novel, character and community cohere in perpetrating an ongoing art of collective auto-suggestion.
This process works inwardly as well as outwardly. Bingley seduces not only his new neighbors but also himself with his elaborate social grammars and skillful algorithms of “countenance.” He knows himself to be agreeable because he observes that other people behold him to be. He supposes himself to be an exceptional and consequential person because he discerns that other people admire, enjoy, and defer to him.
To one or another degree, every character in the novel shares Bingley’s warped social science. To one or another extent, they all derive their ideas about themselves from the impacts their representations produce upon others. Their commitment to disguise, pretense, stratagem, and deception eventually becomes double-edged. They dupe, gull, and con not only their neighbors but also themselves. They expropriate and exploit not only their fellows and friends’ deepest emotions and ultimate interests, but also their own.
This circumstance of universal codependent circularity frequently leads Austen to create original, bewitching, but bizarre distortions of language. About Darcy’s cousin, for example, she writes: “Colonel Fitzwilliam entered into conversation directly with the readiness and ease of a well-bred man, and talked very pleasantly” (129). Later she adds: “Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners were very much admired at the parsonage…” (129).
Austen is suggesting here that the Colonel is recognized in society and in the narrative as the sum of his courtesies. He is perceived by other persons and presented by the author as a satisfaction of a cultural type. He is less a being than a brand.
No one feels aware of or connected to Colonel Fitzwilliam’s psyche. No one feels inclined to react to his presumably intricate humanity. He is knowable to his neighbors, his novelist, and himself solely as an incarnation of what “a well-bred man” is and invariably ought to be. His “manners” incarnate the totality of his personhood. His topographies and techniques are “admired.” His intellect, sensations, spirit, and soul are ignored.
This “well-bred” individual is anything but an isolated instance. Even the novel’s hero conceives of himself as an embodiment of a taxonomy. In one of his most passionate utterances, Darcy tells Elizabeth:
‘I cannot be so easily reconciled to myself. The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of [our conversation], is now, and has been for many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: “had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.” Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me…’ (274-5)
Darcy feels shock and shame about Elizabeth’s “reproof” because he believes his identity inheres entirely in his “conduct,” “manners,” and “expressions.” He conceives that he is what he is “like.” He feels “tortured” he once failed to present “a gentleman-like manner” because he fears this is proof certain that, at least during one brief period of uncontrolled but sincere emotion, he lacked socially approved value; and, as a result, forfeited at least momentarily his significance, his selfhood, his actuality.
Darcy’s profession as a personality is to win other people’s assent to his social display. His foremost desire is to have his idea of himself and all other persons’ perception of his social identity flawlessly coalesce. He wants and needs to “become perfectly reconciled to [himself].”
Elizabeth, too, is vulnerable to this mirror mentality. In one of the novel’s most striking passages, Austen comments: “The remarks of her companions on her absence of mind roused [Elizabeth], and she felt the necessity of appearing more like herself” (187).
We must struggle to parse this strange but vitally important sentence. Elizabeth does not wish to reveal her true state of consciousness. She does not wish, indeed, to be herself. She wishes to be like herself. She conceives that she must strive to be a suppositious self, even when – perhaps especially when – she is not actually that artifice.
Her life in society has taught her that her artificial identity, her manufactured manifestation, constitutes her obligatory form and closest approach to meaning. She must endeavor to be “more like” her theater, so that other people mistakenly will understand her to be fulfilling their assumptions about her and satisfying their expectations of her.
Elizabeth believes she must be approbated by her neighbors if she is to feel content with herself; if, ultimately, she is to feel real and valid. She needs to conceal what she genuinely does feel; and, in so doing, obscure who she genuinely is. Presumably this is because Elizabeth’s veridical nature would excessively confuse or disturb other people. They no longer would know her. They might not approve her, or continue to acknowledge her present place in their community.
Also, we must suspect, Elizabeth’s veridical nature might excessively confuse and disturb Elizabeth. Perhaps she herself no longer could comprehend and accept who she is if she were to emancipate impulses and energies that contradict her usual social performance. She finds it more comfortable to be her customary enactment of herself – her dramatic literature.
Elizabeth reveals the full extent of her sensitivity to other persons’ perceptions and her solicitousness of their approval when she falls in love with Darcy. She feels mortified that Darcy understandably identifies her as the daughter of her parents and the sibling of her sisters Lydia, Kitty, and Mary. She feels overjoyed when he receives an opportunity to expand this awareness and associate her with a more impressive lineality. In another of the novel’s arresting passages, Austen remarks:
As she named [the Gardiners’] relationship with herself, she stole a sly look at [Darcy]… Elizabeth could not but be pleased, could not but triumph. It was consoling that he should know she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush. She had listened most attentively to all that passed between them, and gloried in every expression, every sentence of her uncle, which marked his intelligence, his taste, or his good manners (189).
Because Austen’s tone is so charming and her timbre so light, we may fail to recognize that once again we are in the presence of extraordinary material. Elizabeth is making a monumental avowal. She is averring that her uncle’s linguistic performance is an emblem certain of his superior essence, and a predicating imprimatur or badge of her own.
This identification makes an occasion of fulfillment for Elizabeth. She regards it as a potent personal “triumph” that the man she loves must now apprehend her as a woman – as a potential wife – who is genetically conjoined with a fully enfranchised social performer.
It is not her own “intelligence,” “taste,” and “good manners” in which Elizabeth luxuriates. Nor is it even her uncle’s qualities that gratify her. She relishes, rather, her uncle’s craft. She delights in his ability to dramatize his monetary and stylistic distinctions, and to confer them by bloodline to her. She feels legitimized as a person worthy of being loved by such a man as Darcy because she is genetically related to a person who knows how to articulate his identity as a set of advanced social competencies that indisputably emanate from a secured base of wealth[v].
All the novel’s characters share Charlotte, Mr. Bingley, the Miss Bingleys, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy, and Elizabeth’s dependence upon exteriorized identification. Austen makes it clear their global dependence upon exhibition and reaction is an imperial social modality rather than an exercise of individual volition.
The world in which these characters live ascribes coherence, legitimacy, virtue, and value primarily to one’s social standing and its public representations. Performance in communal forums establishes the characters’ mirage of “intelligence,” “taste,” “air,” and “manners,” and refracts it back to them as their intrinsic nature.
Everyone in the civilization Austen examines needs to be a virtuoso of virtuality. In Pride and Prejudice, sociability is substantiating. Presentation is essence[vi].
In almost every interaction Pride and Prejudice dramatizes, the most accomplished characters choose to protect their masquerade of sociability rather than project their true percepts and defining desires. They defend their “countenance” at the expense of their emotions, their convictions, and, often, their needs.
For example, Jane thinks she must apologize to Elizabeth when she conveys a thoroughly natural reaction to their younger sister’s disgrace. She begs forgiveness for her brief outbreak of grief and fear: “‘To be guarded at such a time is very difficult… The horror of what possibly might happen, almost took me from my faculties’” (217).
Like Jane, Mr. Darcy occasionally experiences moments of impulsive, unprompted expressivity. Each time this occurs, he battles with gallant, if perverse might to sublimate his actual sensations and display in their place an appearance of affectlessness. During an excruciating conversation when Elizabeth gravely wounds his self-esteem, he nearly detonates from the intensity of his effort to achieve – or, rather, pretend to achieve – untroubled imperturbability:
His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips, till he believed himself to have attained it… At length, in a voice of forced calmness, he [spoke] (143).
When, much later, he enters a hotel’s drawing room an finds Elizabeth prostrated with suffering of her own, he cannot permit himself to behave emotively: “‘Good God! What is the matter?’ cried he, with more feeling than politeness; then recollecting himself, [he left the room]” (204).
“Politeness” is a supreme value in this culture. “Preserving “an appearance of composure” is sacrosanct. If one becomes surprised by “feeling,” one must swiftly reorganize or “recollect” one’s pretense of genteel placidity. In the milieus Pride and Prejudice records, it is permissible to feel passions. But it rarely is permitted to acknowledge or impart them.
Of all the novel’s memorable characters, it of course is Elizabeth in whom Austen feels most interested. This is because Elizabeth experiences ideas, ideals, and sensations more intelligently and more passionately than anyone else in Pride and Prejudice. Arguably more than anyone else in English literature. Accordingly, it is in every respect significant – as we shall see, it is tragic – that Elizabeth cannot express herself any more authentically than the novel’s lesser personalities. She cannot invent a means by which to accept, evince, and advocate for her true opinions and emotions. Like her family, friends, and fellow citizens, she finds it necessary constantly to regulate, constrain, and ultimately trivialize her most urgent characterological impulses.
