‘It is a truth universally acknowledged,’ that an invaluable resource to the study of anthropology is the analysis of literature current to a period of interest. Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is a novel that casts as vivid a portrait of English society at the turn of the eighteenth-century as Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” does of a revolutionary France; such authors serve to enrich an understanding of the human condition by presenting eloquently expressed personal insights into history. As such, in reading Pride and Prejudice it is important to recognize an underlying social commentary, which Austen guides not only through the manifest behaviour of her characters, but with subtle yet explicit narrative often of a sarcastic, satirical nature.
The narrative body of this passage is essentially constituted by its opening and closing paragraphs; the former concerning itself largely with the introduction of new circumstances – proceeded by an ensuing dialogue between Charlotte and Elizabeth – and the latter primarily concerning itself with pointing out the irony of the preceding dialogue.
The first paragraph of this passage is a clear illustration of Austen’s critical perception of polite society. With a sardonic wit she describes the formalities of acquaintance in Victorian society, and the social obligations and intrusions presented throughout the novel. References to ‘due form’ and ‘pleasing manners’ only serve to highlight the contrived structure of the social interaction, but it is in the Bingley’s assessment of the Bennet family and their worth, that is most telling.
It is made quite clear that ‘the younger sisters [were] not worth speaking to’, that Mrs. Bennet was ‘intolerable’, and Austen goes on to cite a supercilious condescension that Jane perceives in the Bingley family. Importantly, emphasis is also put on the fact that despite the apparent abhorrence felt toward the younger sisters and ‘the mother’, the Bingley’s still express a desire to acquaint themselves with ‘them’. Here is an example of Austen pointing out the absurd realities of polite society – if the Bingley’s wished to associate with Jane or Elizabeth, they would be reluctantly obliged to extend that association to the younger sisters and the mother, for whom they felt only distaste. This is, of course, not to say that the nature of such an extended association would be genuinely amicable, indeed quite the opposite. As the text progresses, examples of scenes consumed by cold civility are commonplace, culminating in a series of highly articulate confrontations – many involving Elizabeth, often resulting in animated conversational repartee, usually to her advantage. Regardless, the Bingley’s are socially obligated to become superficially acquainted with them due to the importance of maintaining civil relations to preserve their respectability and sense of snobbish superiority.
The question remains; why do the Bingley’s find Jane and (to a lesser extent) Elizabeth “acceptable” acquaintances, and the sisters and mother not? An important aspect of aristocratic society is socio-economic status; the Bennet’s are of a relatively low class order in this respect, and along with that carry the burden of certain social stigmas. Utilitarian notions of reciprocity often drove even intra-class relationships of Austen’s time, so in inter-class relationships where a large disparity of status was existent, the reciprocation would often be heavily biased. The practical ramification of this is that for a Bennet – of low socio-economic standing – to associate with a Bingley – of high socio-economic standing – some degree of symbiosis would be required. The “Bennet” would have to have something to offer the “Bingley”, and in this respect a clear and logical distinction can be made between the relationships of the Bingley’s with Jane, Elizabeth, and the younger sisters and mother.
Although general disregard is shown to Mrs. Bennet and the younger sisters, Jane and Elizabeth are considered by the Bingley’s to be of great enough worth to tolerate – and in Jane’s case to enjoy. Jane’s ‘pleasing manners’, ‘steady sense and sweetness of temper’ grow on ‘the good will of Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley’4, and the kind attention extended by them toward Jane is ‘received with the greatest pleasure’5, seeming almost genuine. Despite Mr. Bennet’s flippant assessment of Jane as one his ‘silly and ignorant’ daughters, Jane demonstrates throughout the novel that she – as Elizabeth – is endowed with ‘something more of a quickness’ just as Elizabeth. Yet she is prepared to accept the ‘superciliousness in their treatment of everybody … hardly accepting even her’ almost without question – indeed, she may not even notice to a large extent.
She herself is rather preoccupied with Mr. Bingley, and is thus largely oblivious to their disdainful arrogance, not only due to her desire to be approved by Bingley’s close associates, but because ‘the influence of their brother’s admiration’ had caused them to be especially amiable with Jane. So Jane’s acceptance into the higher social clique was the result firstly of her willingness to comply with social norms, and secondly (doubtless, more importantly) of the influence of her association with Bingley. Additionally, and perhaps more abstractly, it could be interpreted that the ease with which Jane is accepted due to Bingley’s influence is an implication that the sisters are of such weak character that they can easily establish superficial acquaintances, or more likely that they are so vacuously open to suggestion that the influence of Bingley inspired a genuine affection. There is also an “ornamental” aspect involved; Jane is evidently3 an attractive young woman – a well respected quality – and since non of the Bingley’s have any interest in their own brother (hopefully), her presence could not be perceived as a threat on that score.
