Saturday, 27 August 2011

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen


"There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense." 

After numerous failed attempts over the years to read this novel , I can now finally proclaim that the task has been completed without falling asleep or abandoning it half-way through! Phew. Upon further reflection, my initial lukewarm response has slowly developed into a general appreciation of the text. However, it still baffles me as to the exact reasons why Jane Austen's writing or more specifically, Pride and Prejudice has gained such popularity amongst modern day readers considering the estrangement of Austen's 17th century England. Her prose is delectably florid containing a wry sense of humor and clever irony although the style of writing is excessively ornate. A common criticism is that the narrative is often tediously dull (a fair argument that I agree with to a certain extent). In addition, the central love story between Elizabeth and Darcy along with the relationships between the other romantic couples comes across as  insipid because they are based entirely on social decorum; thus, there is a severe lack of genuine emotional affection existing between the respected partners. From a modern perspective, the relationships in the novel must seem incredibly banal and antediluvian but one must take into consideration of the cultural milieu pertaining to Austen's time. Marriages were rarely based on romantic affection whereas other factors such as economic inheritance and the potential opportunity to move up in social rank took precedence. Austen keenly emphasizes various tensions between the established social hierarchy and the intrusively mobile class of the bourgeoisie. Much of the novel concerns itself with the dichotomy between old and new wealth -- the emergence of a more liberal society and the creating a new cultural identity that is shaped by all of England as opposed to just being inherited by the aristocracy.

How can modern readers even possibly enjoy reading this novel without a firm understanding of the historical context and cultural milieu of Austen's generation? To only focus on the various romances while disregarding the invariably social, political and economic concerns of the text is bound to leave the reader rather disappointed. It seems reasonable to suggest that many find amusement in the aberration of reading Pride and Prejudice as an entertaining fairy-tale romance where a middle-class woman is able to challenge social conventions by winning the affections of a rich and powerful man of the landed elite. As a result, Austen's pre-industrial England becomes a type of fantasy: a fashionable and elegant society where the only concern is to achieve a respectable marriage. With the lush and verdant countryside serving as the backdrop, beautiful women of modest means attempt to marry into wealth; they attend fancy balls held in luxurious mansions with the hopes of meeting and falling helplessly in love with Prince Charming, whom in due time will propose (in which the intended female will accept the offer with alacrity) and they will live happily ever after at his massive estate whilst enjoying the many privileges of the aristocratic way of life. Of course, the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy is far more complicated and does not unfold in this ideal manner as conflict arises between the social barriers between them as well as their own misconceptions of each other.

Pride and Prejudice is a deceiving novel because the charming heroine and the impressively lavish England she inhabits coaxes the reader into an imaginary world. The extravagant Pemberly estate is awe-inspiring to both Elizabeth and the reader. Consequently, it is a comfort to indulge in escapism, overlooking the perplexing underlying subtext. An important question to ruminate after reading the novel is, what does the union between Elizabeth and Darcy suggest? The juxtaposition between a feminist and conservative interpretation seems clear but which perspective holds merit? My viewpoint on the matter is that Austen cunningly manages to propose both simultaneously; that is, Elizabeth's radical independence and control over her own consciousness ironically affirms the propriety of social hierarchy, thus allowing for a new national identity to materialize.


Read from August 22 to 25, 2011

Note: Reading this novel completes several challenges:

Literature Frenzy!
Books I Should Have Read by Now
Bout of Books Read-a-Thon!





8 comments:

  1. There is far more alarming subtext in Persuasion but I agree, it is all escapist fluff.

    Have you heard of Reading the Romance? If not, I would definitely try to find a copy someday. I haven't been able to read it because my library doesn't have a copy and I am on a buying freeze until I have a job. (Or enough clicks on my book review amazon links to earn $ for more books.)

    With that said, the book discusses why women read romance novels. Trust me, the concept baffles me utterly and yet I know it is true--women actually like reading romance novels. (I hear they also like watching romantic movies but having never seen one in a theater myself and only suffered through them on television when I wasn't paying attention to what I was getting into, I can only say this is hearsay.)

    A professor told me about the book and explained that when a society loses it's social moorings, it seeks answers elsewhere. Not unlike Joseph Campbell's contention that the rites of passage we have lost have manifested themselves in gang initiations and other clan behaviors that help the young "come of age" by declaring their independence from their parent's society while conforming to their own.

    Again, I digress. The point is, in a world where men don't know how they should behave towards a woman and where women are not sure how they should respond to a man, romance novels serve to explain these rules, the self-same rules we eschew in Austen and other books where social manners are the norm. (Gotta love Wharton for how she deals with these things, right?)

    Okay. I've rambled and blabbered enough. I don't even think you need to read the book. Just something to keep an eye out for and perhaps skim if you do ever find yourself holding a copy of your very own.

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  2. Ugh, Pride and Prejudice has always stumped me. I've only made it through about two chapters (once I actually did fall asleep! But I was on a beach in the sun so it might not have just been the book...) but I have read the P&P and Zombies novel, which was close enough for me!

    I really like this review because you've looked at the cultural connotations and broader aspects of the book which to me has been the only factors that ignited any (however small) interest for me.

    Also, Satia that comment was great food for thought!

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  3. Satia: I have never heard of "Reading the Romance" although you have piqued my interest. Although in recent years, the genre seems to cater more towards women ("chic-lit", "harlequins", etc), there are certain works in the genre such as Austen that manage to overcome this gender barrier because they contain depth, offering more than just a superficial romance.

    There seems to be a social stigma attached to the genre where most men would feel emasculated if they should happen to read romance novels. To me, this is just insane. Sure, many works in this genre are often considered as lesser forms of literature and can be described as "escapist fluff" but this is one of the main appeals of the romance novels -- a kind of wish-fulfillment. I'd be curious to see how Wharton approaches relationships and social etiquette in contrast to Austen.

