Pride and Prejudice: Literary Criticism

[General] (02.12.09, 6:06 pm)

This reviews some scholarly essays on Pride and Prejudice. Also included is a snippet from the Norton Critical Edition of Northanger Abbey. There is a wide range of Austen literary criticism, and this reflects just a small part. What is included here are essays that are particularly relevant for the process of adaptation, and looking into the mechanics of Austen’s world.

Susan Morgan: Perception in Pride and Prejudice

In a quick overview, this article is about Elizabeth’s development over the course of the novel. Like the character of Emma, Elizabeth’s understanding of the world and perception of others is frequently incorrect, for instance with Wickham, with Darcy’s intentions toward her in the second part of the book, and with her impression of Darcy’s thoughts when she reveals Lydia’s running off with Wickham. Morgan asks what is the moral lesson of all of this, and observes that there is a transition in the development of Elizabeth’s character.

Morgan argues that Austen’s works (her world, as it were) contain a sort of philosophical message, even if this message was not consciously put there by the author. The essence of this is about generalization and the relationship between the world of the mind and the physical world. Generalization is a means for characters to use social expectations and small observations to make broader predictions and expectations of behavior. The central generalization that is present is the one described by the opening line of the book.

Elizabeth’s greatest strength is that she strives to look at the world from many points of view, and respond to them accordingly. This is not perfect, in that she always has levels of partiality, but it distinguishes her, in that she always seems to be engaged in figuring out what others are thinking or doing. Her weakness in the earlier part of the novel is that she does not take life seriously, and does not significantly value social status or her family’s financial situation. This gives way to some of her early indirectness and lack of willingness to commit herself to things (as opposed to Jane, who is eager to commit herself on very short notice). This changes toward the end, as Elizabeth matures and acquires a directness that she did not possess early on.

The themes of perception and generalization lend credence to the perspective that characters understand the world in terms of models.

Claudia L. Johnson: Pride and Prejudice and the Pursuit of Happiness

This paper examines the the delicate interaction between pride and happiness. Happiness is clearly one of the central variables at stake for the characters in the novel. Happiness of course has many dimensions and flavors. The means of happiness also is accompanied by a moral dimension, where one’s tendency to be placable takes on moral dimensions. Darcy’s disdain and implacability (stemming from his pride) are negative traits, and they harm his moral reputation in the minds of other characters. Similarly, characters who are overeager to be agreeable are also considered to be morally flawed, for instance in the cases of Lydia and Sir William Lucas.

The different means by which characters find happiness indicates a system for modeling characters standards and preferences according to some set of parameters. Characters also feel that they have a right to happiness, which is a characteristic of their pride. Pride is a quality that has a mixed role within the novel, being both a subject of steadfastness as well as moral failure. Elizabeth uses her pride as a means for chiding Darcy’s. Even in Austen’s moral system which critiques the aristocratic moral system, pride has some important value. In contrast to pride is a dimension of magnanimity, which is the quality of someone’s attention to the happiness of others. This is a variable which highly valued in Austen’s moral system, and is something that Darcy lacks (or appears to lack) early on, and then seems to possess a great deal of later.

Sue Birtwhistle and Susie Conklin: A Conversation with Colin Firth

This is an interview with Colin Firth, who plays the part of Darcy in the BBC television miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The interview is important for several reasons. The first is that it gives a perspective into the process of an adaptation, and secondly it gives a perspective on Darcy’s inner thoughts as expressed by Colin Firth’s portrayal. One of the appeals of Darcy’s character is that he is inscrutable and it is very difficult to tell what he is thinking. Colin Firth thus came to this role and developed his own understanding of Darcy’s motivations which drove his restrained performance. From the perspective of simulation and adaptation, these insights are very useful because they indicate an internal state to reproduce, that would lead to the execution of the character’s behavior.

An example of Firth’s perspective on Darcy’s inner thoughts comes from his behavior at the Meryton assembly. Darcy’s distance and aloofness are explained as being driven from insecurity and shyness. This is amplified by Bingley’s ease in social situations, which puts Darcy in a more awkward state. Firth’s explanation here is important because it gives a valid sense of motivation, and it also does so by representing Darcy’s snobbishness as due to vulnerability, which is not a view that is ever conveyed in the novel. Firth describes Darcy’s attraction to Elizabeth as due, initially, to boredom, because he has never met a woman who has intrigued him before. It is this initial bit of being intrigued that leads him to follow her around, because he wishes to find out more about her.

The approach of Darcy’s first proposal is also very interesting, as Firth sought to find a way to look at how the proposal might be seen from Darcy’s point of view. In this view, his love for Elizabeth is strong enough to overcome the many reasons why such a marriage would be improper for him, and in this particular light it is very romantic.

Dr. John Gregory: A Father’s Letter to his Daughters (1774)

This particular essay comes from the Norton Critical Edition for Northanger Abbey. The excerpt is from a “conduct” book, which is aimed to educate young women on proper conduct in polite society. This particular section advises women against the use of wit, humor, good sense, and learning which are dangerous and unseemly. Wit is to be guarded because it can create enemies, and Dr. Gregory explains that wit can lead to intoxication with vanity. Humor is dangerous for the converse reasons, it will win friends, but if used liberally will threaten a lady’s respect. Good sense and learning are subjects which will embarrass others and make one’s company jealous. The intent of conversation is to make one’s company pleased with themselves. Dr. Gregory finally advises his daughters to act with great modesty and avoid indelicacy, even though the lady may be thought ridiculous, prudish, or reserved. The alternative is to be contemptible and disgusting.

This is especially interesting, as it gives a list of many of the rules broken by characters within Pride and Prejudice, but paints a landscape of the social expectations put upon women in society. Under this view, social conduct is a dangerous activity fraught with explosive hazards with lasting consequences.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorGray, Donald
TitlePride and Prejudice: Norton Critical Edition
Tagsspecials, fiction, settings, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

1 Comment »

  1. […] Next scene shows Jane in church, as minister presents moral lessons that seem to be directed at Jane specifically: that a woman must be quiet in the morning, must have a husband later in life, and must keep her profound intellect a profound secret. This reverberates with “moral” literature for women of the time. “Wit is the  most treacherous talent of them all” Seems a clear reference to Dr. Gregory’s letter to his daughters. […]

    Pingback by Icosilune » Becoming Jane — March 22, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

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