July 30, 2014

"Pride and Prejudice" Discussion


So... Pride and Prejudice. I realize now that I might have bitten off more than I could chew for the first month of the book club. Overall, I enjoyed this novel—which I had not read in its entirety until now—and was somewhat surprised by how consistently and genuinely funny it was. Many of the topics that I picked up on were related directly to class, wealth, and gender with a sprinkling of other major topics mixed in. Without further ado, these are the topics of discussion for July’s book club.

Pride and Prejudice

Pride

Being titular, these ideas seem like the first subjects that ought to be addressed. As you all know from the reading (looks over glasses pointedly), these traits refer to Darcy’s pride, particularly of his social standing, which prevented him from being more open about his feelings for Elizabeth; and Lizzie’s predisposition toward Darcy after he snubbed her and those of her social standing at the first ball.

Despite his initial insistence that pride is a virtue, it acts as a corrosive force in his life on more than one occasion.  The example of this that stands out most to me would have to be his separation of Bingley and Jane. I personally see the greatest mark of his arrogance here. As only an acquaintance of Jane, he takes it upon himself to determine that Jane does not care for Bingley as she should. Elizabeth, of course, corrects this error during the first proposal scene, saying that Jane is modest to the point of keeping her feelings from even her sisters. While Darcy is somewhat receptive to Lizzie’s assertion, he still needs to make certain of Jane’s feelings by watching her in the chapters leading up to Bingley’s proposal.

Darcy’s pride is obviously also evident in the first proposal scene. He is unintentionally abrasive to Lizzie by bluntly enumerating the social and financial rifts between the two of them. These would have been tacitly understood by two self aware people. Rather than discussing them in a respectful manner, he chooses to dictate them to Elizabeth. He is imperious toward her on many occasions throughout the novel. He ignores her when they are together at Netherfield, choosing to read instead of conversing, and he refuses to dance with her because she is not “handsome enough to tempt” him.

To his credit, Darcy is willing to take Elizabeth’s criticism. By the end of the novel, he is not yet perfected, but much improved in his attitude. Despite her rejection of him, Darcy proceeds to be more polite to her than ever before (in my estimation) upon her unexpected arrival at Pemberley, and he discovers and pays off Wickham so that Elizabeth’s reputation will not be ruined. I personally find the latter act to be the greater of the two, even aside from monetary expense. Darcy had no real reason or obligation to take care of the Bennets’ problem, other than his part in not exposing Wickham previously. Rather than allowing the Bennets to sink or swim, he takes an active hand in the rescue of the girls’ reputations. Had he not done this, Elizabeth would likely not have been able to find a decent man willing to marry her. But, since Lydia is discovered and married off, Darcy has saved her from potential, future poverty and has given her a chance at happiness, even if this happiness is not with him. Further, he does not deliberately take credit for his actions; he allows the family to believe that their uncle, who would have had a direct interest in the matter, is the one to clear up the mess. That kind of sacrifice and humility, I believe, could not have come from pride, but from love. He is admittedly still proud, but he is more self aware and thereby capable of improvement by the novel’s end.

Prejudice

As our hero Lizzie has little in the way of standing, wealth, or power of which she may be proud, she must content herself with prejudice. Though she is an intelligent and typically happy person, I believe that she is somewhat insecure in her social position. Her family is not poor to the point of destitution, but they do not have enough money for Lizzie or her four sisters to have tempting dowries. While this would likely ensure that any potential suitors would be interested in girls instead of gain, it might also prevent good, poor men from marrying them to avoid poverty themselves. So, when Darcy appears at the initial ball and treats the townspeople with seeming condescension, particularly Lizzie herself, she is predisposed to dislike him, as he has every possible advantage that she herself does not have.

When Lizzie is discussing Darcy’s pride while visiting Netherfield, Darcy says that while his own fault may be pride, her fault is willfully misunderstanding people. This, in my own opinion, proves true, particularly in Wickham’s case. Wickham is a handsome, charming, and seemingly upstanding young militia man. Lizzie takes an instant liking to him. When he tells of his “plight”, how Darcy refused him his inheritance and doomed him to a life of poverty, Lizzie—already predisposed to dislike Darcy—cements her opinion of Darcy as a “disagreeable” man. When Caroline Bingley tries to warn Lizzie away from Wickham, Lizzie chooses to disbelieve her, as Lizzie has determined to like Wickham and dislike Caroline. It is not until Darcy reveals the entire story of his sister and Wickham that Lizzie believes Wickham is a scoundrel. Had Lizzie chosen to believe—or at least consider—Caroline’s warning, she might have been more willing to consider Darcy’s proposal or to 
hear him out with a clearer head.