On the other hand Elizabeth, who is arguably in a position to be more objective, remains skeptical and – unlike her sister – ‘could not like them’ due to her perception of their arrogance and condescension, despite their kindness to Jane (the motives for which were patently transparent to Elizabeth). Despite her general dislike for the Bingley’s (with the exception of Charles, of course) and unlike her mother, she maintains herself acceptably within the boundaries of social conduct, and for the most part is relatively agreeable when unprovoked. For these reasons, and (largely) due to her association with her sister Jane, Elizabeth is – at least until the chapters immediately ensuing this passage – treated with some measured degree of respect, or at least passive regard. However, such affection as is reserved for Jane is not extended to Elizabeth for two important reasons.
Firstly, following this passage it becomes apparent to the Bingley’s that Darcy holds a special admiration of the ‘beautiful expression of her dark eyes”, a fact which distresses and threatens Miss Bingley due to her infatuation with Darcy. She immediately becomes defensive in her dealings with Elizabeth, while launching savage verbal attacks on every aspect of her being in the presence of Darcy – which, incidentally, only strengthens his resolve regarding Miss Bingley’s vulgarity and Elizabeth’s virtues; those of an “accomplished woman”6. Secondly, Elizabeth threatens the Bingley’s on an intellectual level. She is almost unique in that she has the intelligence and sagacity to recognise conceit and superciliousness when she sees it, and the capacity to respond to it with subtle resolution. She is thus capable of asserting her own stubbornness and obstinacy without technically impinging on social requirements of etiquette – unlike her poor mother, whom is not compassionate on anybody’s nerves with her brusque and egotistical manner of asserting the virtues of her daughters (and the value of herself).
Regardless, Elizabeth is certainly the most effective confrontational presence in the novel, the result of which is that as time progresses she becomes less and less popular with the those conceited, arrogant and pharisaic elements of society, and increasingly magnetic to Darcy (whom finds her “uncommon intelligence” and “easy playfulness” highly attractive). In short, Elizabeth treads on too many people’s toes to be of any real use to the Bingley sisters, but is closely associated with Jane, well liked by Bingley himself, defended by Darcy and careful enough not to directly violate etiquette. As a result she is considered – or at least treated – marginally better than her mother and younger sisters, certainly at the stage of this passage of the novel.
This passage draws an important distinction between Elizabeth and Jane; Elizabeth is not prepared to accept the superciliousness of her social superiors, and refuses to have her ‘wit and vivacity … tempered by silence and respect.” Through Elizabeth, Austen denounces the hierarchical structure of polite society, and seems to point to elements of incompetence, hypocrisy and arrogance within it – she is rather caustic to the aristocracy in this regard. Ironically, Elizabeth herself is revealed to have been both proud (specifically regarding her own strength of character) and prejudiced (regarding her willingness to accept rumours of Darcy). Conversely, though Jane is probably quite as intelligent, she is less critical of society and is unwilling to challenge the status quo. It is conceivable that this is because Jane’s slightly more aesthetic appearances allow her more social leeway, and perhaps this is what makes her content to work within existing social frameworks, or perhaps she just has a naturally more placid disposition.
While Jane is unavoidably attached to Elizabeth, her more ‘vulgar relations’ are even more regrettable to the Bingley sisters. The younger Bennet sisters are ‘silly and ignorant’ with ‘none of them much to recommend’. Their silliness is generally expressed in a very public manner, usually in the form of flagrant and ridiculous behaviour. Not only are they innocently7 misbehaved, but they are ‘of such low connections’ (p. 33) that they really have no social worth to the Bingley’s and are therefore still constrained by their socio-economic deficiencies. As with Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennet is “unwanted baggage” that comes inevitably with Jane (another “unfortunate” connection). She is too forward and self-righteous, asserting herself often with inappropriate fervour; like her daughter Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennet flaunts many of the social taboos with the same pigheaded stubbornness, but unlike Elizabeth she does so in an overt and headstrong manner, and to less effect.