The manner and method of her self-effacement may be observed throughout the novel. When Mr. Collins insists upon her consent to his outlandish proposal of marriage, Austen comments: “[Elizabeth] sat down again, and tried to conceal by incessant employment the feelings which were divided between distress and diversion” (79). When Colonel Fitzwilliam inadvertently interrupts her at a time of extreme spiritual emergency, she reacts by “putting away [her] letter immediately and forcing a smile…” (137). During a later moment of abject confusion and despair, Elizabeth realizes she must return to her family and guests. We are told: “[she] entered the house with the wish of appearing cheerful as usual, and the resolution of repressing such reflections as must make her unfit for conversation” (157).
In the unremitting conflict between the requirements of her sociability and the claims of her internal life, Elizabeth almost always gives precedence to the demands of demeanor. She habitually authorizes “a sense of her situation” (206) at the expense of her actual consciousness and genuine personality.
Like all the other cultivated people in her community, she conducts her life with “the resolution of repressing.” Her modality is “concealing.” Her method is “forcing.” “Putting away” her true feelings is her central conscious activity. “Appearing” is her prevailing endeavor and characterizing art.
This exceptionally refined, nuanced, and acutely self-aware person is the antithesis of a narcissist. She serves the not-herself.
She is a strong, hungry personality. Yet, she is the antipode of a hedonist. She neither seeks nor welcomes but does accede to unpleasure.
The novel’s leading characters do more than make inconsequential compromises with their civilization. Often they migrate from requisite propriety to meticulously calibrated prevarication. They drift from polite discretion into intentional insincerity. They equate simulation and mendacity with courteousness and correctness; and they name this not iniquity but respectability.
Let us consider several instances.
As she returns to her family’s home after her long visit to the unhappy household of Charlotte and Mr. Collins, Elizabeth “privately [thinks]: ‘How much I shall have to conceal!’” (163).
She does not restrict this making of secrets, this deliberate deception, to those persons whom she cannot respect or trust. She also “conceals” when she speaks with her beloved aunt:
Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth talked of all that had occurred,… except what had particularly interested them both. The looks and behaviour of every body they had seen were discussed, except of the person who had mostly engaged their attention…. Elizabeth was longing to know what Mrs. Gardiner thought of him, and Mrs. Gardiner would have been highly gratified by her niece’s beginning the subject (201).
Elizabeth also “conceals” – she lies – in a conversation with her treasured father. When Mr. Bennet teases her about her relationship with Darcy, “his daughter replied only with a laugh…. Elizabeth had never been more at a loss to make her feelings appear what they were not” (272).
She also lies to her mother. When Mrs. Bennet asks why Lady Catherine has visited their home, Austen tells us: “Elizabeth was forced to give a little falsehood here; for to acknowledge the substance of their conversation was impossible” (268).
These passages are not trifling. Austen intends that they will shock us. She wants us to comprehend that the commandments and customs of her characters’ complex social situation often interdict their honesty and contort everyone’s “sense of” actuality. She wants us to understand that her characters’ commitment to courteous imaging seriously threatens the quality of their communions with other people and the integrity of their own humanity.
This unacknowledged but ever-present tension lies at the heart of the novel’s seemingly jocund action and spirit. Within and beneath its delicious comedy, Pride and Prejudice examines a crisis that may be eternal and certainly is contemporary. The novel covertly concerns the ageless internecine struggle between civility and sincerity.
Certain among the novel’s characters have forsaken this struggle. They are not recoverable, and therefore are not deserving of our respect or their author’s. Mr. Collins – how can we in good faith call him the Rev. Mr. Collins? – Mr. Wickham, Mrs. Bennet, Lydia Bennet, Lady Catherine, the Misses Bingley: these individuals have become so dazed by their cupidities and so entirely mastered by their artifices that they have lost all right relation with veracity and, consequently, with reality.
They have become almost literally surreal. They can perform more or less plausibly in the polite world. However, they nullify themselves with every word they speak and each act they undertake. Because they so excessively have surrendered their sincerity to the social surround, they can do no more than take delivery of and disembogue delusions.
What these abject people may at any primal level comprehend, will, desire, or feel is knowable neither to themselves nor to the artist who has invented them. They have doomed themselves to caricature rather than characterization.
They are debarred even from the energy and possible glamour of evil. We cannot fear or hate Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, Mrs. Bennet, Lydia Bennet, Lady Catherine, and the Miss Bingleys. Nor can Jane Austen. We cannot even compassionate them. We must treat these persons as parodies rather than personalities. They are banal, not wicked; insipid, not pitiable. They are substantive and serious human beings only in their emptiness. Their sole achievement is to render themselves subjects for satire.
This is the greatest failure that can befall a person in the novel. The specific form of ruin that most direly imperils every woman and every man in Pride and Prejudice is not sin. It is not disgrace. Nor is it suffering. Characters most terribly are threatened in this work with loss of character. They can become so conditioned by their civilization’s programs and protocols that they may vacate their identity and make travesty of their significance.
Nullification is the ultimate jeopardy in this extremely subversive and presciently modernist work.[vii]
As Pride and Prejudice proceeds in its deceptively lighthearted way, we realize this mortal danger threatens to afflict even Elizabeth. We see that time and again this most lovable of the novel’s people responds to the imperatives of her culture by becoming unconsciously contriving or manifestly dishonest. She repeatedly feels herself obliged to think and act in ways that not only “conceal” but contradict and betray her supremely gifted nature.
When Elizabeth and the Gardiners return home to help with the search for Lydia, we are told she impulsively writes “notes to all [her] friends in Lambton, with false excuses for their sudden departure” (208).
When she yearns to know the truth about her lover’s actions on her behalf, she writes to Mrs. Gardiner to ask for – to demand – information. She promises “to be satisfied with ignorance” if her aunt should choose to honor Darcy’s chivalrous request for anonymity and secrecy. But Austen allows us to know how insincere this pledge is, and how conniving Elizabeth is prepared to become if her polite phrasing should fail to entice her aunt into betraying Darcy’s confidence. Austen tells us that as she completes her letter, Elizabeth thinks:
‘Not that I shall [remain ignorant], though; and my dear aunt, if you do not tell me in an honourable manner, I shall certainly be reduced to tricks and stratagems to find [the truth] out’ (238).
Another of these compromising moments occurs when Elizabeth returns to her family after engaging herself to Darcy. Her dearly loved sister Jane asks where she has been. Austen comments: “Elizabeth had only to say in reply, that they had wandered about, till she was beyond her own knowledge. She coloured as she spoke; but neither that, nor anything else, awakened a suspicion of the truth” (278).
The frequency, ease, and fluency with which Elizabeth is willing to misinform, dissemble, and fib may be most clearly discovered in her reaction to her first meeting with Darcy’s family. Austen writes: “Elizabeth, on her side, had much to do. She wanted to ascertain the feelings of each of her visitors, she wanted to compose her own, and to make herself agreeable to all….” (193-4).
“Make,” indeed. Both in the sense of compulsion and that of construction, Elizabeth often feels impelled to manufacture herself. She feels so dedicated to the requirements of her life in community that she often relinquishes her commitment to her own character. In her scrupulous service to her civilization, she frequently fabricates her behaviors and sublimates, hides, or misrepresents her emotions. In “all the forbearance of her civility” (133), Elizabeth routinely betrays the spontaneity, integrity, and splendid integrality that constitute her natural identity.
This is not an esoteric or hypothetical problem. Elizabeth often feels wracked with frustration by the excessive circumspection and artificiality of her life.
For example, she dislikes lying to her aunt. Yet with her aunt as with everyone else, she feels “obliged to assume” (180) sham sentiments and affected attitudes.
She chafes at her inability to communicate openly with Darcy. However, she believes she can do nothing more than deflect or rebuff the frank interchange and genuine fullness of experience she craves. In the midst of a characteristically restrained evening with her lover, she feels most painfully thwarted: “She was in hopes that the evening would afford some opportunity of bringing them together; that the whole of the evening would not pass away without enabling them to enter into something more of conversation than the most ceremonious salutations….” (254).
