Re-read­ing A Clas­sic: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prej­u­dice

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The story of the Ben­net sis­ters re­mains to this day one of the most read and adored books, hav­ing sold mil­lions of copies across the world.

SURANGAMA GUHA ROY

“It is a truth uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged, that a sin­gle man in pos­ses­sion of a good for­tune, must be in want of a wife.”

Cliched as this open­ing sen­tence from one of the most beloved clas­sics of all time has be­come, it would be a dis­ser­vice to this ar­ti­cle to not be­gin it with this ev­er­green line.

The story of the Ben­net sis­ters re­mains to this day one of the most read and adored books, hav­ing sold mil­lions of copies across the world. Writ­ten be­tween 1796 and 1799, and pub­lished in 1813, Pride and Prej­u­dice re­volves around El­iz­a­beth Ben­net, a spir­ited young woman from a mid­dle-class fam­ily liv­ing in Long­bourn in Hert­ford­shire, Eng­land. The novel traces her jour­ney to find love, in the process be­com­ing a scin­til­lat­ing so­cial com­men­tary on the times and the so­ci­ety.

The first few lines in­tro­duce us to the Ben­net fam­ily – the el­derly Ben­net cou­ple and their five un­mar­ried daugh­ters. With un­sur­passed ease and sig­na­ture wit, Austen makes it clear that the young Ben­net women are of mar­riage­able age, and their mother, the inim­itable Mrs. Ben­net, has in fact lit­tle else to do but to fo­cus whole­heart­edly on get­ting her daugh­ters mar­ried off, and in­deed, mar­ried well.

Mar­riage is, of course, one of the cen­tral themes of this novel set in late 18th cen­tury Eng­land. There is a gen­eral un­der­stand­ing, which Austen laces with an un­der­stated hu­mor, that the cul­mi­na­tion of a woman’s life lies in mar­riage.

More­over, mar­riage is more a so­cial and eco­nomic ar­range­ment than a union of souls, and while women could be poised, and well-in­formed, so­cial ex­pec­ta­tion would, most likely, not go be­yond find­ing a good match for them. It is a far-cry from con­tem­po­rary per­cep­tions, es­pe­cially in the West, wherein mar­riage has al­most be­come pe­riph­eral to a woman’s iden­tity, her in­de­pen­dence and choices in life be­com­ing pri­mary to her ex­is­tence.

Austen her­self, had re­mained un­at­tached through­out her short life, but in­ter­est­ingly, most of her ma­jor pub­li­ca­tions dur­ing her life­time had been anony­mously pub­lished – some of them cryp­ti­cally, in fact, as ‘A Lady’-- thus shield­ing her from any so­cial an­i­mos­ity that could have arisen from re­veal­ing her true iden­tity. One must re­mem­ber the cel­e­brated Bronte sis­ters in the early 19th cen­tury whose works were pub­lished un­der neu­tral noms de guerre to avoid so­cial prej­u­dices.

So­cial or­der too is a re­cur­ring theme in most of Austen’s nov­els, and Pride and Prej­u­dice is no ex­cep­tion. In fact, First Im­pres­sions, as the novel was ini­tially named, adroitly en­cap­su­lated within it the very core of the story it­self. That is, first im­pres­sions are not nec­es­sar­ily the last im­pres­sions.

Thus, El­iza Ben­net’s ini­tial, and thor­oughly jus­ti­fied de­tes­ta­tion of Fitzwilliam Darcy, un­der­goes a grad­ual trans­for­ma­tion, just as Darcy’s im­pres­sion of the Ben­nets, al­though not dras­ti­cally trans­formed, at least gets tem­pered by the end of the novel. And weaved into their re­spec­tive first im­pres­sions is Austen’s as­tute ob­ser­va­tion of hu­man na­ture, and her apt use of irony with re­spect to the so­cial or­der of the time, mar­riage and the sta­tus of women.

