Monday, December 01, 2008

Ok, So I Finished Reading Pride and Prejudice.

Happy December to all, and welcome to my second consecutive blog post about the magnum opus of all Chick Lit, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. While the future is as unforeseen by me as by any other, I trust it shall also be the last. I got some insightful comments on my last post on the topic, and (intentionally, I might add) engaged multiple people in discussion about this book over the holiday weekend, and I shall attempt to bring all of the wisdom I've gleaned from such endeavors to bear in my final pronouncements on the novel, though I don't know why I should bother. As with most things I write, if you like you may happily discard my thoughts if they disagree with your own, secure in the knowledge that I am not as smart as you are. Now then, on with it!

My first conclusion upon the completion of the book, and I have yet to controvert it, was that it's not a very "serious" book, nor is it trying to be one. This counteracted, for the most part, my disappointment. You may disagree with me here, but at least some of the persons with whom I discussed the book generally agreed with me on this point: it's just a fun yarn. It's just a love story. If that's all you're looking for (and there's nothing wrong with reading just a love story), you're in for a good read. The prose style is very enjoyable, and you may experience that warm internal glow at the conclusion of the novel that comes with knowing that the good characters all received their just rewards (in this case, marriage to one another), and that the bad characters were likewise paid their due (also marriage to one another). That's it. The book sets out to introduce to you its setting, endear you to one group of characters and acquaint you with less fondness with another group of characters, tell you the reason they all can't be blissfully happy together, and then have their innate goodness (and money) overcome whatever that reason may be. Fin. It's a warm, fuzzy kind of a book. It doesn't challenge anything, or make you think too hard, even for a moment, about anything.

It has been suggested to me that the story depicts some form of feminine liberation, though perhaps diluted to be more acceptable to the general public at the time it was written. If what I've already said above has not convinced you of my own beliefs in the matter, let me say explicitly that I do not believe this to be the case. Elizabeth Bennet is not a standard bearer. She does not change, nor does she attempt to change the male-centered dynamic which dominates the social structures present in the book. She just learns to play ball, and wins. The novel ends when she realizes how stupid she was to refuse the advances of the incredibly rich guy, because at first he wasn't especially charming. The point at which she begins to see him in a different light is when she takes a tour of his gigantic mansion. After that, she wants nothing more than to be the instrument of the issuance of his progeny. If you're looking for symbols of liberated femininity in Pride and Prejudice, you'll have to content yourself with the contrasting figures of Charlotte Lucas and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (really), and they don't get much dialog. Overall, as I said before, I don't believe Austen to think very highly of her sex. The whole of the novel contains only two likable females, the two eldest Bennet sisters. They are exceptions to an otherwise steadfast rule.

In the end, while I suppose that I'm glad that I tried, I didn't really like the book. In my first post I suggested that nothing happens in the book, a comment for which I was rebuked most heartily by my wife, among others. Allow me now the luxury of editing my own words, by affixing them with qualifiers: Nothing happens in this book that I find particularly interesting. It is an adventure story, where the sorts of exciting events that take place are new neighbors coming to town (and leaving it again), dinner parties, dances, and the occasional, can't-put-the-book-down moment where the protagonist's best friend marries an absolute fool. If this is the sort of excitement you're looking for, then dive in. You'll like it, and why shouldn't you? It's The Three Musketeers for women. For myself, I couldn't stand it. I began to enjoy the book when Lydia unexpectedly elopes with the villainous Wickham (though he barely deserves the term), and then felt cheated (and really quite bitter) when everything ends up so neatly sewn up in the end. All of the main characters were a fool about something in their turn, and in the end, with no harm caused by any of their follies, they go on their merry ways. Wealth and goodwill easily surmount all obstacles to happiness. I suppose there's nothing wrong with that, it's just not the sort of thing I enjoy. I also, in a rare instance of sticking up for myself, assert that there's nothing wrong with me for not liking it.

I've tried not to let my own biases cloud my judgment too much in my reading of the book, though I'm afraid that their continued influence is considerable. Given what I've said about what I suppose the novel's aim to be, I can't gripe too much about it, save to say that I still think Austen spends far too much type on her more obnoxious characters. While the book would suffer from the absence of such characters, the amount of attention they're given by the author hurts it almost as much, if not more. If you're the last human being who has not read this book (I was among the last), go watch one of the shorter film versions (trust me), and if you think you could stand a few hundred pages of that, this might be the book for you. If you're stuck with the six-hour version, well, then you don't need to bother with the book at all. Ciao!

6 comments:

John Lynch said...

it's not a very "serious" book, nor is it trying to be one.

Agree.

The novel ends when she realizes how stupid she was to refuse the advances of the incredibly rich guy, because at first he wasn't especially charming. The point at which she begins to see him in a different light is when she takes a tour of his gigantic mansion. After that, she wants nothing more than to be the instrument of the issuance of his progeny.

Disagree, mostly. It's not Darcy's lack of "charm" that turns Elizabeth off to him, it's his pride. Darcy doesn't just present himself as less than charming; he presents himself as not even wanting to be charming because it's simply not worth his while. There's a big difference there, in my opinion. Secondly, while Elizabeth does begin to come around to the idea while touring his house, the implication that it is a materialistic impulse that is driving her change of heart is misguided. As I recall, her tour also is the first time that Darcy the person (as opposed to Darcy the wealthy, arrogant ass) begins to become into focus for her. I suppose one could construe that as ironic, but not, I think, materialistic.

If you're looking for symbols of liberated femininity in Pride and Prejudice, you'll have to content yourself with the contrasting figures of Charlotte Lucas and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (really), and they don't get much dialog.