At other times, the reserve that typifies her colloquies with Darcy provokes her into bitter disappointment and annoyance. Austen tells us that during one especially constrained and circumlocutory encounter, Elizabeth “longed to know what at that moment was passing in [Darcy’s] mind” (187). On another occasion, the cost of her “manners” is sufficiently afflictive that Elizabeth cannot suppress her discontent. She feels so balked that she cries: “‘The liberty of communication cannot be mine till it has lost all its value!’” (170)[viii]
This constitutional lack of “liberty” makes a barely governable dilemma for Elizabeth. She abominates the imprecision, artificiality, and sterility that limit most of her relationships. She longs to develop more spirited and truthful associations with the people she respects and loves. But these needs are neither discussible nor achievable in her culture. In common with all the other persons “of perfect good breeding” in the novel, she believes that openness and naturalness expose a deficiency of social imagination and, therefore, a failure of morality. In her “sense of her situation,” candor and authenticity operate as lapses of propriety. Intimacy and honesty function as violations of tact.[ix]
Elizabeth must fulfill her character and create her destiny in a community that accords little importance to realism, statement, and loving interaction. Deprived of the elemental “liberty” of truthfulness and impulsive, artless “communication,” she must either revolt against her entire social order or become encased in its delusions and distortions.
“Not one and twenty” (125) years of age, Elizabeth Bennet has the genius and fortitude to understand she is locked in combat with her seemingly sustaining civilization.
Elizabeth feels frustrated and menaced for yet another reason. She fiercely resents the fact that her gender circumscribes much of her mentality, and precludes the large majority of behaviors she otherwise would choose. She hates the multiple restrictions her civilization imposes exclusively upon women’s minds and movements. She loathes the perpetual necessity to affect feminine passivity, ineptitude, and impairment. She despises and feels degraded by the unrelenting pressure to become acted upon rather than initiate, to receive rather than seek.
She abhors these restrictions. She realizes their repercussions are dire. But she does not know how to escape them. The socialization of gender was accomplished in England long before her birth. Its terms are pervasive and ingrained. Its mandates are ubiquitous and, in her cultural circumstance, not publicly questionable.
No other woman in Pride and Prejudice consciously perceives that her oppression is oppressive. No other woman experiences her civilization’s harsh infringements as a source of suffering and a stimulus for anger. Only Elizabeth does.
To what avail? She possesses formidable intellect, energy, and courage. However, she can find no point of fulcrum upon which to apply pressure for movement, upheaval, change. Her community’s assumptions and dictates have no seams, welds, or fault lines that may be breached. Because her subjugation is socially determined, it has become institutionalized. Because it is institutionalized, its assumptions and provisions are omnipresent, invisible, yet intransigent. They cannot be challenged by a single individual, no matter how endowed and valiant she may be. Elizabeth can contradict and reform the conditions that devolve upon her and all other women in her society only if she can contradict and restructure civilization itself.
Elizabeth is well suited for irritation, even outrage, but not for revolution. Because she is a woman, she possesses neither authority nor mobility. She can do little more than internally register her senses of imperilment and indignation.
In her exercise of even this minor “liberty” she must be discreet. Since she cannot significantly modify her social order, she must be careful not to impugn its dictates and conventions too blatantly. Innuendo and irony are the sole forms of expression available to her. As instruments of resistance, she can command only interior perception and masked ire. As devices of assertion, she can deploy only cautious gesture, symbol, and nuance.
Certainly she makes the most of her limited opportunities and muted resources. Elizabeth conveys her antipathy to her community’s ideals of femininity in almost everything she thinks, feels, says, and does. She most openly proclaims her inherent subversiveness in her two-mile walk through the mud to nurse her sister; in her irate mockery of Mr. Collins; in her initial incensement with Mr. Darcy; in her continuous, brilliantly biting satiric wit; in her constant attitude of bemusement and scarcely concealed contempt toward that manner of life all the other women in the novel seem to desire and welcome.
Elizabeth Bennet would be an intriguing character if this were all that she achieved in her life. However, her symbolic insurrections could not in themselves compel our admiration, command our respect, and secure our affection. Nor could they make us root for her so fervently.
We do root for her. We laud her. We cheer for her. We do not wish this keenly intelligent, captivating person forever to consign her clarity, resentment, and magnificent powers of mind and feeling to merely metaphorical reactions. We wholeheartedly hope she will succeed in creating a more completely courageous relation with her insurgent imagination. We want her to release the full force of her vision. We want her to define and promulgate an entire system of transforming defiance. We want her to become a warrior.
Elizabeth eventually does openly embrace her wrath, her vision, and her will. Her decision to commit herself to her adversary consciousness produces several major consequences. It precipitates the first crisis in the narrative. It establishes her dominant position in her novel. It situates Pride and Prejudice as one of the indispensable and prolegomenous works of the modernist tradition in European literature. And it confirms the centrality of an emerging new ethos in the history of western thought.
The critically important moment when Elizabeth first breaches her caution and mutinies against her confinement occurs as an eruption of her long-suppressed dissatisfaction and ire. When the baroquely presumptuous Mr. Collins repeatedly presses his proposal of marriage, she explodes.
The insolence of his insistence is too much for her to endure. Mr. Collins is slack and stupid; she is an incandescent being. He is a monster of pretension and conceit; she is a paragon of earnestness and modesty. He is a fool; she is a most extraordinary human being.
Only the stark fact of his maleness possibly could authorize Collins in his awful impudence and audacity. He marry her? He refuse to accept her refusal? Elizabeth cannot bear to behave. With the accumulated potency of twenty years of stifled rage, she cries:
‘I do assure you, Sir, that I have no pretension whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere… Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart’ (82-3).
This is a momentous occasion in Pride and Prejudice, and in the civilization that provides its surround. Elizabeth establishes herself here as her narrative’s heroic character, as well as its most modern personality. She identifies herself as the only person in her society who believes a person’s selfhood inheres in her rationality and sincerity. She is the only person who comprehensively rejects the diseased belief that a woman is not as wholly and authoritatively human as a male. She is the only person who asserts that a woman is entirely at liberty to determine her own definition, decisions, and destiny.
In this volcanic speech Elizabeth registers more than her uniqueness and her contemporaneity. She also records her awareness of emergency. She discriminates and maps the seemingly insoluble dilemma that she and every other woman in the novel must confront. How can Elizabeth – how can any woman in Pride and Prejudice – know herself to be a person rather than a set of proprieties? How can she establish herself as a sane and sentient being rather than her parents’ or some man’s property?
Can she do this? Can she make herself recognized and honored as a living soul rather than as a comfort station or a decoration? Can she disengage herself from all that is so invidiously limiting in her civilization, yet preserve and act upon her profound civility? Can she develop and present her sensibility and character, yet continue to exist as a communicant of her culture?
Can she create a means by which to live as a socialized woman, yet be true to herself as a “sincere… rational creature”?[x]
These are primal questions. Elizabeth confronts another, almost equally urgent issue. It is the problem of isolation. To whom can she communicate her insight, fear, anger, and resolve? With whom can she join in “sincere” and “rational” society?
Elizabeth lives within a population. She inhabits a venerable community. She resides in a highly sophisticated nation. In a multitude of vitally important contexts, though, she exists apart, detached, separated from all others, alien and alone.
The heroic rejection she delivers to Mr. Collins heralds and highlights this circumstance. By any measure her speech is a remarkable proclamation. Yet, it is futile. Its only auditor cannot comprehend her ontology. Every aspect of her consciousness bewilders him. Every cause for which she pleads baffles him. She may as well have addressed her mother’s sofa, or implored the wainscot.
This is not an accident of narration. Austen needs Elizabeth – and she needs us – to apprehend in this most graphic manner how isolated she is within all the milieus she so wonderfully incarnates, graces, and invests with dignity.
Mr. Collins cannot fathom the human being to whom he desires to betroth himself. Who can? With what woman or man can Elizabeth converse truthfully and fully? With whom can she exist in genuine rather than putative company and companionship?
With whom, indeed? Her mother is a doltish but dedicated agent of the society she inhabits. Her sisters Kitty and Lydia are materialistic, licentious, and vapid. Her sister Mary is too young to receive confidences, and in any event is hopelessly mired in puerile bookishness. Her elder sister is sweet and appealing, and Elizabeth loves her; however, Jane is an essentially accommodated person, thoroughly quotidian in her mentality and purposes. Her friend Charlotte shares many of her percepts, but none of her responses to them.
In her entire circle of acquaintance, perhaps only her father could understand and empathize with her fear, exasperation, sorrow, and suffering. However, Mr. Bennet has steeped himself in narcissistic self-pity and sarcasm, and has withdrawn himself from virtually all forms of sincere involvement with his family, friends, and fellow creatures.
Elizabeth must deal with her pain and rebelliousness altogether on her own. The world in which she lives seems to be beautifully committed to intimate relationships, complex unity, and humane caring. In fact, though, it is not. Within their individual positions and preoccupations, all the novel’s characters are essentially solitary and almost entirely enisled.
