Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I said long long ago that I preferred Emma to Pride and Prejudice by a hair, but having just re-read the latter, I think that I must be mistaken--surely Pride and Prejudice is one of the most perfect books ever written. (You will excuse me as I slip into something of a panegyric; I don't think I can help it.) Every moment, every character, every word seems perfectly shaped and in place. Certainly I can think of few other books that compel me to read them so strongly. This is the (I think) fourth time I've read Pride and Prejudice, but every time, I find myself in a bitter disposition doing anything else but reading it, because something about it draws you to its conclusion. The ultimate joke, I think, in a book constructed from jokes is that when the climax comes, it's reported secondhand:

Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation now forced herself to speak; and and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.

This is hilarious, and nasty. After priming the reader for a final declaration of love from Darcy and an acceptance of marriage from Elizabeth, Austen drops the dialogue and essentially cuts to black, no kiss, no knee, nothing. Just "[she] gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded...," which is as funny as any of the ironic digs at Mr. Collins or William Lucas.

Not that you would be able to find much of that ironic sense in any of your ersatz Austen sequels, or even much in the (excellent) Joe Wright film, for which the love story outshines all other elements of the novel. But people insist on misunderstanding this book, even--or especially--its biggest fans. Why is it that the most irony-deficient people seem to love this book? How can it inspire such crippling sincerity as this?

LinkIn fact, the more I think about it, I wonder if Pride and Prejudice doesn't merely use irony as its modality, but its theme as well. It is, in a sense, a book about irony, that gap between perception and reality. Elizabeth is only able to find happiness with Darcy once she learns to balance public perception of him against his true character; it is a lesson she learns with Wickham in reverse. Mrs. Bennet jeopardizes her daughters' chances of marriage by being deficient in manners, which are a kind of irony, proudly bellowing what she perceives to be true at inopportune moments, unaware that saying what you do not mean, and meaning what you do not say, can both be a kind of social currency. For her part, Jane allows herself to be beguiled by Caroline Bingley because she cannot perceive the irony, or insincerity, of others. On the other hand, there is Mr. Bennet, so removed from the world by way of his ironic veil that he cannot grasp the danger of Lydia's Brighton trip, which serves as the prelude to a misbegotten elopement.

Or I could be completely full of shit. In any case, I love this book.


Brent Waggoner said...

I have only read each one once, but I prefer Emma slightly, based on the one read. I like this review though.

Carlton Farmer said...

The only one that I have read is Sense and Sensibility. I didn't love it. I intend to read her others though.

Christopher said...

Carlton, I didn't love it either. P&P is very similar, but a billion times better.

Nathan said...


Brent Waggoner said...

Carlton, I think you read Persuasion.