In the end, I believe Elizabeth learns her lesson about judging without evidence (particularly in light of Darcy’s judgments of Jane’s feelings). I don’t believe we see Lizzie tested in the same way that she was with Darcy again before the end of the novel, but I do believe that because she was so sorry for the decisions she made that she will be more careful in the future.

“You Must Marry Him!”

In this section, I want to talk about the three times that one of the ladies of the novel is expected to marry, and in two times out of three times they do. Here I essentially want to touch on the choices that women of the era had in love and life.

1) Lizzie and Mr. Collins

Mr. Collins, as we see throughout the novel, is a thoroughly unpleasant individual. He prides himself in his self-perceived ability to flatter women. He is pompous, imperious, and self-assured of his own (and his Lady’s) piety. For example, Fordyce’s sermons, which he reads at the Bennets’ house, are also known as “Sermons for Young Women.” This to me indicates that he is not the type to preach TO an audience, but AT an audience.

I doubt that anyone who is not intent upon playing devil’s advocate would argue Mr. Collins’s merits. And yet, because of his position as the inheritor of Mr. Bennet’s estate, Mrs. Bennet can see him as nothing but the match Lizzie might not make anywhere else. Lizzie must marry, because it would be socially unacceptable for her to work and earn her own way. If left unmarried, she would be forced to live off of one of her sister’s husbands or beg her way through life. To Mrs. Bennet’s mind, the marriage of Lizzie to her cousin Mr. Collins is ideal. Her belief does not stem from the personalities or feelings of the parties involved but because the family fortune will stay within the family. This way, any of the rest of her sisters who end as old maids may return to their childhood home and be cared for from their family’s money, rather than being thrown out into the street.

Lizzie does not see a match with Mr. Collins as such a desirable arrangement. She is not a perfect person by any means, as I discussed earlier, but she does have far more sense in matters of the heart than her mother. Her rejection of Mr. Collins is in her own best interest, as she wishes to secure not the financial future of herself and her sisters, but her own future happiness. She expresses to Jane that she will not marry a man she does not like, and she holds to this sentiment throughout the book.
Some of her contemporaries, such as her mother, Mr. Collins, and one other lady we will discuss shortly, would say her choice was unwise.  I believe, as I think many of my own contemporaries would, that Lizzie made the decision that was in her own best interest.

Mr. Collins, mercifully, is not the only fish in any sea. You know. . . hopefully.

2) Charlotte and Mr. Collins

To my mind, the chapter when Charlotte tells Lizzie of her engagement to Mr. Collins is one of the saddest in the entire novel. Charlotte, who Mrs. Bennet tells us repeatedly is not as handsome as her own girls, has reached her twenty seventh year without finding a husband. By her own society’s standards, she is essentially an old maid. However, she is a bright, kind individual with many “amiable” qualities, as can be demonstrated by her close friendship with Lizzie.

It saddens me—and disgusts me, truth be told—that women of essentially every era but our own (and many of our own as well) are forced to marry not because of any personal desire, but because they simply cannot survive without the aid and protection of husbands. Charlotte Lucas deserved a man who loved her and who was as devoted to her as Darcy was to Lizzie. But, rather than being able to wait and find such a man, Charlotte felt compelled to accept the first offer of matrimony that fell her way. She was hopeless of ever finding a mate, and she felt that she was already a burden to her parents, rather than a valuable member of her family unit.

Upon entering the Bennet household,  Mr. Collins was not really interested in any particular woman. We see this when he asks Mrs. Bennet about Jane, only to be redirected to the next eldest daughter.  He only needs a warm, female corpse to fill the role of “preacher’s wife” in his parish, as the illustrious Lady Catherine de Bourgh demands. Unlike Lizzie, Charlotte feels that the need for a man, any man, is greater than her need for future happiness. I believe this to be one of the great tragedies of Pride and Prejudice.