As we noted earlier, society in Pride and Prejudice consists of meticulous probity rather than authentic sociality. The book’s characters commit the preponderance of their intelligence, imagination, and energy to exchanging reciprocally validating exhibitions of shadow play, puppetry, mirage.
These ritualized interactive behaviors contain little that is genuinely personal in purport, content, or delivery. How, then, can the people who engage in them become meaningfully interpersonal? Discerning and sympathizing are not skills that lie within their range. Sensing, sharing, supporting, and solacing are not talents readily available in their repertoires of accomplishment.
The men and women who inhabit this ceremonial society are implicitly estranged from all other persons. They are estranged from themselves as well. Their alienation and aloneness are virtually absolute.
To make matters worse, the bewilderment and hurt of their solitude are literally unutterable. They do not know how to speak about their isolation to themselves, and their rigid customs bar them ever from seeking earnest discourse with any other “rational creature.”
Like everyone else in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth must assent to the reality that no person in her body politic can completely comprehend or effectively console any other person. She must tolerate the fact that, within her culture’s glittering charade of community and communion, inexpressible selfhood and unrelievable aloneness may well become her lifelong fate.
Her heartrending plea that she be treated as a soul, not a serf, is courageous and moving. But it is ineffectual. “A rational creature speaking the truth from her heart” is neither recognizable nor includable within the polity of Pride and Prejudice. In the universe the novel describes, integration into society invariably involves the acceptance of alienage.
Elizabeth is a young person. She has yet to learn that, like everyone else in Pride and Prejudice, she has become captured and contaminated by her acculturation. She has yet to learn that, from the point of view of Mr. Collins and every other agent of their civilization, she simply is not a “rational creature.” She is a category.
No matter how individualistic and noble her qualities of mind and soul, her potential is meant by the social order in which she dwells to be predefined and perfectly uniform with her peers’. Like all other unwed women in England, Europe, and the wide world beyond, she is and can be no more than a prospective wife.
Elizabeth’s twin perils – the danger that her maturing life ineluctably may force her to become psychically and behaviorally absorbed into her civilization; and the danger that she may become ever more dehumanized by her aloneness – constitute the novel’s principal theme and interest.
Suspense in Pride and Prejudice does not ultimately have to do with the outcome of its romantic plot. As we read the work, we quickly intuit who will wed whom. The novel’s subject matter and fascination rather concern Elizabeth’s spiritual journey: her pilgrimage. Pride and Prejudice keeps us in a state of both delight and uncertainty because as we read the narrative we cannot foretell what Elizabeth’s moral condition will become within the confines of her exceedingly limited social opportunities.
We wonder with apprehension what will be the fate of her astonishing individuality. What will happen to her stunning appetite and capacity for independence? Can she possibly continue to define herself as “a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart”? Or must she in the end surrender her mind and will to her environment, and become merely “an elegant female”? Can she remain “almost wild” (26)?[xi] Or will her experiences, especially her experiences of love and matrimony, complete her encirclement?
Everything that evokes excitement and anxious uncertainty in Pride and Prejudice involves this vexing question. When Elizabeth marries Darcy, will she evolve? Or must she devolve? Will she decline into a socially suitable uxorial ornament? An “elegant” asset? Or will she remain one of the most interesting and important characters in literature?
Elizabeth’s decision to marry brings this problem into full salience, and makes the climax of the novel’s storyline.
Elizabeth did not before believe it compulsory or even desirable that she should enter into a marriage. Indeed, she once told her aunt that she rejected men altogether: “‘I am sick of them all… What are men [compared] to rocks and mountains?’” (116; 117). As we remarked at the outset of this essay, she once confided to her closest friend that she did not know “if she intended to get a rich husband, or any husband.”
Her contempt for men[xii] and her skeptical attitudes about marriage set loose mammoth energies of subversion in the novel. We find no other person in Pride and Prejudice who conceives of marriage as being volitional. We find no one else who supposes it may be mandatory or even feasible for a woman to create an autonomous position in society.
Elizabeth reinforces and expands her principled devotion to her personal independence in any number of her thoughts, sensations, statements, and actions. She achieves the apotheosis of her valor and directness in the statuesque protest she delivers in her parents’ garden to the imposing Lady Catherine De Bourgh. In a mood of fiery indignation, she announces: “‘I am only resolved to act in a manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me’” (267).
Every reader’s reaction to this famous speech surely must be respectful and admiring. Elizabeth is seeking – she is demanding – personal happiness as her appropriate motive, characterizing objective, and inalienable right. She insists upon her “own opinion” as her only trustworthy source of knowledge, and sole legitimate validation. She ascribes final ethical and political authority to herself rather than to her society, its strictures, its sensitivities, or any of its executors.
In effect she is issuing a manifesto: a statement of belief and pledge of resolve that must thrill us for its insight, loftiness, dignity, and daring. Yet, we cannot help but feel troubled. Outside the frontiers of peroration, how will Elizabeth sustain her brilliantly assertive imagination? How will she protect her intrepidity and advance her visionary will in the face of her civilization’s assured belligerence, her community’s entrenched mores, her family’s and her neighbors’ bewilderment and opposition?
Can she – can anyone – become utterly self-sufficient? Can she – can anyone – unilaterally reconceive and reconstruct the social universe?
We feel especially concerned because Elizabeth does not seem aware that her apostasy is extreme. She seems scarcely to understand how forcefully her ideals and creeds will be feared, scorned, and resisted.
This is especially worrisome with regard to her forthcoming marriage. She does not permit herself to realize that the condition of marriage may be inimical to her freedom of thought and autonomy of action. She does not allow herself to recall what she once understood and rightly dreaded: that the state of wedlock – a disturbing term – is likely to lock her as thoroughly as it has contained and controlled every other woman in her society who has convinced herself that joining in loving lifetime union with a man will grant her a magical access to her highest self and most lofty aspirations.
Elizabeth’s insouciance is disconcerting and disturbing. Even more naïve and dangerous is her certitude that Darcy loves her specifically for her wildness.
We can observe her naiveté about this subject with particular clarity in one moment of confident repartee with her intended. Darcy perhaps guilelessly, perhaps cleverly, assures Elizabeth he fell in love with her “‘for the liveliness of [her] mind’” (284). When he makes this blithe pleasing comment, he has no idea what she has been supposing about the primacy of her volitions, and the extremism with which she means to pursue and practice self-sufficiency.
Elizabeth, though, conceives that Darcy somehow is privy to her innermost consciousness. She incautiously replies:
‘The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them. Had you not been really amiable you would have hated me for it; … In your heart, you thoroughly despised the persons who so assiduously courted you!’ (284)
O Elizabeth, we must think. Take care. Be more cautious. You are staking your liberty and your happiness on an impression that may not be completely true.
No doubt a “really amiable” man can be “roused” by a woman who refuses to defer to him. But this does not necessarily mean the man will expect his culturally approved – his culturally mandated – dominance always to be resisted. Especially when he takes the “lively” woman for his wife. When wedded, will he not emphasize the possessive syntax: his wife?
We must feel alarmed on Elizabeth’s behalf. We feel impelled to ask on her behalf the discomforting questions that, in the flush of her infatuation with Darcy, with romance, and with emerging adulthood she fails to ask herself.
Has she underestimated the commitment of males to their own prerogatives and perquisites? Particularly the commitment of so immensely puissant a male as her fiancé? Has she mismeasured the might her civilization confers upon husbands? Particularly upon so enormously empowered a husband as hers?
Has she altogether understood the mettle of her lordly mate? Has she completely comprehended the likelihood that Fitzwilliam Darcy may well regard himself as the regent and ruler of his literal castle, and the master of his lithe and wild spouse?[xiii]
Our unease intensifies when we become aware that the two people who know Elizabeth most intimately feel distraught about her motivations in marrying Darcy, and her prospects for achieving happiness with him.
Her sister Jane greets Elizabeth’s announcement that she has engaged herself to Darcy with astonishment and trepidation: “‘My dear, dear Lizzy, I would – I do congratulate you – but are you certain? forgive the question – are you quite certain that you can be happy with him?’” In an access of distress, she asks: “‘And do you really love him quite well enough? Oh, Lizzy! Do anything rather than marry without affection. Are you quite sure that you feel what you ought to do?’” (279).
Her father is yet more amazed, and by nature more blunt. In the single moment of unaffected emotionality he exhibits in the novel, he cries: “‘Lizzy, what are you doing? Are you out of your senses, to be accepting this man? Have you not always hated him?’” (281). With heartfelt tenderness, alluding with unprecedented candor to his own torment with his unloved wife, he begs his daughter to reconsider her decision:
‘Let me advise you to think better of it. I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about’ (282).
