"Pride and Prejudice" musing

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen, Anna Quindlen

How to write a review for such a revered classic? I don’t think I will attempt it. I just want to express a few thoughts I had after re-reading this novel.

I remember my first read, many years ago, with pleasure. I really liked it at that time. Now, as a much more mature reader and a writer myself, after I have seen several screen adaptations of the work, my impressions are not so sunny. They are rather controversial.

The book blurb and the foreword by a modern author describe this book as a comedy. I didn’t feel it. I might have smiled a couple times while reading the novel but I don’t think it should be considered a comedy now, even if it seemed funny 200 years ago.

It’s a light-hearted personal story for sure, no tragedy, no politics, and no reality, but it’s not a comedy. It desn’t resemble a romance either. Of all the modern fiction genres, the one closest to it, in my view, would be chic lit with its educated, spirited, and sharp-tongued heroines.

All the above attributes apply to Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist. Unfortunately, her central role in the novel was only established about 30% into the story. Before that, she appears only sporadically, and the reader is seldom allowed inside her mind. The entire first volume (there are three volumes in the novel) is written mostly from the author’s omniscient point of view.

Because of that, I couldn’t understand Darcy’s fascination with Elizabeth. Austen doesn’t show its development. She just states it as a given. He likes the girl almost from his first meeting with her, that's all. Why? Nobody could fathom it, least of all he himself. Definitely not a reader.

Austen also points out Darcy’s long resistance to Elizabeth’s mostly invisible lures. And this sentiment of his I do understand. Elizabeth in this book is not a paragon of virtue. In fact, I almost dislike her. Her shame of her own family doesn’t show her to advantage. Yes, her mother is silly. Yes, her sister is an empty-headed flirt. Is that all Elizabeth sees in them? Is there nothing positive she could perceive in her mother?

I can’t abide people ashamed of their own families or ethnicity. We are who we are. Nobody is inferior unless he is evil. Mrs. Bennet is not evil. She wants what is best for all her daughters. At that time, the only secure, society-approved road for any woman of the Bennets' social circle was marriage, so that is what she dreams of for her five daughters. She also does what she can to promote it.

Does she act silly? Yes. Her inane conversations and foolish schemes might make us wince, but they don’t justify Elizabeth’s contempt towards her mother. I rather respect Mrs. Bennet – despite her limited mental powers, she acts the best she can. Moreover, I think the author exaggerated Mrs. Bennet’s stupidity, making her almost an archetype instead of a real person.

On the other hand, I dislike Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth’s father. He shares his daughter’s disdain for his wife and his younger children, but unlike his wife, he doesn’t even try to do anything about his daughters’ future. He sits in his library, immersed in his own superiority, and idly contemplates his books. His daughters might fend for themselves for all he cares. Not a worthy father by any account.

Elizabeth’s attitude toward her friend Charlotte is also repulsive. Yes, Charlotte made a compromise. She agreed to marry a stupid and pompous man because she wanted to be her own mistress. No love was involved, but Charlotte is trying to make the best of her situation. What rights does Elizabeth have to despise her friend? In my view, if you’re a real friend, you don’t criticize your friends’ choices. You accept them and try to be helpful. Elizabeth fails the friendship test.

She is not my favorite heroine but she is definitely an interesting personage, alive and contradictory. I like much better two others in this novel: Jane and Mr. Darcy. Jane is simple – she is a nice person. She likes everyone and sees the best in everyone. And people respond to her attitude. Everyone acts his best towards her.

Darcy is much more complex. He seems the only one who changes in this book. Of course, Elizabeth changes her attitude towards him and Wickham after she gets more information, but she doesn’t change as a person. Darcy does. He transforms his entire being, overthrows all his personal and class convictions, because of his regard for Elizabeth. I bow to him for his deep and abiding love. He should’ve been the hero of this novel. 

I have to admit that two centuries ago, the readers couldn’t react to this book the way we do. It probably seemed almost revolutionary in the beginning of the 19th century, the only one of its kind. Now, allowances for its age must be made, and I do make them. But I think all the screen versions, at least the ones I watched, reflect our modern views of the problems raised in this book rather than what Austen wrote. And I must confess: I like the screen versions better. Perhaps I’m, like so many others, a daughter of my time.