Monday, April 19, 2010

Pride and Prejudice, Chapters 25-39

The Bennet ladies go a-traveling during this section — Jane to stay with the Gardiners, her aunt and uncle in London, and Elizabeth to visit Charlotte and Mr. Collins. Before they go, Mrs. Gardiner tells Elizabeth that she thinks Wickham would be a bad match for her, due to his lack of money, and then she finds out that he is now interested in another lady, Miss King. Elizabeth says she isn't too sorry, and that probably means she didn't love him to begin with.

In London, Elizabeth suffers through a string of uncomfortable (yet amusing) dinners with Catherine De Bourgh and her sickly daughter (the young lady Darcy is expected to marry, as she is his cousin) in which Lady Catherine dominates the conversation while Mr. Collins, Charlotte, and Charlotte's father and sister swoon at the attention Lady Catherine pays them. Then Darcy arrives, along with his cousin, the gregarious Col. Fitzwilliam, and things improve for everyone. Elizabeth starts to get close to the Colonel, and she learns that Darcy stopped his friend from marrying a girl who he thought was a bad match. Elizabeth assumes that it's Jane and Bingley, and she's outraged. Darcy begins "accidentally" running into Elizabeth while she's out walking, and later pays her a visit when she's the only one home. Elizabeth can't figure out why he's behaving like this, and Charlotte wisely tells her that he must love her.

He does — Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, and as her response, Elizabeth tells him: "I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world who I could ever be prevailed on to marry." She tells him that she can't believe he convinced Bingley not to marry Jane and accuses him of interfering in Wickham's livelihood. Darcy comes to see her the next morning and hands her a letter that explains everything.

It turns out that Darcy thought Jane wasn't really into Bingley and he didn't want his friend to get his heart broken. He also mentioned that the Bennet parents and younger siblings are pretty socially awkward, which is true. As for Wickham, it turns out that he squandered money and tried to elope with Darcy's sister to gain her fortune. Elizabeth realizes that her opinions of Darcy were based on rumor and untruth, and wonders what else she has been wrong about.

This section marks the turning point in Pride and Prejudice — Elizabeth realizes that she's been too quick to judge people, while Darcy realizes that his pride is getting in the way of his being happy. I think we all know where things are headed, but it's fun to watch them get there and have Darcy and Elizabeth work to correct their flaws, which are heavy ones compared to the flaws in Sense and Sensibility.

As Cassandra noted in the comments from last week, "While it was difficult to take Marianne seriously and Elinor often came off like a martyr, Jane and Elizabeth complement each other so well, and are both genuinely good, lovable people. Jane's flaw, being too trusting and refusing all but the best possible interpretations of someone's actions, is not a moral failing. Lizzie's propensity to pre-judge people and satirize foibles is actually a more serious shortcoming, but because it is rooted in good humor and genuine emotional insight, neither is it wholly bad."

While Elizabeth judges people too quickly and Darcy's pride is an obstacle to marrying Elizabeth, their pride and prejudices do not necessarily result in hurting other people — in fact, with the exception of each other, their flaws don't have any great effect on anyone else in the novel. Is that Austen's way of ensuring we'll like both characters?

As a side note, Darcy's proposal — Elizabeth's second in a short period of time — reminded me of a line from The Importance of Being Earnest, when Lady Bracknell says: "I do not know whether there is anything peculiarly exciting in the air of this particular part of Hertfordshire, but the number of engagements that go on seems to me considerably above the proper average that statistics have laid down for our guidance."

Next week's reading is chapters 40-50.

1 comment:

  1. This post touches on another way Austen improves in this narrative, in re: assigning flaws-- both Lizzy and Darcy have them, and it's only through loving each other that they are corrected. This mutual refining process is, I think, what makes Pride and Prejudice one of the most enduring love stories of all time. Sadly, it's also one of its least-replicated features.

    With most modern love stories, on of two things happen. Either:

    a) You are presented with two characters who are already perfect for one another, and the "drama" is just waiting for them to figure it out.


    b) One saintly character inspires an undeserving one to change for the better.

    But you rarely find a story like this one, of two imperfect characters growing into near-perfection together, through mutual influence and admiration.

    With the two perfect mates plot, undue, credulity-straining machinations are necessary to keep the couple apart for the appropriate length of time. Sometimes, this can be accomplished in an entertaining way (see: When Harry Met Sally), but most of the time it isn't.

    The mismatched pair is easier to milk for drama or comedy, as the creator sees fit, but is still lacking satisfying balance and plausibility. The idea of healing a man or making him whole through the act of loving him is obviously a deeply appealing story-- but the woman (or man) capable of evincing such change is usually not a relatable character. She's an angel, or a manic pixie dream girl-- she is defined exclusively by her effect on the hero and rarely shown having an existence beyond their relationship. In general, real people are not much like these ministering angels. Nor is it really a healthy model for an actual relationship. Additionally, when a narrative is about an imperfect person rising up to the level of a perfect one, the reader often ends up enamored of one character and unsatisfied with the other (see: Say Anything). It always looks like someone is settling.

    Here, however, because Lizzy does not set out, or even attempt to improve Darcy, she remains a whole character. By simply being true to herself and honest her own needs, she unconsciously affects him, transforming him without negating herself. Moreover, because she herself is humbled and reshaped through their interactions, the story has an unusual balance. You like both Lizzy and Darcy as individuals, but you like them best when they are at their best-- together, as a beautifully suited pair.

    So, Austen is able to capture the power of the classic reformed-by-love narrative, but without sacrificing the flaws that make each character feel like a real person. She preserves the drama, comedy, and fairy-tale ending you find in typical uneven match stories, where the love is valued even more because it's been earned. But, because both characters have been transformed, and both began the story as flawed, whole individuals, their fate feels doubly satisfying-- and like one that could, maybe, be shared by a normal reader.