Like Jane, Mr. Bennet believes Elizabeth’s motives are mercenary. Like Jane, he concludes with horror that she is making a purely economic, an entirely cultural choice. In deepest worry, he cautions his beloved child: “‘[Darcy] is rich, to be sure, and you may have more fine clothes and rich carriages than Jane. But will they make you happy?’” (281).
It is no wonder her sister and father suspect Elizabeth of materialistic motivations. It is no wonder they fear she may have become mesmerized at last by the civilization she and they must inhabit. For Elizabeth does feel fully cognizant of and instinctively attracted to Darcy’s prodigious consequence in the world. She responds not avariciously but aspiringly to his wealth, his genealogy, and his power.
We cannot put aside our memory of the fact that, when Elizabeth first views Darcy’s sublime home, she instantly wishes she might share in its possession. “At that moment,” Austen tells us, “she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (181).
When she first enters Darcy’s hallway her emotion intensifies:
‘And of this place,’ thought she, ‘I might have been mistress! And with these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted! Instead of viewing them as a stranger, I might have rejoiced in them as my own, and welcomed to them as visitors my uncle and aunt’ (182).
Later in the narrative, our suspicions receive confirmation. When pressed by Jane, Elizabeth acknowledges Darcy’s wealth and social station have been a factor, perhaps a decisive factor, in the history of her emotion for him. When asked when she first realized she loved Darcy, Elizabeth jocularly replies: “‘It has been coming on me so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley’” (279).
Elizabeth is a consummate wit, and she obviously intends that her comment will be regarded as a joke. Jane does understand her to be bantering. However, Elizabeth’s josh expresses a subliminal recognition of a truth natural and real. She has felt affected, influenced, at least to some degree enchanted by her fiancé’s singular stature in the world. It scarcely is conceivable that she would have aligned herself with any less formidable a person.[xiv]
In engaging herself to the man she once loathed, Elizabeth does not experience a merely mercenary motivation. She is able to give her sister “solemn assurances of her attachment” (279) to Darcy. She is much more direct when she addresses her father. “With tears in her eyes,” Elizabeth tells Mr. Bennet: “‘I do, I do like him, I love him’” (281).
This is not to be doubted. The final pages of the narrative make it clear that Elizabeth unreservedly adores her fiancé. Austen reinforces this impression in her closing chapter. Her concluding paragraphs of epilogue describe the marriage in terms that make it clear Elizabeth’s love for Darcy will remain absolute and ardent throughout her life.
Nonetheless, her readers must continue to feel troubled. Our sense of worry is not sourced in the fact that Elizabeth’s love predictably involves some interest in Darcy’s majestic social position, and some pleasure in the fact it will become extended to herself. We feel concerned, rather, by her ability to preserve her originally transcendent insight; her grand autarkic vision; her staunch commitment to unfettered liberty of feeling, thought, enterprise, and deed.
Like Jane and Mr. Bennet, we doubt Elizabeth can be fully happy after she weds. We wonder if she may need to purchase her conventional fulfillments by allowing herself to become a conventional person. When she exchanges the lonely liberty of her young womanhood for the secure glory of her marriage, will she let herself accommodate the malignant stereotypes she rightly dreaded and despised?
Will Elizabeth Bennet reduce herself into “a wife?” Will Mrs. Darcy attain her gargantuan social comforts by adopting a normative social identity?
Austen engages this question frontally. In one of the novel’s most remarkable passage, she permits us to see precisely how Elizabeth plans to manage her husband, her marriage, and her ongoing quarrel with her civilization.
Immediately after betrothing herself, Elizabeth thinks to make a joke at her fiancé’s expense. At the last moment she restrains herself. Austen comments:
Elizabeth longed to observe that Mr. Bingley had been a most delightful friend; so easily guided that his worth was invaluable; but she checked herself. She remembered that [Darcy] had yet to learn to be laught at, and it was rather too early to begin (278).
This privileged access to her consciousness allows us to understand how Elizabeth intends to protect and preserve her autonomy. She conceives that she can have all things. She believes she can receive all the benefits of marriage without suffering from any of its menaces.
Her strategy will be to deploy her wondrous wit: the exemplar and instrument of her “wildness.” She believes she can defend her distinctness and her dignity by impugning Darcy’s. She supposes she can repel her husband’s inevitable attempts to subjugate and control her “disposition,” nobility, and independence by attacking his with her “lively, sportive manner of talking” (290).
Elizabeth is judicious enough to repress this programme until she is safely wed. For she thoroughly understands her attempts to defuse and mould Darcy’s character, will, and entitlements are sure to meet with vigorous resistance. She realizes she will need the support of actual wifehood, an established – indeed, an irrevocable – position of her own, if she is to wage successfully what is certain to be an enduring and hazardous contest.
In her epilogue paragraphs, Austen assures us Elizabeth does indeed prosecute her strategy after she becomes espoused with Darcy. She divulges that, as his wife rather than his fiancé, she feels free to make Darcy “the object of open pleasantry.” We are told she eventually feels so secure in her situation and so comfortable with her tactics that she takes on an acolyte: she teaches Darcy’s endearing younger sister how “a woman may take liberties with her husband” (290).
We have been assured. Yet, we do not feel assured. We continue to wonder how often Elizabeth will have to “check herself” in order to assuage her husband’s feelings and meet the expectations of her own elevated station.
How “lively,” how “sportive,” how “wild” can “the mistress of Pemberley” possibly be? How frequently will the obligations that attach to “the wife of Mr. Darcy” (265) compete with and depreciate Elizabeth’s radical metaphysics? How commonly will the requirements that attend upon her new social prominence “check” this fearless woman’s subversive spirit and insurgent behaviors?
Elizabeth’s life-determining decision is to marry. But this is precisely the decision her civilization has assigned to her and every other unwed female in her village, shire, and kingdom. In consenting to a necessary, predetermined experience, is she not acceding to all the other ways of defining and valuing her culture has imposed upon her?
As instructed, Elizabeth agrees to affiliate herself by legal tort with a male – albeit a male of abundant property, handsomeness, and propriety. Is this a choice, or is it a capitulation? Is this an exercise of will; a blissful response to an intensely personal need? Or is it a consent to a vast intimidation: a reflex reaction that Elizabeth, like every other eligible woman in Pride and Prejudice, defines and embraces as a wholly free, entirely individualistic determination?
In making her marriage, Elizabeth turns out to be a good girl. As her society evaluates human life, as her community appraises women’s lives, she turns out to be the best girl. Certainly she pleases her Aunt Gardiner, who earlier had warned her: “‘You must not let your fancy run away with you. You have sense, and we all expect you to use it’” (109).
Elizabeth uses her “sense.” She does not permit her “fancy” to abscond with her. She loves truly and deeply, but she makes certain she marries wisely and well. She sensibly locates a supernally enfranchising space for herself within the suffocating conventions and attitudes she once had found unnecessary, repugnant, and perilous.
In marrying Darcy, Elizabeth converts the liabilities of her gender into assets. She creates a compromise between the claims of her sociability and the original requirements of her imagination. She does not submit to conformism, Austen tells us, but she does accept a quantum of consonance with her civilization. In return, she receives an abundance of personal fulfillment.
We fear, however, that Elizabeth purchases her stature and solace at a significant price. We suspect she accomplishes her respectability and happiness by sacrificing a significant portion of her miraculous hunger for untrammeled autonomy, authenticity, inventiveness, and intimacy. We reckon that when Elizabeth Bennet marries Fitzwilliam Darcy, she commits on the grand scale a version of the prostitution Charlotte Lucas – her only close friend – performs on the mean.[xv]
Pride and Prejudice does not provide us with information sufficient to predict how soon or to what extent Elizabeth will feel confined by the new circumstances of her life. The novel does give us the means to realize that her creator very quickly feels stifled.
The moment Elizabeth determines to marry, Austen loses her subject matter and many of the distinctive qualities of her voice. She should be able to describe her heroine’s prospects in discourse exalted and exultant. But she cannot. She can speak of her heroine’s wedded life only in the most hackneyed terms. She tells us Elizabeth will achieve with Darcy “the comfort of ease and familiarity” (282). She will live with her husband in “open pleasantry” (290). She will accomplish with him a buoyant, expansive “uniting” (291).
