...and every of his written literary thought!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Study of Parody and Pruddery in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

First impressions 

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
Austen’s second novel, Pride and Prejudice, which she started writing before she was twenty-one, was originally titled First Impression because the plot was created by characters’ first impressions and appearances. As with most first impressions we all have, the author’s talented character took a long time to be noticed until its publication in January 28, 1813, when she was almost 36. Frustrating as it was, the Austenites inform us she went on working on the story, making it popular with the close circle of friends, relations, and acquaintances she took into her confidence. 

The Nineteenth Century satirical love story still attracts the modern reader, topping several lists of 'most read books’ and gets a five star rating in English literature novels, besides being a subject of volumes of varied critical reactions, including a reproving remark from Mark Twain. It boasts, too, of extensive evaluations from literary scholars, huge interest from film makers and great sales—almost 20 million copies have been sold—from booksellers. Not to mention the several dramatic adaptations and fan fiction inspired by some powerful Austen’s characters, many even emphasizing  the overcooked romantic side of the text (to fit the standards of Hollywood) but downplay the powerful satire intended.

The cynical opening lines "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”, are just the prejudices of the 18th Century value of love in the words of Mrs. Bennet to her husband on the news that a gentleman of fortune has just relocated to Netherfield Park, a nearby estate.  The eccentric mother must marry off her daughters to wealthy men—and their money—and does everything in her power to complete this objective. What else could a scrupulous mother, with five unmarried daughters and no son, do—especially if her husband, upon his death, has entailed the estate to Mr. Collins, a cousin, and leave his daughters without home or money?

But let’s focus on the prejudices of Elizabeth Bennet in her relationship with an aristocrat Fitzwilliam Darcy, and we read a lot of the rituals of courtship of the English gentry. The stubborn and witty Lizzy thinks she has the arrogant and despicable Mr. Darcy's character in her whims, but does she really know all there is to know about him? Pre-conceived 'prides' and 'prejudices' is the stumbling block in the pair’s view of their different social classes. Lizzy rises above her mother's objections to the pomposity and loathing of her erstwhile antagonist, Mr Darcy, and finds true love. Appearances, looks and first impressions bring conflicts which, through a subtle satire, Austen makes Lizzy learn that ‘’a man can change his manners, and a woman her mind.’’

Interested in the balance between pragmatism, or the necessity of securing a marriage, and idealism, particularly Elizabeth's romanticism and individualism, Austen dramatizes her heroine's struggle to find a place within the conservative social institution of marriage. The precise nature of this balance is not necessarily clear, and despite what seems to be a happy marriage, it may not be entirely possible to reconcile Elizabeth's independence and naturalness with Mr. Darcy's conservatism and conventionality. Nevertheless, the novel seems to work toward an ideological balance and an alteration in the fundamental aspects of these characters that will lead to a reconciliation of the themes that they represent.

Through the novel, Austen harshly exposes hypocrisy in certain aspects of Regency society. She expertly uses various shades of satire through comical characters such as Mr Bennet and Lady Catherine, to examine the corruption of the marriage market, the pride and ineptitude of the ruling classes, and the mercenary of the clergy. Possibly two of the most celebrated satirised comical characters in English literature, Mr Collins and Mrs Bennet will always be remembered for exposing key negative aspects of the Regency Society.  In Pride and Prejudice, Austen satirises gender inequality to prove that marriages based on money only torture women who submit to this kind of union and may have to live in tormenting silence as Charlotte does.

She also denounces the marriage elements distasteful to her while still enjoying life in the middle of that society, with or without their faults. With her satiric eye and a ready wit, personified in Lizzy, she accepted the social order of her day, even when she could recognize its absurdities. Modern critics often see Lizzie as a pre-feminist heroine, a liberated woman ahead of her time. But she is not. She lives happily within the social constraints of Regency England, and she doesn't fight them. She doesn't burn her corset. She doesn't want a career. She accepts the unfair laws of entail that would rob her and her sisters of their father's estate, because it had to pass to a MALE relative. And she figures out how to have a happy, fulfilling life WITHIN those constraints, not by challenging them. Just like Jane Austen.
Is the work about matrimonial upheavals? The opening line may suggest so: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," and it’s not surprisingly obvious that Pride and Prejudice, along with most Austen novels, is consistently regarded as a marriage plot novel, a romance for female readers. However by categorizing it as such, the revolutionary literary aspects of Austen's writing are sometimes marginalized.

Pride and Prejudice are the major themes if the text's title is used as a basis for analysis, but could mislead, as Robert Fox cautioned against reading too much into the title since commercial factors may have played a role in its selection. "After the success of Sense and Sensibility, nothing would have seemed more natural than to bring out another novel of the same author using again the formula of antithesis and alliteration for the title. It should be pointed out that the qualities of the title are not exclusively assigned to one or the other of the protagonists; both Elizabeth and Darcy display pride and prejudice."

A major theme in most of Austen’s work is the importance of environment and upbringing on the development of young people's character and morality. Social standing and wealth are not necessarily advantages in her world, and a further theme common to Jane Austen's work is ineffectual parents. In Pride and Prejudice, the failure of Mr and Mrs Bennet (particularly the latter) as parents is blamed for Lydia's lack of moral judgment; Darcy, on the other hand, has been taught to be principled and scrupulously honourable, but is also proud and overbearing. Kitty, rescued from Lydia's bad influence and spending more time with her older sisters after they marry, is said to improve greatly in their superior society. 

Austen was one of the first writers to use free indirect discourse in her novels; her narration is often complicated by its expressing of the thoughts of her main characters. Sometimes in Pride and Prejudice it is difficult to tell whose views the reader is receiving: Elizabeth Bennett's or Jane Austen’s. Or are they one and the same? This method allows Austen to show ironic perspectives that are not necessarily to be attributed to her.

Austen's keen awareness of the world she lives in and its inhabitants is also remarkably clear in Pride and Prejudice. She mocks the pompous attitude of the upper class with Mr. Darcy's character, the life of clergymen with Mr. Collins', the idea of the dashing young officer with Mr. Wickham's, meddling mothers with Mrs. Bennett, along with other clear mimicking of different social characters.

With so many intricate lives and plot lines interwoven within this text, it is an easy novel to get completely engrossed in, and one that you will want to keep reading until you know the fate of each and every character. 

Pride and Prejudice should be read alongside other Austen’s great novels. Their movie adaptations would not be enough in themselves, or may even distort your view of the story and rob you of your reading satisfaction. Though there are some fairly accurate film adaptations, none can capture the essence of Austen's quick, clever lines that never cease to amaze and evoke the sense of having a familiar or similar human experience spread across the ages. Even when read in the next century, Pride and Prejudice would still be a work that not only captures the times and manners of a society in which it was written, but also human natures and personalities that are eternal. It is a truly a novel for everyone of every time and place. Austen, exhibiting great genius, makes you laugh, cry, question, and understand with her beautiful and complicated tale of 18th century courtship and daily life.


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