Tuesday, November 25, 2008

When Do I Get To The Good Part?

Unemployment has re-introduced to my daily routine, for the first time since early adolescence, the ritual of breakfast. Lindsey still has no time for it, and I hope that I can soon discard my discovery in favor of gainful employment, but for the past several mornings I've enjoyed having a short time set aside to drink coffee, eat toast, and collect my thoughts over a work of fiction. That said, for the life of me I've been unable to ascertain the cause of the enduring popularity of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I've been subjected to various films of the thing over the years, and been bored out of my mind. I've been derided even by male friends for not wanting anything to do with what, supposedly, is one of the greatest works of fiction in the English language. And so I pose the question to you, my (possibly only) reader: what is supposed to be so good about this book? I'm about halfway through this thing, and am determined to finish it, but it's really hard, because nothing happens. It's always been sold to me (or so I thought) as this terrific love story, but the characters are (forgive me) really pretty shallowly drawn, and the thing seems to have been constructed originally as some sort of social commentary with a love story as the main plot vehicle. I'm probably reading this thing totally wrong, but what I'm getting out of it primarily is that Jane Austen hated a) the rigid middle-to-upper-class social structure of her time, and b) women. The book is, so far, more than a little unkind to the fairer sex. Maybe that's the point? That the social structure of the time turned women into a conniving mass of mercenary vixens, intent on getting their hooks into some unfortunate (though rich) fop of a man, so that the rest of their days can be lived out in an endless string of dinner parties, card games, and social dances. That's one of my hypotheses. There also seems to be a lot of discussion of preconceived notions ("prejudices," as one might say), and their influence on decisions. I guess that would gel more with the title. Whatever the point of the thing (I'll get back to you when I finish it), Austen spends entirely too much time on characters about whom it is absolutely painful to read. The absolute stupidity of these characters defies disbelief. My third (and favorite) hypothesis is that this is actually a work of Science Fiction, about robots that have been programed to destroy the human soul. I'm sorry about the rant, here. I know that many, many people love this book, and can name all of the characters and houses featured therein, and recite their favorite passages from memory. I'm trying to keep an open mind here, really. Otherwise, I wouldn't be reading the book in the first place. I already know the story. I'm not expecting it to suddenly be full of interesting things, like sex, violence, revenge, fear, guilt, redemption, or even passion, but wow. What am I supposed to be looking for here? Am I just supposed to like this because it's British, and I get to read about places (that aren't subdivisions in Southeast Michigan) called Derbyshire and Pemberly, and to hear London simply called "town?" I don't even know. As always I welcome any comments, as I suspect that I've offended someone's sensibilities, and must now submit to a snarky, yet nonetheless righteous defense of such a hallowed tome. I want to like this thing; I really do.

Either way, I'll try to put up some final thoughts when I finish the book, which (as I said) I'm determined to do.


saracita said...

I didn't know about the unemployment... sorry to hear that.

I'm with you on the Austen thing. I can understand why people may enjoy it, but it never struck me as good literature. I'd actually much rather watch her books as movies than read them. Maybe watching dinner parties and nice countryside is better than reading about them?

I definitely remember staying up until 5am with Lindsey and others, many years ago, watching that ungodly long movie... seriously, there's no way to condense some of that?

Jonathan said...

Whether it counts as great literature or not, I cannot say -- it's above my pay grade -- but I can say that I greatly enjoyed reading the book, enjoying it more than either of the two movie versions I've seen. I found the caricatures which were the supporting characters and the social commentary immensely humorous, and must confess that I was intrigued by the tension and misinterpretation that existed in the relationships of the more primary characters. Perhaps I found myself identifying with them, aside from Mr. Darcy's ten thousand pounds a year.

This serves as a commentary on me, I'm sure.

John Lynch said...


First, you should probably finish it.

Second, I think it's unfair to say that "nothing happens," since I recall quite a bit happening, though since I don't know exactly where you are in the book, I can't really comment on that.

Personally, I found the motivations of the main characters and some of the side characters to be fascinating. Each of the women seems to have a different desire and purpose for marriage and I found the way that they acted on these differences to be quite interesting.

Cecilia said...

just go watch the mormon version of the movie.
And I'm impressed that you're giving it a shot. It does take a while to pick up and get going.
But I had to read it for a class a couple semesters ago. And that changed my perspective on it since we were using the feminist critique of it which actually claims that Austen was trying to liberate women. I'm not sure I really see that at all. But do share your thoughts with us at the end.
And I'd like to know if, at the end of the book, you see Austen as a liberator of women.

D.Cous. said...

Cecelia, I've actually seen the "Latter Day Comedy" film version of it, among others. All that I can really say about it is "yikes."

Sara, thanks for the well-wishing. Someone actually made a two-hour (ish) movie of the book a few years ago, and with better production value, too, but it has been largely rejected by the faithful (at least those in my acquaintance), precisely for condensing the book into a mere two hours. The absence of Colin Firth has also been cited as among the film's demerits, but I actually thought it was quite a bit better (which is to say, shorter).

Lisa said...

Dear Mr. Cous,
This is your real opinion? This is your final resolve? Very well. I shall now know how to act. Do not imagine, Mr. Cous, that I shall even condescend to respect your opinions. I hoped to find you reasonable, but depend on it I will carry my point. Don't honor with your regard, for what it's worth, any people who try to pass Miss Austen off as a feminist. Miss Austen is a writer of comedy. If you cannot find it in your sensibilities to laugh out loud at the absurdities in her literature, then I take my leave of you. I am most seriously displeased!
Furthermore, it astonishes me that so few of you modern Americans understand the British countryside way of life, let alone the complexities of living in town. The landed estate was like the General Motors Corporation of the countryside. Whole communities depended on the financial success of these vast holdings. Because of the necessity of entailment laws, only one male heir could inherit the estate. That meant that the remaining children were given money and positions as recompense for not receiving any land. The male heir often found himself cash poor, and to marry for money was not only needful, but an act of selflessness, generosity, and even charity to his neighbors. I would argue that as many men as women found themselves in pecuniary difficulties. Mercenary, indeed! And you, an student of economy of all people, should understand and sympathize with these measures.
It is my sincere hope that if we ever meet, my impressions of you, however prejudiced by your disgusting stubbornness regarding the highly respected Miss Austen, will be altered, and that I find you an affable and clever, although unavailable and untitled, young man. I may even condescend to give you my hand if you are suitably dressed and present yourself with some decency. Give my regards to your lovely wife.
Your's very sincerely,
Lady Catherine de Bourgh