These phrases are sweet, but they lack the lambent vigor and particularity that previously have characterized their author’s singular art. Austen is unable to invent locutions that can represent Elizabeth’s conjugal life as unique, consecrated, or in any respect consequential beyond the orthodoxies of “comfort” and “ease.” Because Elizabeth ultimately succumbs to cliché, because she elects to embrace the stereotyping taxonomies and protocols that surround her, her author can develop nothing other than stereotypic idioms to characterize her future experience.
This situation is especially evident when Austen attempts to describe the actual scene of her heroine’s avowal and betrothal. In this crucial passage, her language coagulates. The prose that throughout the narrative has intrigued and thrilled us grows cankered. Its cadences contort with inversion, congeal, clot, and at last neuter themselves:
Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change … as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he probably never felt before; and he expressed himself as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heart-felt delight, suffused over his face, became him; but, though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of his feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable (273-4).
What odd work this is. At the very moment of her characters’ decisive statement and dramatic fruition, Austen’s writing courts neutralism. A climactic paragraph devoted to ultimate passion manufactures an occlusion: a boatload of gorgeous syntax, but not one syllable of actual dialogue.
Elizabeth wants to talk, but she cannot. Darcy can speak, but he has to be seen in order to be wholly understood. Elizabeth wishes to look, needs to look, but does not. She is defeated by her delight. She will not permit herself completely to receive the requital Darcy longs to proffer. She must intuit, imagine, invent the experience she craves. She must author the elation her lover yearns to provide.
As must we. At this critical juncture in this wonderful book, we too must conceive and compose. One of the most fluent stylists who ever has written English literature finds it impossible to record what actually is said by the characters she so vividly has concocted, cherished, and caused us to adore.
Austen’s sudden stylistic sterility occurs because her characters are choosing to express categorical rather than characterological emotions. Darcy is anything but a mundane or trivial human being. Yet, in this scene he decides to become a convention: “a man violently in love.” Elizabeth chooses to become a convention, too. She determines to become culturally feminized.
Elizabeth never will be mistaken for that paradigm’s epitome: a shy, bashful, shrinking, overmastered prototype. However, once she conceives of herself as an extraordinary yet common woman she no longer proposes herself as a subject for distinguished fiction. From this point forward, she can be written about only in trite, contrived, convoluted dialect because she has reduced herself from a mutineer to “a wife”: a person who is most uncommonly human but who also is merely human, and therefore too presupposed, predefined, and predictable to offer herself as the inspiration and muse for an imagined topos.
That Pride and Prejudice quickly, even hurriedly expires after Elizabeth agrees to marry Darcy is necessary and not avoidable. About an Elizabeth who lives in an oppositional relation to civilization a narrative can be – as it were, must be – created. But an Elizabeth who elects to become unambivalently included in her prevailing social order is not a commanding presence.
Such a woman lacks sufficient singularity to support the novel’s originally insurgent intention. Such a woman forfeits too much of her originating idea of possibility, too much of her inaugurating passion, and all of her pioneering purpose. Miss Bennet may be said imaginatively and morally to diminish into essential ordinariness when she becomes Mrs. Darcy.
Of course, the administration of this event differs diametrically from my account of it. It is the writer, not the character, who makes the decisions. It is Austen who determines what Elizabeth can think, feel, and do. And, as we have seen, it is Austen who pays the final tariff. As a philosopher and as an artist, she becomes quiescent when she concedes that her heroine must renounce “wildness” and become subsumed into the community in which she lives. Several pages later, the tariff becomes absolute: the narrative halts, and the author is silenced.
For Elizabeth and her creator, the movement of the narrative is from awareness, anger, and defiance to complacency, compromise, and concession. Pride and Prejudice is a radically innovative and immensely important novel when its author permits herself to investigate the possibility that the claims of a single, solitary, rogue imagination may supersede the power and jurisdiction of civilization. It becomes a more pedestrian work, a sedate musing epilogue, when Austen concludes every individual consciousness, no matter how gifted, eventually must become subordinated into her prevailing social order.
Adversariness activates this novelist’s genius. Quietism sterilizes and swiftly terminates her ability to invent. Frustration, indignation, and resistance inspire Jane Austen. Docility domesticates her ingenious imagination, and rapidly stills her dazzling art.
Austen treats her heroine’s normalization and her book’s ending with surprising equanimity. The novel’s epilogue is striking for the calmness and good humor with which it closes the present, summons the time that is to come, and summarizes the lives its characters will live.
The epilogue does not invoke an idyll.[xvi] In a tone of composed serenity, Austen describes a future of stability, gentleness, and gentility. The characters she has treasured – Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, Mrs. and Mr. Gardiner – will discover joyful contentment in their marriages, and in their relationships with one another. These decent and prosperous people will use their wealth and its privileges to sequester themselves from their community’s few maleficent persons, minimize their contact with the irritating, and look after the needs of the deserving. Elizabeth, Jane, and their husbands particularly will protect Mr. Bennet, whom despite his imperfections they love. They shower him with esteem, and flood him with happiness. From Mrs. Bennet, alas, they cannot defend him.
Austen does not directly address the issue of how much Elizabeth may relinquish in order to engage and sponsor these fulfillments. In the novel’s concluding paragraphs, she suggests only that adult life inevitably involves some degree of expediency, discomfort, and distress; and that adjustment, moderation, and restful settlement are needful and appropriate psychical conditions.
After all, she gently suggests, what else is there for Elizabeth to do but become gracefully acquiescent? How can she escape from life’s designs and demands? Where else is there to go? What else, who else, is there for her to become?[xvii]
One must consent to be environed. One must converge and make congress with that which is provided. What else can a woman be other than first a daughter, then a wife, then a mother?
As she concludes Pride and Prejudice, Austen consoles her heroine, her primary supporting players, her society, her readers, and herself. In her characteristically quiet manner, she reminds us that our civilization is omnipotent, and becoming congruent with it is not a preference but an imperative. Not a capitulation, but an ineludible inevitability.
Accepting socialization, yielding to the supreme might of acculturation, may seem individualistic and volitional. It is neither. The claims of community are so embedded in our lives, inlaid in our awareness, consociate with our sensibility and synapses, that consciousness, chance, and choice must always be profoundly compromised activities.
In her disquietingly pacific epilogue, Austen asserts we conduct our lives on fields at least somewhat prescribed. We think and feel at least in part as we are meant to think and feel. We perceive, judge, decide, and behave within dimensions of possibility that were partially ordained before we come into our lives, and that continue to evolve long after we depart.
In this context, Elizabeth always has had little choice but to wed. In due course, she does. She chooses to marry an almost unimaginably empowering mate; and with him she experiences love, finds contentment, possibly bliss, and achieves measures of grandness reserved by her society for only the most august few.
The epilogue represents Elizabeth’s happiness and resplendent social elevation as triumphs of the first magnitude: the final signifiers of her heroism. She literally makes the best of her confined opportunities. The best woman in the book woos and weds the best man, and together with their best friends they anchor the best community Austen can imagine.
This immense enlightenment and growth more than condone whatever diminishment Elizabeth may incur as a consequence. The novel’s concluding passages define her final embrace of her culture’s mandates and mores as a valorous decision. Her acceptance of some reduction in her adversary consciousness may be an accommodation of necessity. But it is also an act of wisdom and generosity. It is a deliberate, just, and beneficent compromise.
Caring and loving, courting and marrying, parenting, occupying homes, exchanging visits, building and preserving continuities and communities: these are behaviors Austen believes manifest infinite loveliness, despite the fact they impose a cost upon each individual’s autonomy, primacy, and liberty. Elizabeth, her peers, and her forebears all choose to serve an order that somewhat curtails their solipsistic possibilities. In return for acceding to this necessity, choosing it, embracing it, they birth immeasurable opportunities for expression, pleasure, decency, and dignity.
No one in literature creates more idiosyncratic and memorable individuals than Jane Austen. But she concludes her most robust and acclaimed novel by celebrating the mentality and activity of communal life. No matter how inhibiting or restrictive, quotidian civic experience seems to Austen to confer upon all who honor it an imperium. She feels certain that our willingness to repudiate ultimate personal independence generates wonderful possibilities for collective creation, growth, and fulfillment.
Austen imparts this heroism of freely chosen compromise to her most insipid as well as her most magisterial characters. She also makes place for the wicked. No matter how imperfectly they comprehend the obligations of community, Lydia and Wickham, Mrs. Bennet, Mr. and Mrs. Collins, even the preposterous Lady Catherine de Bourgh are considered by their author to commit themselves, all in their own way, to the psychology and circumstances of civil association. Each plays an indispensable role in the making of the social whole. Each, accordingly, receives a place in the whole’s elysian endowment.