3) Lydia and Mr. Wickham

Before anyone gets upset that I am directly comparing Lydia’s case to Charlotte’s, I do understand that Charlotte is something of a victim of circumstances, while Lydia makes her own bed and must lie in it. I do not particularly like Lydia, and she annoys me a great deal. My happiness at the conclusion of the novel would have little to do with Lydia’s happiness.

HOWEVER, I think it is important to look at the case from our modern perspective, and in light of the fact that she was only sixteen at the time that she was taken in by Wickham.
Throughout the novel, Lydia is an irrepressible flirt who finds any young man with breath in his lungs (save perhaps Mr. Collins) an endlessly fascinating toy. She collects and exchanges their attentions, like a bee hopping from one flower to another. For the sake of argument, I will say that Lydia’s behavior is primarily the result of youthful folly and flawed character, caused by the complete lack of restraint her parents place upon her. I do not believe that this absolves Lydia’s guilt, but I do believe that examining a character’s motivations is a useful tool in understanding and analyzing her actions.

As Mr. Bennet himself later admits to Lizzie, it was a great mistake to pass Lydia off to the Forsters and expect them to watch her as well as he might (though it seems to me that even he does little of this). Just as she did when she was at home, Lydia spends as many of her waking hours as possible flirting with as many men as possible. Unlike her two oldest sisters, she views her relationship with these men as something of a joke or a game, telling Mrs. Forster that she will “laugh” when she discovers that Lydia and Mr. Wickham have run away together. To Lydia’s credit, she does believe that Wickham intends to marry her, but both the readers and her two older sisters will recognize her naïveté and general misunderstanding of Wickham’s character. While Lizzie blames herself for not exposing Wickham’s character to those who might be in danger of him, I am not certain that Lydia would have believed Lizzie in the first place. In any case, I do not think Lizzie’s exposing of Mr. Wickham would have decided Lydia’s fate.

In the end, Darcy discovers the two of them at the home of the woman who helped Wickham hide away with his would-be wife the last time. Darcy promptly pays off Wickham’s debts and makes several other large expenditures of his wealth to make certain that Wickham’s marriage to Lydia goes through and the reputation of the Bennet girls is not ruined by that of their “fallen sister.”

This is where I begin to take issue with the circumstances surrounding Wickham and Lydia’s union. First of all, I find it extraordinarily unfair that Lydia’s sisters would become untouchable in the eyes of the other members of their class. I suppose I do understand that Lydia’s actions would reflect poorly on her sisters, as it is merely human nature to make assumptions about other members of a family based on one. I am not saying that this is a necessarily justifiable attitude, only that it is normal. However, I think that Lydia’s actions destroying her sisters’ chances at happiness is unjust.

Most of the rest of my problems with this union come from the way those around her react to it. Wickham become something of a joke Mr. Bennet tells to Lizzie, talking about Wickham as his favorite son-in-law. This is meant to be funny (and to be honest, is funny), because it is understood between Mr. Bennet, Lizzie, and the reader that Wickham is slime unworthy to lick his other sons-in-law’s shoes. And yet, Mr. Bennet does not seem to mind much that one of his daughters is to be trapped with this man for the rest of her life. Lydia’s husband does not love her and is morally bankrupt, but rather than part of a tragic story, he is part of a joke. Lydia being separated from him is not even an option; as I said before, she has made her bed and must lie in it. . .for the rest of her life.

What really sparked this windy discussion of Lydia’s folly is a statement from Mr. Collins in a letter to Mr. Bennet before her marriage to Wickham. He says, “The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison to this.” I hardly believe this to be the case. After Lydia returns a married woman, Collins says that Mr. Bennet should forgive her like a Christian, but that her name should not be mentioned in the house any more. While I agree that Lydia should not have acted in the way that she did in any respect, I do not believe that her death would have been better for anyone. I suppose as far as her sisters’ marriage prospects go, he might be technically correct in his assertion, but to think that anyone could be so callous about his own cousin is difficult for me to comprehend.

In the end, I suppose I do not believe that Lydia made any wise choices throughout this episode in the novel, but I only wish that the mistake of a sixteen year old girl would not lead to potentially perpetual unhappiness.