Perhaps I misunderstand you. Charlotte is that antithesis of liberated, purposefully undermining her chances of finding a spouse that she personally respects in order to ensure her material well-being (which is what society says she should do). That society is typified by Lady de Bourgh, who is furious with Elizabeth precisely because she has the gall to get in the way of what Lady de Bourgh views as socially acceptable. I agree with your larger point: I don't think that the book is a feminist work. Nonetheless, these are odd examples.

though he barely deserves the term

Strongly disagree.

go watch one of the shorter film versions

No.

If you're stuck with the six-hour version, well, then you don't need to bother with the book at all.

Also no, though less so.

For my own part, I agree that the book is not supposed to be either a ground-breaking work of literature (on the merits of the text, not the sex of that author), nor an attempt to raise social awareness or make a grand historical point. It's not Les Miserables or War and Peace, for example. Of course, I'd also rather read Pride and Prejudice than those other two, because it's an easier, shorter, more engaging read.

I think that the Dumas comparison is apt, though I would add that nothing in Pride and Prejudice is as blatantly implausible as the end of The Count of Monte Cristo, which nearly ruins the whole book.

There's nothing wrong with you for not liking it, though I would be remiss if I did not note that no matter how biased your opinion is, it's not likely to matter since those who are truly crazy about the book are quite rightly going to view the cost of disagreement with you as completely negligible relative to their own desire to continue believing that this is the best book ever no matter how powerful your argument. And since no one else has not read the book, you are in no danger of falsely swaying a truly open mind with a biased opinion.

Cecilia said...

Here are my brief thoughts.

"If you're looking for symbols of liberated femininity in Pride and Prejudice, you'll have to content yourself with the contrasting figures of Charlotte Lucas and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (really), and they don't get much dialog."

BINGO! Catherine represents an extremely liberated woman of the upper class and Charlotte represents the status quo relationship between a young woman of the late 18th century and the marriage market. I wrote a six page paper about this relationship between Charlotte and her unattractiveness and the marriage market.

I would wager that Austen was (with all of her books) aiming for either social commentary or satire, or both perchance.

Now, you should try to read Little Women or Northanger Abbey.

Lindsey said...

I believe I have already shared with you most of my thoughts but I'll put in a few cents here anyways.

Yes, I agree it's just a fun book. But I disagree with you quite strongly about Elizabeth's motives in marrying Darcy. She's in love with him! 10,000 per anum and Pemberly be demmed! One of the things I like about the two of them is that they really are from different spheres (despite Elizabeth's insistence to Lady Catherine). She's pretty far below him socially and yet she intrigues him and then he falls for her. The transition of the two main characters from Proud and Prejudiced is fascinating to me. It's a novel about first impressions.

I also disagree with your suggestion to watch the shorter films. You miss so much in those! Of course I enjoy all the adaptations (even Bride and Prejudice), because I'm a big fan of the characters in the novel and like seeing them interpreted. If you watch the long version that does NOT mean you shouldn't read the book!!! Yes, it's a very good adaptation, but there is still plenty left out.

Oh well. I guess you require more of your novels than just character development :) For your next Chick Lit read I would suggest North and South (of course) which has a similar "first impressions" theme but with strikes and violence!

D.Cous. said...

John, Charlotte uses her femininity to do better for herself than she otherwise would in material terms, while maintaining a high degree of autonomy from her husband in her own eyes (though not in his; he is easy to fool). She sees an opportunity and grabs it. She is in control of her own situation. Yes, she is working within the framework of the society at large, but by molding it to her own purposes, she could be seen as transcending it.

Yes, I'll admit to some hyperbole and sarcasm in my belittling of Elizabeth as a feminist icon. I think that the actual point at which she begins to change her mind about Darcy is when she reads his letter, and realizes that her own view of him had been severely distorted by her fondness of Wickham. This is LARGELY due to the former's lack of social graces, which the latter possesses in spades. She says as much herself. This isn't all due to pride, either. Darcy is actually a reserved guy. He doesn't express himself verbally nearly as well as in writing.

Yes, seeing his gigantic house coincides with also hearing from his servant that he's a stand-up guy, good to the poor and to animals and such. I would be interested to see how she'd take all of that had she not read his letter. Either way, I see no reason to separate her fascination with his wealth and her learning that he might actually have been a tolerable spouse, personality-wise.

Lindsey, yes, I guess I demand more than character development from my fiction. At the very least, I might demand MORE character development, or perhaps LESS PREDICTABLE character development. There's just not much there. It was a quick read, but I wish it were shorter.

Wikipedia informs me that the novel's original title was "First Impressions." I really think it's too bad that she ended up changing it, since that's really the main thrust of the thing.

John Lynch said...

Cous,

I'll partially cede the point vis-a-vis Charlotte. I'm not sure how much of an counter-cultural icon one can be when one is content to operate with that culture, but I suppose there's something to what you are saying.

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. Nothing more, but not the least in her accomplishments. 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!
I would agree with your assessment that this is literature suited more comfortably in the feminine sphere. Non-gentry males seem to actually like activity, while women have always centered their lives around their close relationships. However, to say disgustingly that nothing happens is a gross insult to the gentry and nobility of our culture. We pride ourselves on our ease of life and our leisure. Cannot you see that your American ideals of independence and industry are counter-cultural to our way of life where so many are economically dependent, and strive continually to move into the realm of gentry where no efforts are required? In fact, they are shunned.
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. Mercenary, indeed! And you, a student of economy of all people, should understand and sympathize with these measures. I would argue that as many men as women found themselves in pecuniary difficulties, and acted to prevent their own fall into degradation. There are always scoundrels, but do not lump them together with people who know what they are about: security, position and the welfare of their whole community.
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