Austen’s resolution of her novel’s seemingly unresolvable conflict between the commandments of civilization and the claims of the self is adroit, cunning, and luminous. She concedes that she and Elizabeth fail to reinvent the world. But she defines their defeat as a success. She describes Elizabeth’s acceptance of convention and conformity as an election: a heroine’s decision to join, lead, and unobtrusively amend the community whose worst excesses once outraged and grievously threatened her.
Pride and Prejudice can conclude because Austen accomplishes a solution to the complicated issue that inspired her concern and creativity.
During the early stages of the novel, Elizabeth had feared her incorporation into the social order was inescapable and deadly. The epilogue reveals this was because in her youthful pride, her inexperienced prejudice, she had misunderstood the nature of the social order and the meaning of becoming included within it. By the end of the narrative, she fully comprehends, cherishes, and chooses the life of the common human routine. Like her author, she prefers and freely determines to conduct an obligatory life.
Her decision to accept the conditions of adultness occurs in a manner that takes full account of her initial reactions of dread, indignation, and resistance. Neither Elizabeth nor the artist who created her can find a way to satisfy their full imaginative potentiality. But neither any longer wants to. Elizabeth’s resolve to accept and grace the way of life she originally had challenged grants her distinction and pleasure, ensures the perpetuation and improvement of her community, and allows her novel to accomplish a feasible and fulfilling completeness.
The consolatory effect of Pride and Prejudice extends as much to its audience as to its heroine and author. We, too, feel understood and affirmed by the narrative’s resolution. We feel invited to conclude that our own commitment to our communal identity, like Elizabeth’s to hers, is necessary, virtuous, and salubrious.
In her tranquil placatory postlude, Austen authorizes us to believe we should end or at least reduce our own instincts of argument with and anxiety about our socialization. Yes, many of our identifications and allegiances may be culturally mandated rather than individually desired and personally created. Yes, our daily lives incompletely engage the supreme range of our intellect, and imperfectly discharge the ultimate ambits of our imagination. We often yield to invasive, sometimes degrading conceptions about ourselves, other people, and life itself. Nevertheless, Austen tells us, the experiment of civilization is on the whole noble, and we are noble for agreeing to participate in it.
Pride and Prejudice gives us support and peace. It hallows the common human routine. It praises us for tolerating and enjoying the sometimes debilitating, sometimes embittering parameters of bourgeois existence.
We cannot help but smile as we turn the final page and softly close the comforting covers. We cannot help but whisper our gratitude to this book and its maker. In this great and greatly beloved work, the unassuming daughter of a minor English country parson bluntly confronts and forever allays the most terrifying of many modern people’s moral and metaphysical concerns: the possibility that our devotion to social life and our acquiescence to the manifold compromises this choice imposes upon our individualism make for a thanatological betrayal: a discreditable retreat from our lives’ primal authenticity, inventiveness, and adventure.
Jane Austen quiets our debilitating fear. She honors us for surrendering our “wildness.” She sings encomium sweet and soothing to the quiet ways in which most of us need and want to exist. She assures us that, despite our flaws and faults, we are masterpieces.
No wonder Pride and Prejudice always has been so deeply admired and loved. No wonder so many readers have adored its author.[xviii] Never before has western civilization produced a more subtle and salvaging propagandist for civilization than Jane Austen.
[i] The English language often subtly emphasizes the fact that in western civilization there exist multiple and complex associations between hunting and loving. For example, the word “venery” once meant the art or practice of hunting; beasts who are hunted; and the practice or pursuit of sexual pleasure, the indulgence of sexual desire. Similarly, “chase” can mean, among other acts, to follow persistently in order to catch or harm; to hunt game; and to court aggressively.
The word “husband” is itself of ambiguous meaning. Originally it defined a peasant who owned his own house and land. It came to refer thereafter to the master of a house; the male head of a household; and a man united to a woman in marriage. The term as well applied to a male animal kept for breeding; and to a male who tilled soil, or the act of tilling soil or cultivating mind. To “husband” also means to save, economize, or accumulate a supply or store. Pride and Prejudice repeatedly notes that a woman must acquire a husband in order to secure each of these provisions, qualities, and protections.
The word “wife” carries none of these various meanings and intricate associations. It defines only a woman who is joined to a man in marriage; or the mistress of a married couple’s household.
[ii] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Boston, Riverside Editions, 1956), p. 15. All subsequent references to Pride and Prejudice will be to this edition, and will be provided parenthetically following the material cited.
[iii] Many critics have analyzed this much-loved sentence. For provoking discussions, see especially: Barbara Hardy, A Reading of Jane Austen (London, 1979), p. 35f.; Douglas Bush, Jane Austen (London, 1975), pp. 92f.; Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (New York, 1961), pp. 100f.; Karl Kroeber, “Pride and Prejudice: Fiction’s Lasting Novelty,” in John Halperin, ed., Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays (Cambridge, 1975), pp.150-1.
[iv] The author of the novel is not more emancipated from this perversity than her heroine. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Austen feels impelled to tell us almost to the farthing what each male in the tale is “worth.” See, for example, pp. 10; 12; 22; 56-7).
[v] Mr. Gardiner is not merely polished. He also is wealthy. His wealth qualifies him to develop and project his refinement; and his refinement reciprocally conveys his financial “competency.” Within the surround of money-based status, his actual personality can enact itself: his dignity, decency, and boundless generosity, his loyal and loving soul.
Mr. Gardiner’s importance, value, and merit in Pride and Prejudice are crucially conditioned. His stylistic, financial, and characterological “worth” are inseparably interrelated. It is not possible in this novel to separate his or any other character’s status from his substance: his positions in society from his true, inward, fundamental nature.
[vi] It is an important phenomenon that the novel’s most refined people often must rely upon the most vacuous and vulgar persons to provide them with vital information, and to provoke desired events. For example, Elizabeth could not have learned of Darcy’s heroic actions on her behalf, and thus discovered his continuing love for her, had not Lydia insensitively communicated the truth to her. In fact Lydia’s inveterate carnality and carelessness precipitate virtually all the events that lead to Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage, and to Bingley and Jane’s union.
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, coarse persons frequently perform the vulgar and dangerous indiscretions of being honest and overt. The deplorable failures of the society’s incompetent and incontinent characters are indispensable to the heroic characters’ ultimate successes and happiness.
The author finds herself in a similarly dependent position. The art of narration in Pride and Prejudice could not proceed without the subversive behaviors of those base, lax, and negligent characters who cannot comprehend or who willfully violate the ethos the narrative inculcates. The novelist frequently relies upon the novel’s weakest or actively wicked persons in order to tell her tale, and bring her heroes’ lives to their full consequence and fruition.
In this respect the world of the novel is authentically social. Across all seemingly nonmalleable boundaries of class, caste, consciousness, and character, people who live together in community often need and commonly do exert vital impacts upon one another.
[vii] In this context, we shall not mistake the significance of the fact that religion is almost not a subject in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Collins, the sole clergyman whom the narrative admits into its landscape, is a buffoon. He lacks any vestige of wisdom, compassion, tenderness, devoutness, or sanctity. The world of the novel is effectively godless. The narrative never makes reference to the idea of the divine in anything other than a ceremonial or formalistic way. The teleology of Pride and Prejudice is social and psychological. Austen does not experience a theonomous universe.
For a distinctly differing discussion of the phenomena I have been examining, see Mark Schorer, “Fiction and the ‘Analogical Matrix,’” Kenyon Review, 11 (1949), 539-60. See, too, D.W. Harding, “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the World of Jane Austen,” Scrutiny, 8 (1940), 539-60.
[viii] Darcy shares both Elizabeth’s yearning for truthfulness and her frequent inability to be actually truthful. In a remarkable passage, he tells Elizabeth: “‘Disguise of every sort is my abhorrence’” (145). However, in a letter that he writes to her on the following day, he admits he has practiced a deceit that has egregiously and most painfully victimized her sister. All he can find it in himself to say in expiation of his behaviour is: “‘perhaps this concealment, this disguise, was beneath me’” (150). On at least two other occasions in the narrative, Darcy deliberately dissembles or “disguises” (see p.149 and p. 281).
In the crises of his emotional life, Darcy usually can communicate only indirectly: for example, by letter, as in Chapter XII; and by the loving actions that he surreptitiously undertakes on Elizabeth’s behalf after Lydia’s flight. Until the closing pages of the novel, Darcy cannot create a means by which to speak openly to his lover.
