Literary criticism paper on "Pride and Prejudice".
|"Pride and Prejudice": A Classic or Classically Overrated?
Since its release in 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been both welcomed onto the shelves of those books labeled ‘classic’, and doubted, passed off as mere literary ‘fluff’. The latter are undeniably mistaken in their interpretation of the novel. Readers and critics alike have authentic reason to find the story of heroine Elizabeth Bennet and her suitor, the mysterious Mr. Darcy, a true work of literary art, Jane Austen a clear master of her craft.
Analyses of Pride and Prejudice “have included condemnatory dismissals such as that of Mark Twain, commenting on the depth, or, [rather], lack of depth, of Austen's characters.” (Whitaker) Such critics have missed the point entirely. Austen’s characters are precisely what credit the novel. The characters are complex and alluring, without coming on so strongly that they are unbelievable. Elizabeth Bennet is portrayed as a particularly intricate character, and as critic Andrew Wright believes, the characters with which Elizabeth interacts with are equally intelligent and engaging. In fact, it is with the “interrelationship, of good and bad—the mixture which cannot be unmixed,” (410) that the novel’s individuals contribute to the merit of the work as a whole.
Austen brilliantly uses minor characters to contradict and to parallel the experiences of the major characters. For instance, that of Jane and Bingley parallels the relationship between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Jane’s relationship with Bingley is much more simplistic and it treated much less fully than Darcy and Elizabeth’s romance, which is quite the intent of Jane Austen. She expertly places such subtleties throughout the novel to best exhibit the intricacy of her characterization. One example is in a scene in the breakfast-parlor of Mr. Bingley. “Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to [Elizabeth’s] complexion, and doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far along. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast.” (22) Austen so ingeniously contrasts the ironically opposing thoughts of Mr. Darcy with the empty thoughts of Mr. Hurst.
“The true beauty of Elizabeth Bennet is the duality of her character. She is at the same time cynical and idealistic, but that is not a contradiction. That simply means she is real.” (English Journals) It is with the accessibility of her characters that Austen captivates her audience. Often in classics characters seemed detached—unreachable to the reader. Were Austen still living, she could pride herself in the fact that Elizabeth Bennet was, and has remained, every woman. “She, like everyone, experiences extremes: she is wise enough to decline a marriage offer from a man she finds execrable (Darcy) but foolish enough to be temporarily courted by a rascal (Mr. Wickham).” (English Journals)
The capacity of the characters is not to be simplified to that of one dimension. “To say that Darcy is proud and Elizabeth prejudiced is to tell but half the story.” (Wright, 410) Assuming such a simplistic answer can be inferred from the title in relation to the text is misinterpretation on the reader’s part. It is Austen’s intent to reveal the pride of human nature, and the prejudice that accompanies it, not merely to label individuals, and not to assign only one attribute to Mr. Darcy or Elizabeth, or to any other character, for that matter.
It is not only with character personality but also with character dialogue that Austen successfully creates her world. Critics often accuse her of the absence of events. Some go even far enough to say that the plot is anti-climactic, even petty. However, Austen beautifully redeems lack of action with rich, insightful, and satirical “management of conversations, which make up the real action in this world that notoriously lacks incident. In them the word becomes an authentic deed.” (Babb, 421)
Austen artfully reveals subtle truths through even minor characters, in seemingly insignificant places. For instance, very early on pedantic Mary Bennet observes,
Pride is a very common failing, a believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed, that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self- complacency on the score of some quality or other, read or imaginary.” (12)
Major characters, too, eloquently express Austen’s ideals, and the feelings they experience. When asked when he fell in love with Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy romantically articulates, “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. It was in the middle before I know that I had begun.” (Austen, 262) Such amorous wording is not to be written off as pretentious—the words are, indeed, of sophisticated, intelligent nature.
At times, Austen’s ability to create irony is mistaken as frivolous sarcasm. However, it is just that—a mistake on the account of the critics. The accounts of irony are numerous, even countless, in Pride and Prejudice. Andrew Wright recommends, “Jane Austen is too perceptive a reader of character to suppose that all comes clear at once: it is by a marvelous irony that Elizabeth is made to reflect, ‘Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind.’” (415) Another observance of Wright’s is that “it is an artful irony of Jane Austen’s that Miss Bingley immediately thereafter tells her that Wickham is entirely in the wrong, and Darcy in the right, in the breach between two men.” (414)
Pride and Prejudice is seemingly devoid of any explicit symbolism. Yet, when placed under a microscope, two vivid symbols emerge from the pages of the text. The first appears in Elizabeth’s visit to Mr. Darcy’s home.
They…found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills;--and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place where nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in her admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something! (Austen, 166)
The passage not only serves as a catalyst for Elizabeth’s developing feelings for Mr. Darcy, but accurately describes him as the home. Darcy, too, can be defined as “a large, handsome, stone building, standing on well rising ground…neither formal, nor falsely adorned.” (Austen, 166)
The second emergent symbol of the novel is the use of journeys as a symbol for change. Much of the novel occurs in the home of the Bennets or in the village of Longbourn. Journeys of Elizabeth include her visit with Charlotte and Mr. Collins, in which she receives her first proposal from Mr. Darcy. The reader can expect a second alteration in the pattern of events when Elizabeth travels to Pemberley, where the first signs of her affection are revealed. In her final journey, where the search for Lydia and Wickham occurs, Darcy’s loyalty to Elizabeth is proven when he rescues Lydia and the Bennet reputation.
Storyline aside, Jane Austen’s style deserves as much credit as the content itself. E. M. Halliday praises her composition in stating, “By means of such skillful technical maneuvering, Jane Austen gradually forces the action of Pride and Prejudice to coalesce around Elizabeth, and we are prepared for an essential part of that action to take place in the intimate and subtle chambers of her mind.” (433) Halliday refers to her formatting as her “kinaesesthetics,” praising her artful craftsmanship and the mechanics behind it. These kinaesthetics include her pacing, point of view, and key placement of essentials.
“Much of Pride and Prejudice moves at the pace of life itself: the action is rendered with a degree of detail and fullness of dialogue that gives a highly developed dramatic illusion. But note how fast the storyteller can shift to drastic synopsis when it seems desirable to step up the action and move on to a scene essential to the plot.” (Halliday, 436) Austen’s pacing is nearly flawless from cover to cover. Halliday points out that in addition to the story’s impeccable timing, matters of “structural nicety” are added in such ways as placing the crisis of the novel (Darcy’s first proposal) precisely half way through the book. (433)
Austen’s use of narrative is ideal and thorough, thus the “subtle manipulation of point of view for the sake of the novel’s unity.” (Halliday, 431) The suspense created through her use of point of view captivates the audience, and urges the reader to “anticipate, with delicious anxiety, that Darcy and Elizabeth will wind up in each other’s arms.” (Halliday, 433) It is difficult for a reader to name even one other novel in which such impenetrable evidence of what is to come is so gracefully articulated. With even the first sentence--a sentence of timelessness, quoted for generations--the reader senses the spirited point of view of the novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Austen 1)
It is virtually impossible and perhaps even absurd to discredit the stimulating work of Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice has earned its position as a classic, and rightfully so. Elizabeth Bennet has stood the test of time, and effortlessly continues to ease her way into society’s most beloved characters. The years of revision Austen spent on her work are apparent and admirable, arising as an accessible, yet intelligent, work of literary mastery. To name Pride and Prejudice overrated is to overlook an amplitude of proof suggesting otherwise.