Her motives also differ from Elizabeth’s: Mrs. Bennet married above her station, and behaves as she does because she sees everything else – social respectability included – as subordinate to the pursuit of a good marriage for her daughters. Interestingly enough, Mr. Bennet is largely removed from interactions during the main body of the text, and is most commonly relevant to conversation when references are made to his meager and lowly connections. In this sense, Mr. Bennet (the male patriarch of the Bennet family) is purely a symbol of status for much of the novel. In essence, neither the mother nor the daughters have any tangible socially accepted redeeming features. Hence, Mrs. Bennet is an ‘intolerable’ woman who must be – to some extent – tolerated, and the younger sisters are a rather loud annoyance ‘not worth speaking to’. Mr. Bennet is evidently of such ‘low connections’ that his consistent absence is largely immaterial. Yet despite all of this, they are still forced to associate with them.
It is one of the ironies of the text that the very system of obligation perpetuated by the wealthy proves to be universal, forcing their hand to associate with people they do not like. This is one of several steps taken by Austen to enervate and disempower the wealthy and aristocratic members of society. Throughout the novel she frequently represents them as incompetent1, hypocritical and arrogant2, casting a critical eye over society through the enfeeblement of aristocrats – here in lies the satire of Pride and Prejudice.
Now that the mechanics of association have been dealt with, another aspect of this passage can now be drawn upon. Jane’s developing relationship with Bingley is summarised by Charlotte and Elizabeth in the conversation proceeding the opening paragraph. It was described as ‘generally evident’ that Bingley admired Jane, and that she in turn was becoming ‘very much in love’ with him, but the important reference was to the concealment of her affections ‘from the suspicions of the impertinent’. It is here that Austen first begins to outline the notion of a general antagonist. Since an important aspect of Austen’s writing – expressed with Elizabeth as its chief proponent – is derision and disdain for the workings of polite society, she begins to establish a concept of the individual against the mob. In this case the mob is polite society during its inquisition and search for gossip.
Jane feels compelled to ‘conceal her affection’ from the mob, and so gain a small victory over it. The fact that the mob is so pervasively interested in individual affairs is also a point of some discussion. At this point it is important to note that footnote is made in the 1996 Penguin Classics edition of this book to the effect of highlighting the fact that ‘impertinent’ is used in the sense of Johnson’s second definition: ‘… meddling’. Since Jane attempts to conceal and guard her affection from the ‘suspicions of the impertinent’, this seems to imply that the mob – polite society – would attempt to manipulate and thus destroy any discernable traditional romance, convoluting its basis to whatever meddling intentions they desired.
Charlotte seems to imply that by making a romantic attraction public knowledge, the woman is able to ‘fix’ the man, and that the subsequent damage done to any notion of love was immaterial. Essentially, Charlotte stated the reality of society’s expectations; all elements of mystery should be removed, and the only remaining things should be tangible assets and the woman’s ability to fix her man properly. Society seems to demand its members’ full disclosure (Charlotte speaks of ‘imposing’ on society by not allowing affections to be public knowledge), and by refusing, Charlotte argues that Jane is endangering her chances of marriage. She suggests that without showing ‘more affection than she feels’ that a woman might not help the target of their affections to progress beyond merely fancying her, and that subsequently, no proposition or courting relationship could ensue.
During this dialogue, more layers of Elizabeth’s already complex character begin to reveal themselves. She proposes that Jane is as forward ‘as much as her nature will allow’, and in response to Charlotte’s suggestion that Jane must command Bingley during their time together to ensure their union, points out that Jane ‘is not acting by design’, and that marriage is not necessarily the specific objective of their romance. In this way, Elizabeth reveals herself (and Jane, for that matter) to be something of a romantic – compared to the cynical utilitarian approach taken by Charlotte (which is the manifestation of society’s conception of marriage as a union of pragmatism). Essentially, while Elizabeth praises Jane’s adherence to spontaneous or instinctive romance, Charlotte chastises and censures her naivetï¿½.
Indeed, in Pride and Prejudice polite society aspires to rape the ideal of love and marriage of all its intricacies – to reduce it down to an institution based on pragmatic convenience and social progression. Neither Jane nor Elizabeth are accustomed to this notion, and are still in the pursuit of an idealistic romance. Charlotte points out that a successful marriage is one that produces happiness in both parties. This suggestion sounds roughly congruous with the ideal, but it is societies point of view that marriage should proceed the act of falling in love and that ‘happiness in a marriage is entirely a matter of chance’ anyway, so marriage should be primarily motivated by social advancement. It is ironic, then, that so much importance should be placed on the transgressions that precipitated the premature marriage of Lydia and Wickham. Objection is only raised over this issue when the mob rears its ugly head to condemn the ‘impudence’ of the two whose ‘passions were stronger than their virtue’. Essentially, however, society regards marriage as an institution that should be administered based on pragmatic ideals rather than romantic ones.