Nature versus Nurture

One aspect of Pride and Prejudice that I have never really understood is how girls of such differing personality sprang from the Bennet family. I am not saying that all the people from one family usually have the same likes or temperaments. I suppose I primarily wonder how Mrs. Bennet did not manage to spoil Jane, Lizzie, and Mary just as she spoiled Lydia and Kitty. How did Lizzie escape from her mother’s influence?

We know that Lizzie is her father’s favorite, just a Lydia is her mother’s favorite. But how did this come to be? Is Lizzie her father’s favorite because she showed some early signs of restraint, or does she act with restraint because she is favored by her comparatively reasonable father? I personally would favor the former. I would think that Lydia’s outgoing personality would be recognized by her mother as like unto her own, just as Lizzie’s level-headedness would find a reflection in her father. In his initial letter about Lydia’s disappearance, Mr. Collins says that surely the Bennets are not to blame for her behavior, as she must have had some evil in her personality independent of them. Lizzie, on the other hand, makes it clear throughout the novel that Lydia was spoiled and allowed to do whatever she wanted. Mr. Collins blames nature; Lizzie blames nurture.

Similarly, at the end of the novel Darcy explains to Lizzie that his pride was taught to him by his father, As he grows older and meets her, he gradually learns to overcome the worse parts of his pride. Both he and Georgiana also seem to be somewhat reserved. Would that be a part of his father’s influence as well, or is that an inborn family trait?

Then there is Mary, who we have not said much of thus far. Mary does not seem to be anyone’s favorite. She only sits alone, reading books and being officious. Jane, too, is no one’s favorite (until her engagement to Bingley). Where did her quiet reason come from? Or how did Bingley escape his sisters’ class consciousness and spite? Could this owe primarily to their gender and need to marry someone of a higher social echelon?

I personally have no answers worth reading. But perhaps if you have staggered to the end of this, you do. I would love to hear from anyone with ideas.

Georgiana

I would just like to take this time to give a shout out to Georgiana Darcy, who is awesome. That is all.

I suppose the only conclusion I can draw here is that Pride and Prejudice is a topic entirely too large for one blog post. And, additionally, that this blog post is entirely too long. I will attempt to make future blog posts a more reasonable length. Feel free to share any views on these or any other topics pertaining to the novel.  I hope you all enjoyed this month’s pick, and stay tuned for next month’s announcement!

Best wishes,
Honor

1 comment:

  1. I, too, was surprised by how much I enjoyed "Pride and Prejudice" and was annoyed with myself for never finishing it the first time I tried to read it. I think Honor has pointed out some excellent themes, the most intriguing to me being Nature vs. Nurture. In response to the questions she posed, I would like to say that I am also curious as to how Mary aquired her quite, bookish character and how Bingley managed to avoid being like his pompous sisters.

    As to Mary, I would guess that her calm demeanor comes from a lack of social understanding. In modern terms, she is the "socially awkward" child. This isn't to say that she is not intelligent or equally capeable of anything her sisters are capeable of; she is simply unaware of how to behave. Take, for example, her behavior at the Netherfield Ball. She embarasses her family by singing and playing at the piano for too long a time. Another example would be any time she is present when there is conversation. She is always the one to say things that aren't really related to the conversation. Lizzie graciously acknowledges her statements ("Thank you Mary."), but still it is fairly common knowledge that Mary is the "awkward one".

    As for Bingley, I really have to idea how he escaped his sisters' class concious mindset. I feel that many film adaptations chalk it up to simple-mindedness. He isn't stupid, but he definitely isn't the sharpest of minds. He is perpeptually happy and pleasant, blissfully ignorant to his sisters' actions.

    I agree with Honor, Georgiana is awesome. :)

    And, last but not least, my favorite part of the novel was definitely the last chapter. I loved how it gave insight into how the characters' lives were AFTER the events of the novel. Do Lydia and Wickham live happily ever after? Do Lizzie and Darcy ever let the Wickhams into their home? How does Kitty turn out? Like Lydia or is she reformed? The last chapter tells all of these things... Things the movies leave you wondering.

    I think I can say our first book club was a success! Thanks Honor. xo Lizzie

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