His inhibition and indirectness are culturally mandated, and for some time they gravely imperil his own happiness and his ability to confer happiness upon those whom he most loves. Were it not for a series of unpredictable fortuitous events – Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s parental irresponsibleness, Lydia’s amoral elopement, Lydia’s thoughtless indiscretion in revealing Darcy’s extraordinary interventions and financial generosity – it is likely that his civility might have prevented him from engaging Elizabeth in love and marriage, and fulfilling his highest nature.
[ix] Elizabeth’s creator in some measure shares these convictions. As we noted earlier, the only thoroughly candid people in Pride and Prejudice are also the most vulgar – the least civilized. Mrs. Bennet, Lydia, Collins, and Lady Catherine almost always are honest about and revelatory of their opinions and sensations. However, their outspokenness is as an element and an emblem of their barbarism.
This situation is most complex. For as we also have noted, the novel’s most civilized characters often rely upon the most uncivil to provide them with essential information and catalysis.
[x] We must not underestimate the degree to which Elizabeth is threatened. The restraints and controls under which she is placed by her social situation are holistic; if necessary, they can be made absolute.
Let us consider one among many instances. When Elizabeth tries to refuse Mr. Collins’ impossibly offensive offer of marriage and retreat to the sanctuary of her room, Mrs. Bennet finds it possible to say to her daughter: “‘I desire you will stay where you are… Lizzy, I insist upon your staying and hearing Mr. Collins’” (78). Later Mrs. Bennet tells Mr. Collins: “‘[Elizabeth] is a very headstrong foolish girl, and does not know her own interest; but I will make her know it’” (83). Perhaps Mrs. Bennet does not have total power over her daughter. What is notable – what is appalling – is the fact that she believes she possesses this tyranny, and she conceives she is operating as the best possible regent for her family and her civilization in enforcing it.
Certainly the power Mrs. Bennet wields is formidable. Her daughter recognizes she has no choice but to capitulate to her mother’s command: “Elizabeth would not oppose such an injunction.” Because of her parent’s despotic intervention, Elizabeth must allow Mr. Collins further to address her in a manner that invades and injures her.
The capacity of her civilization to coerce obedience is very considerable. In this instance, her socialization forces Elizabeth to submit to a terrible violation. In order to be a correct daughter, she is required to offer herself for a species of rape.
[xi] Elizabeth frequently is described as being incompletely civilized (see pp. 16, 26, 31, 39, 125, 131, 200). The persons who describe her in these terms mean to render a pejorative judgment. Austen, however, clearly intends to suggest that much of Elizabeth’s narrative interest and moral authority inhere in her relative “wildness.” Elizabeth’s power to bewilder and offend more normalized characters’ pieties is represented throughout Pride and Prejudice as one of the essences and markers of her heroism.
Elizabeth’s wit is her principal instrument of assertion, and it closely is associated with her alleged “wildness.” Austen creates many evocative descriptions of Elizabeth’s wild and wildly funny humor: see pp. 8. 16, 42, 107, 115, 120.
The rhetorics of Elizabeth’s wit consistently express confident rejection of her culture’s values and mores. Actually, though, her humor is defensive. She satirizes the conventions of her civilization because she fears that her social order infringes upon and besieges her, and she dreads the incessancy and power of the assaults. Her mocking “easy playfulness” (16) is a concealment and a disguise. She pretends her society can be mastered by laughing at its in fact unmitigable absurdity and insuperable sovereignty. The affection that her civilization and her own relationship to it are risible permits Elizabeth to feel slightly less menaced. This is a stratagem she seems to have learned from her intriguing father.
[xii] Elizabeth’s mistrust and animus extend not merely to males. At one point in the novel, she asserts that no human being can be fully trusted or wholly loved: “‘The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence which can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense’” (203).
[xiii] Early in the novel, long before she becomes aware that she loves Darcy and he loves her in return, Elizabeth is far more belligerent about her need and her resolve to live autonomously. In a memorable scene, she tells Darcy: “‘You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy…. But I will not be alarmed….There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened by the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me’” (131). Darcy’s response is quick and lovable. However, his adroit reaction makes it clear he does not mean ever to yield to his future wife without a struggle. He replies: “‘I am not afraid of you’” (131).
Part of the imaginative appeal of the eventual union between Elizabeth and Darcy is that the principals – and their readers – recognize the enormity and intensity of the conflicts their marriage will have to incorporate and settle.
[xiv] As we noted earlier, Austen often describes Elizabeth as a “wild” being. This is the first time in the novel, however, in which Elizabeth thinks consciously and speaks explicitly about the overarching importance of money and rank in her civilization and community. Her resentment of her culture’s preoccupation with wealth always is sincerely felt and splendidly asserted. Here we can see that even she is capable of at least a subliminal compliance with the principles and mores she consciously loathes.
This is not the only occasion. This response also conditions her imagination when, late in the novel, she tells Lady Catherine: “The wife of Mr. Darcy much have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine” (265). Supraliminally she refers in this declaration to the loving fulfillment she experiences with her intended. Less consciously but powerfully, she adverts to her awareness that the woman who weds so wealthy and so socially enfranchised a man must possess and can exercise at will a supreme, immunizing consequence.
Elizabeth’s father has scare right to caution or criticize his daughter on the grounds of her possible susceptibility to materialism: no one could be more respectfully aware than he of Darcy’s wealth and social position. He is only partially jesting when he says to Elizabeth: “‘Let me congratulate you, on a most important conquest’” (270). He is not jesting at all when he declares: “‘I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to any one less worthy’” (282). Nor is he joking when he remarks: “‘He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse any thing, which he condescended to ask’” (281-2).
Elizabeth responds so strongly to Pemberley in part because she admires and loves the exceptional tastefulness with which the house has been appointed, decorated, and landscaped. She responds to Darcy and his forebears’ impeccable ability to appreciate and produce all that which is excellent and beautiful (see p.182). Her status awareness is principally excited by the stimulation that her exquisite refinement receives.
[xv] The vexatious nature of this issue intensifies when we take into account Austen’s attitude toward the other marriages in the novel. Pride and Prejudice is remarkable for the intensity of its hostility toward most of the matrimonial relationships it examines. With the single exception of the union created by Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, every marriage that is closely analyzed in the narrative is of ambiguous intimacy, trust, and fruition – if not overly dreadful. The exploitative and implicitly violent nature of the characters’ marital relations is exceeded only by the hypocrisy with which they address one another and front the world.
Austen directs us to believe that Elizabeth and Jane will make healthy marriages and ideal families. However, we must realize that, in the world the novel dramatizes, these deserving sisters and their admirable husbands face daunting odds. In this regard, it obviously is a significant circumstance that Jane Austen herself never married.
Whatever stresses and strains may devolve upon Elizabeth in her identity as Mrs. Darcy, at least she will escape from the excruciating humiliations that frequently shaped her experience in the radically dysfunctional Bennet household. On multiple occasions, we are told that Elizabeth feels acutely distressed by her environment at home, and that she conceives of her marriage as an opportunity to escape from the personalities and situations that dismay her in her birth family (see pp. 181, 279, 287).
[xvi] Lionel Trilling has suggested that as we read Emma we should “take into account the particular genre to which the novel in some degree belongs – the pastoral idyll” (Lionel Trilling, Beyond Culture [New York, 1965], p. 47). Trilling does not indicate here or elsewhere if he believes that Pride and Prejudice or any other of Austen’s novels also belong to this genre.
[xvii] In Emma, Austen permits her heroine consciously to articulate this question, and to make it the center of her consciousness. At one point in the narrative, Emma thinks: “Their being fixed, so absolutely fixed, in the same place, was bad for each, for all three. Not one of them had the power of removal, or of effecting any material change of society. They must encounter each other, and make the best of it” (Jane Austen, Emma [Boston, 1957], p. 110).
In many of her novels, Austen creates a highly sentient and initially rebellious heroine who gradually accedes to a social and psychological environment she concludes she is powerless either to alter or avoid. Emma is far more aware of this situational struggle than is Elizabeth. It may be principally for this reason that Mr. Knightley declares: “‘There is an anxiety, a curiosity in what one feels for Emma. I wonder what will become of her!’” (Austen, Emma, p.29).
[xviii] I should say that almost everyone who reads her novels admires and adores Jane Austen. Jane Carlyle, that tempestuous soul, speaks for the few who do not when she comments: “Miss Austin [sic] … [is] too washy; water-gruel for mind and body” [B.C. Southam, ed., Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage (London, 1968), p.24].
Critical reaction to Jane Austen almost always has been encomiastic. For important discussions of this phenomenon, see Lionel Trilling, “Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen,” Beyond Culture, pp. 31-55; and Marvin Mudrick, Jane Austen: Irony as Defence and Discovery (Berkeley, 1968).