Women’s Writing: Pride and Prejudice

I have taken a Women’s writing course this semester. I have to admit that it’s a welcome relief after the hectic, super-technical courses of the last year; I can’t get over the idea that I get to read so much as a part of a course! Plus, the idea of reading and discussing women authors is all me.

I wrote the following response to Pride and Prejudice as a part of our course. I hope you enjoy reading it. 🙂

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Introduction

I first read Pride and Prejudice some four or five years ago. Having been a mystery-thriller reader, and not being used to the old sort of English, I quickly dismissed it as a slow, boring read. I read it again after some time, and presumably after reading great reviews about it which considered the book to be great literature. I suppose a part of me wanted to really like the book better because of the above mentioned reviews. And re-reading it definitely made me look at some of the things that I had perhaps missed the first time.

About the book

Simplistically speaking, Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel; “chick-lit” of the nineteenth century. Digging deeper, we find Austen talking about a wide range of concerns. It is a critique of the vanity of people of those times, the limitations and problems of the social and economic systems that were in place.

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The characterization

The deftly etched characters are the best part of the story according to me. Each character is thoroughly described. Also, each character is flawed, which is what makes the story interesting. The protagonist is not perfect, but human, and it is great to see her introspect on her follies and prejudices. She grows throughout the course of the novel, examining her conscience and changing. The change is gradual, for Elizabeth as well as Darcy, which makes it real.

Apart from the main characters, I especially liked the character sketches of Mr. Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

The former seeks dry humour in every situation, be it annoying his wife, or the prospect of his family being turned out of their house by Mr. Collins. Only at one point do we see him truly anxious, trying to be a guiding father to his daughter, Elizabeth, when he talks to her about the cons of marrying Mr. Darcy. The part where he says that Elizabeth should be able to respect her partner is especially touching and shows that Mr. Bennet, though pretending to be unfeeling, actually understands his daughter very well. He quickly lapses back to his old self though. When he is told about Darcy’s role in Lydia’s wedding, this is his response:

“… I shall offer to pay him [Darcy] tomorrow; he will rant and storm about his love for you, and there will be an end of the matter.”

 Mr. Bennet seems to have made peace with the chaos surrounding him in the form of his wife and his daughters. His dry humour seems to be a tool for staying sane.

Lady Catherine is the personification of the arrogance of the privileged class. She serves the purpose of depicting all that Austen mocks or despises in her society. Completely overbearing and domineering, she has always got her way. Her love for dictating the terms to everybody is hilarious; especially when she takes such an active interest in the internal affairs of Collinses (and everybody else, for that matter).

The following quote says it all:

“What is that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is. Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient… “

The love stories

The love story of Elizabeth and Darcy has become a cliché now; a battle of wits. But more than that, the gradual change that happens for both, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, is beautiful to watch.

Darcy is shown to be reserved with his feelings; his pride is his only folly. In my opinion, barring his nature to speak arrogantly, there is nothing wrong with him. Meaning that, I admire that he does not engage in unnecessary pleasantries. He does not waste his time in small talk.

Bingley on the other hand, does not do justice to his independence; for a person so wealthy and educated, he is quite easily swayed by other people. He is pleasant of course, but too mellow. The same is true for Jane Bennet; although her determination to see only the good in people stems from natural goodness, not weakness of mind. Both of them are non-confrontational and would like to keep everything pleasant. Bingley and Jane Bennet’s love story therefore is not very appealing.

Sarcasm and humour

A lot has been said about Jane Austen’s sarcastic wit. I have greatly enjoyed reading the way she mocks some of the social norms while remaining part of the society. The characters of Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins are excellent examples of this.

The writing is funny and entertaining. Mr. Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth is one of the most hilarious scenes of the book. His utter lack of comprehension when Elizabeth declines his proposal is priceless. The almost immediate proposal to Charlotte Lucas afterwards also shows his fickleness.

The banter of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet is also very enjoyable.

Feminism and social standing

The novel presents many feministic ideas and criticisms of classism, albeit in a very subtle manner. Austen talks about various important matters, such as the need to marry “sensibly” (for men and women, both), the entailment of estates only to a male relation, the perceived notions of trade as a slightly less respectable profession.

Elizabeth is shown to have a mind of her own; she is not afraid to have opinions. I like that she is disappointed when Charlotte marries Mr. Collins for financial security and status. Even though her disposition is to let bygones be bygones, I think she never really regains her respect for Charlotte completely.

Let me draw attention to the highly entertaining conversation in which the qualities of an accomplished woman are discussed. Through Elizabeth, Austen says that expecting women to be perfect is unrealistic. Women should be allowed to be flawed and human; the expectation of a goddess is as bad as generalizing women as less intelligent.

Although Austen’s thoughts are in the right direction, the novel loses some of its charm for me when it comes to everyday sexism and classism. A disappointing amount of importance is given to outer appearance. For example, the Bennet sisters are shown as deserving good marriages because they are beautiful. Men are also expected to be rich, handsome and of a high social standing.

A whole lot of attention in Pride and Prejudice is given to women finding or trying to find husbands. And even in this endeavour, there is a lot to be considered apart from love. For instance, the character of Mr. Collins is caricatured in such a manner that as a reader, I cannot help being repelled by him. Austen tries to show that despite being wealthy enough and having a respectable position in the society as a clergyman, he is undeserving of Elizabeth because he is boring and insensible. But at the same time, when we come to Darcy, we also consider his wealth and rank while deciding his worth. The following quote makes this evident:

“In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she [Elizabeth] could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affections…”

I wonder why Austen is so critical of her own gender at times. Of course, she considers women to be equally competent as men. She would not have written a character like Elizabeth Bennet otherwise. But she too plays into the stereotypes about women. Mrs. Bennet is shown to be foolish and ignorant. Mr. Bennet, while appreciating Elizabeth’s intelligence, remarks that she is “not like other girls”, thus generalizing that all other girls are silly. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the only woman in the novel who is financially independent, is horribly arrogant and interfering, and takes an inappropriate amount of interest in others’ lives. This confirms to the stereotype of the problems of giving power to women.

Conclusion

Even after reading the book several times, and at different points of time, I am still unable to decide whether I like it or not. It is definitely an easy, light read. The “tragedies” are not exactly earth-shattering; one can read it in a detached manner, without becoming too involved in the story. That can be a positive or a negative point depending on the mood. The story and the characters do bring a smile on the face. The unintended, subtle sexism makes it somewhat less enjoyable. But I can make allowances for it, as the book was written two centuries ago. The book remains a beautiful satire on the hypocrisies and drama of the English gentry.

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