An interesting point raised in this paragraph is the notion of ‘fixing’ a man; Charlotte speaks of becoming ‘secure of him’ and avoiding the loss of the ‘opportunity of fixing him’. Austen both literally8 and figuratively9 speaks of men with such degrading condescension as to demean them to the potency of a castrated dog. This seems to imply a certain degree of female dominance in the courting rituals of aristocratic society, but simultaneously, requires the woman to be openly forward – leaving her vulnerable (though in this circumstance, there is no real equality – either the woman ‘tames’ the man, or she herself is humiliated). One again, this notion of “the mob” can be employed. While the woman is granted some degree of dominance in the courting rituals if her affections are reciprocated and she is suitably skilled at manipulation, if she fails in either of these two respects her vulnerability can leave her in a great state of embarrassment.
This is most clearly demonstrated by Miss Bingley’s ridiculous infatuation with Darcy. He neither reciprocates her affections nor appreciates Miss Bingley’s inadequate methods of seduction, and she is left looking quite ridiculous whenever she dotes on him. Interestingly, since neither Elizabeth nor Jane follows this apparent convention – they do not act by premeditated design – their appeal is only increased to their potential courtiers, because there is a genuine affection between the individuals. Darcy even states at one point that ‘ladies sometimes condescend to employ [cunning] for captivation … which is despicable.’ So while polite society expects a woman to ‘fix’ her man through cunning premeditation and design, this expectation is made on the cynical basis that romance is a lucky extra – a luxury only afforded to those already married, on the basis of chance. Where there is a genuine romance, the mechanics of courting described by Charlotte cease to be applicable.
An amusing irony in present in this passage is that during Elizabeth’s conversation with Charlotte, she proclaims that Bingley ‘must be a simpleton indeed not to discover [Jane’s admiration]’ and yet, she herself has failed to notice Darcy’s developing infatuation with her. A debate might be pursued as to whether Elizabeth’s oblivion to Darcy’s admiration is the result of her ‘simpleton’ ignorance, or his skill at guarding his affections ‘from the suspicions of the impertinent’ – although it would not be hard to demonstrate that the latter is more likely the case. Regardless, it is the parallel between Elizabeth’s oblivion and her discussion of Bingley’s oblivion that is most pertinent.
Since Darcy is – originally at least – an austere member of that elusive social order obviously far above his present company (whatever or whomever that may be), he himself is ‘mortified’ to discover various elements of Elizabeth’s character that are actually fall within the parameters of his standards. He is, perhaps, mortified by such a revelation for two reasons; firstly, his first meeting with Elizabeth was far from amicable, and secondly, her low socio-economic standing should have inhibited any such admiration entering his consciousness. Not only is he surprised that his first impressions were so inaccurate – as his observations are usually so precise and astute – but he is worried that by revealing his affections openly, he might attract the unwanted attentions of the mob who would be bound to criticise and censure his feelings as inappropriate.
The Bennet’s are simply so far below his station that the concept of an association with the family, ‘being [such] a degradation -‘ is simply foreign to him. As such, Darcy cautiously approaches the matter by passively observing Elizabeth at Sir William Lucas’ party, and by adopting a less acrimonious tone when in conversation with her. It is interesting to note that Darcy’s first impression of Elizabeth is just that – his first impression, and so his perception of Elizabeth is constantly evolving in her favour throughout the novel, in almost perfect synchronisation with the reformation of his originally tarnished character. Conversely, Elizabeth proves to be guilty of more severe prejudice maintaining against a mounting body of evidence to the contrary, that Darcy is ‘the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world’. Her adherence to this first impression, and Darcy’s ‘abominable pride’ is furiously debated in a highly articulate confrontation, culminating effectively in a mutually beneficial (or mutually degrading, depending on the manner in which the subject is viewed) stalemate. It is furiously, but not without candid humour, determined and acknowledged that Darcy’s natural defect is a ‘propensity to hate every body’, and that Elizabeth’s ‘is willfully to misunderstand them.’
It is in this way that Darcy’s obstinacy and pride is reduced throughout the novel, and his arrogant believe in this passage that he should be confused and mortified as to the nature of his attraction to Elizabeth is dispelled. Darcy eventually transcends the boundaries set for him by polite society (as does Elizabeth), and in doing so both are of improved character – Elizabeth has dispelled some of her prejudices and Darcy’s immense pride is tempered. It is, therefore, through the development of her central characters outside of the social norms that she criticises so savagely, that Jane Austen paints such a vivid portrait of eighteenth century England.