Women, at the time the novel is writ­ten, are not en­ti­tled to prop­erty rights. Thus, Mr. Ben­net’s es­tate is en­tailed away from the fe­male line, and is ex­pected to pass on, upon his demise, to his dis­tant cousin, Mr. Wil­liam Collins. Collins is a lu­di­crous mock­ery of a cler­gy­man whose com­plete lack of com­mon sense, cou­pled with his ridicu­lously in­flated opin­ion of him­self makes him one of the most far­ci­cal char­ac­ters in the novel. El­iz­a­beth’s sharp re­but­tal of his pro­posal, the cler­gy­man’s re­sponse to be­ing re­jected and the Ben­net cou­ple’s di­verse re­ac­tions to the en­tire episode makes for some thor­oughly hi­lar­i­ous mo­ments. Collins, how­ever, rep­re­sents a par­tic­u­lar so­cial class –the so-called re­spectable, pompous clergy, fi­nan­cially sta­ble but with lit­tle breed­ing. His nup­tials with the sen­si­ble Char­lotte Lu­cas, El­iz­a­beth’s close friend, clearly in­di­cates the so­ci­ety’s per­cep­tions to­wards a so­cially ac­cept­able mar­riage. Theirs is a mar­riage with­out pas­sion, that of­fers sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity, but per­haps lit­tle else to ei­ther party in­volved.

Collins is in some way an anti-the­sis to Darcy, who is the epit­ome of pro­pri­ety and re­spectabil­ity. Like Collins, Darcy too is a vic­tim of false pride but un­like him, Darcy’s pride is shown, al­beit through bit­ing irony, as some­what jus­ti­fied be­cause of the no­ble lin­eage and the fact that he be­longs to the landed aris­toc­racy.

Darcy’s aunt, the wealthy and haughty Lady Cather­ine de Bourgh, is an­other satir­i­cal fig­ure. Once again, the au­thor seems to sub­tly make fun of the so­ci­ety’s highly mis­placed re­gard for the gen­teel classes. Irony and so­cial cri­tique blend to­gether seam­lessly through amus­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tions and de­li­cious writ­ing.

Ly­dia Ben­net, the pre­sumed anti-the­sis to El­iz­a­beth and her sis­ter Jane, can per­haps be seen as rep­re­sent­ing the darker im­agery of the so­ci­ety – the fool­ish, ig­no­rant young woman who falls into the clutches of the charis­matic Ge­orge Wick­ham, a de­gen­er­ate wom­an­izer, and one can as­sume, dives into what can only be a life of dis­si­pa­tion and mis­ery. Wick­ham and Ly­dia’s com­plete lack of prin­ci­ples sug­gest a so­cial and mo­ral de­cay that runs par­al­lel to the elitism sig­ni­fied by the Bin­g­leys and the Dar­cys.

In con­trast to the Wick­hams’ mar­riage for pas­sion lies that of El­iz­a­beth and Darcy – the ideal mar­riage filled with love, re­spect, beauty, ma­te­rial wealth, and most im­por­tantly, so­cial pro­pri­ety. El­iz­a­beth mar­ries for love, as does Darcy. And for that, they stand for­given in spite of their flawed char­ac­ters. At the other end of the con­tin­uum is Char­lotte and Collins’ mar­riage for con­ve­nience.

De­spite her highly en­ter­tain­ing style of writ­ing and pro­found in­sight into so­cial life, Jane Austen had failed to taste suc­cess in her life­time. To­day, though, she is for all in­tents and pur­poses, a global celebrity. Her mag­num opus, Pride and Prej­u­dice has given read­ers some time­less char­ac­ters in the realm of clas­sic English lit­er­a­ture. The head-strong Lizzy and the proud, ex­traor­di­nar­ily hand­some Mr. Darcy, the soft-spo­ken Jane and the charm­ing Mr. Bin­g­ley, the com­i­cal Mr. Collins, the long-suf­fer­ing Mr. Ben­net who has no com­pas­sion for his wife’s poor nerves, and the un­scrupu­lous Ly­dia and Wick­ham have be­come so deeply etched into the minds of any Austen lover, that it would be hard to con­vince us that these are, af­ter all, the mere fig­ment of an in­di­vid­ual’s imag­i­na­tion. Over 200 years on, Lizzy and Darcy’s love story con­tin­ues to be every woman’s fan­tasy. True to Austen, let us con­clude by say­ing that – if such happy prospects were to be­fall us, we shall be very well pleased, in­deed!

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