    Kayleigh: Don't worry, P+P has put me to sleep on countless occasions and in your case, I don't think it was the sun...hehe. I'd be interested in checking out these Austen parodies. If there is one factor that could improve my enjoyment of the novel it would be zombies. Having Mr. Collins or Lady Catherine eaten alive would bring me such joy.

    It's strange, the more I ruminate about P+P, the more it improves in my mind. There are so many subtle nuances and social criticisms that went over my head. I am glad to have finally read this novel but not exactly keen on reading it anytime soon.

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  4. thus, there is a severe lack of genuine emotional affection existing between the respected partners.
    The affection and attraction are there; however, it's restrained out of necessity - as you point out, one of the cultural differences. It's one of the things I like about Austen's works (which I've never seen as "escapist fluff" - the escapism comes out in the Hollywood adaptations with the handsome actors perhaps, rather than the novels); there are layers of complexities in the novels - how does love and a "marriage of true minds" possibly flourish in a society where so much weight is placed on wealth and class? How do these individuals negotiate all the rules and expectations governing their behavior? If she were strictly following the dictates of the time, a good move for Elizabeth would have been to marry Mr. Collins (and on her father's death, Longbourn would go to him and also to her as his wife); she has contempt for Collins, but so what, he's a good match in the eyes of society. Instead she gets both the love and the wealth, the best of everything; within the society she lives in, she has managed to gain the best that a woman like her could possibly attain in that world - a man she can love and intellectually respect and who can also provide beautifully for her. The tension as you say still exists (Darcy has good qualities, and an ability to change and improve his character - but also, what would he be without his 10,000 pounds?)

    It may seem to be divorced from modern society - the details might be different, but in every society there are barriers, prejudices, expectations that subtly shape a person's behavior and hold up a certain ideal for a relationship, what's desirable in a partner, and what values to live one's life by; also, what's the highest a person can strive within a set of societal constraints. How individuals negotiate the course of their life within the framework of their society is a question that has relevance everywhere.

    I also enjoy Austen's observations of human nature, and her humor - Mr. Collins for instance is a classic :) Her works and the literary devices she used also influenced the shape of the modern novel as we know it.

    I'm glad you brought up this discussion of Pride and Prejudice and have been mulling it over. There are many people who just read Austen on the surface - some find it to be full of pointless interactions between upper class people, and others seeing it only as a romance (maybe picturing Mr. Darcy in their minds as Colin Firth) But there's so much going on beneath the surface...

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  5. I couldn't stand this book the first time I read it (2010.) And then I reread it. Now I adore it -- I "get" it. Definitely not "escapist fluff."

    Austen was writing about the domestic sphere as a woman who thought independently. She gives readers a happy ending in P&P, but watch Charlotte Collins' story. That's where you begin to see the nuances of this book. There's the alternative ending Austen presents the astute reader. She was writing for the masses, but she was the first one to challenge the masses, by saying, "Should we really engage in all of this foolishness? Are we really happy?"

    Her books are debates. When one reads them as romances, he or she misses the point. Most of her contemporaries, I'm guessing, missed the point. (Austen was also one of the first to develop the modern novel form. Epistolary novels were popular in her day.)

    May I suggest Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own? She remarks upon the appeal of Austen pretty extensively, and it's a very quick read.

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  6. Sorry - I said "she was the first one to challenge the masses" but failed to edit before posting. I don't actually know if she was the first -- I'm not that well-read! :-) What I meant to say is that she was very inspired by writers like Samuel Richardson and Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron and Frances Burney. Their works (as I understand it) were good but "fluffy" romances. She was inspired by them, but she went a step further, and challenged them, as well as social norms in her day. I think she was one of the first writers to do this, but I won't actually know that until I read further. ;-)

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  7. Hkatz: Thanks you so much for your very insightful response! I shall do my best to respond in turn.

    Perhaps it did not come across as clearly in my review but I, myself, did not intend to stipulate that the affection between the couples is lacking but rather, a common criticism that I have encountered is that Austen's objective point of view does not sufficiently allow the establishment of a tangible intimacy or any sort of effective psychological exploration of the character's internal psyche. Thus, Austen's prose often comes across and cold and distant -- a kind of clinical critique of English society.

    Your assessment of Austen's technique as "restrained" is an apt observation and I strongly agree that the novel full of complex layers. I tried to get across in my review that many readings along with the vast popularity of Austen is closely tied to a superficial understanding of her work. Her use of irony and subtlety is meticulously structured, which is easy to overlook. You are definitely right, the power of Austen's work is found beneath the surface. You provide a lot of interesting and important questions pertaining to the text that should definitely be addressed by the reader. One of the more interesting aspects of the novel for me is the role of wealth and class tensions in dictating marriage.

    You really helped to put the novel into perspective for me by contrasting it with the prejudices and social barriers still found in our modern day society. Austen deals with very relatable subject matter and human values. Her influence on the modern novel is definitely unprecedented. I probably should have emphasized more on Austen's use of irony and humor in the novel, which is very witty. There were several occasions where I actually burst out laughing, usually anything having to do with the ridiculous Mr. Collins.

    You have definitely left me plenty more to think about concerning this novel so thanks again! :)

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  8. Jillian: I'd definitely be hard-pressed to label P+P as "escapist fluff" because its not an easy read at all that one can simply read on a whim. As HKtaz pointed out above, Hollywood has contributed to this false misinterpretation.

    You're right, I think the novel does lean towards a more progressive and feminist side as Austen explores the role of women within this society, especially your comparison of Elizabeth to Charlotte. Well said.

    I will certainly take you up on your offer to read Woolf's "Room of One's Own" considering that she is pretty much my favorite author right now, hehe.

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