Problems in Pride and Prejudice

Before I begin, I would like to clarify that I enjoy Jane Austen. By no means would I profess myself as a Janeite but I do take pleasure in her work, within which I find a plethora of issues and sentiments. With that said, my post today will be a negative critique of the novel. (Melissa wrote about the ubiquitous enthusiasm that continues to surround the novel, so I thought I would just take it the other way.)

Two weeks ago in Dr. Amy King’s class, we were asked to submit our papers, where the assignment was to write about a modern work inspired by Jane Austen’s novels and discuss why there seems to be a sudden surge in her popularity. Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 but by 2011, we have endless filmic and television adaptations, parodies, comic strips, graphic novels, sequels, and other offshoots. Clearly, Austen’s popularity cannot be denied. Pride and Prejudice seemingly packages themes of romance, feminism, picturesque beauty, and economic practicality, all told in an elegant, ironic, and witty way. It’s for the masses and any one of these themes can resonate to a sizeable crowd. But besides economic practicality, are any of these themes really dominant in Austen’s novel?


Undoubtedly there is some sense of romance in the novel; after all, it is a marriage plot between two characters that are perfect for each other, even with their flaws. There is looking, blushing, and even proposals. But if there is any passion, it is either angry or subdued. The possible romantic scenes are quickly brushed over and are rather subtle. It seems to really be a novel about finding financial security and the union of two compatible strong-minded people in that quest. Elizabeth Bennett’s love for Mr. Darcy actually culminates in the scene when she sees his estate. Some of the lines in the scene are, ‘Her spirits were in a high flutter’, ‘Elizabeth was delighted’, and most important, ‘At that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!’. Of course after seeing his vast and beautiful property, all of Mr. Darcy’s good qualities come to light. Earlier, she had rejected him because of his pride and her prejudice, but now that she’s seen Pemberley, we find out what a kind master Mr. Darcy is from the servants, the misunderstanding between the villainous Wickham and Mr. Darcy has been cleared conveniently just a few chapters before, and Mr. Darcy becomes the gallant hero by uniting his friend with Elizabeth’s sister and saving her other sister, Lydia. The path is clear to become mistress of Pemberley! Additionally, we get little sense of the happenings between the couple when Elizabeth does give her hand to Mr. Darcy in the end. Jane Austen basically narrates for us unlike the angry rejection, which we had dialogue for dialogue. We got the confusion, the indignation, the fury before, but when we’re looking for the real romantic scene, it falls flat. If there is sensuality in the characters, there is little in the book itself, but rather in the Colin Firths and the Kiera Knightleys we are privy to in modern screen adaptations.  

Charlotte Bronte reaffirms this lack of romance in a letter, saying about Austen, ‘she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her’. The deficiency of romance in what appears to be a romantic novel seems deceiving to Bronte and she harshly criticizes Austen that she is a fluffy writer who is not capable of depicting proper description or emotion. This sentiment is continued in another letter when Bronte is describing her particular reading of Pride and Prejudice’s account of the scenery. While the reader is expected to be awed by the sights of Pemberley, and possibly even Netherfield, Bronte described it as, ‘An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.’ For her, the straitlaced portrayal does nothing, and she would rather be surrounded by wild descriptions of open fields. While negatively appraising the landscape, Bronte also added in her critique of the stodgy characters who acted in the way of the norm rather than doing something madly exceptional. The way the characters are described, they are run of the mill puppets with nothing memorable them.

In Mary Favret’s article, ‘Free and Happy: Jane Austen in America’, she discusses authors who found Austen’s work stale and why so. Ralph Waldo Emerson stated suicide would be a better option than reading her work, adding her work was ‘Imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society. Her main subject is marriageableness’. Austen’s work was rather confined, especially in her descriptions of English estates and class systems. There is stuffiness, snobbery, a desire to find some sort of pecuniary collateral through marriage. Does this promote feminism? While possibly progressive in thought, does Elizabeth Bennett endorse feelings of feminism as she marries Mr. Darcy? Mark Twain, echoed his revulsion for the social convention by saying that after reading Pride and Prejudice, he felt like ‘a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven’. Favret comments on his criticism, saying Twain disliked the severe class distinction and the unrelenting propriety of the hero and heroine. There was no adventure, no finding of the individual identity, but rather finding ways to stick to the standard set. It did not evoke a sense for change and instead was steeped in the same culture of the centuries before. It was simply unsatisfying.

How satisfying Pride and Prejudice is naturally up to the reader. Undoubtedly, there is a large community of Austen lovers. However, apart from students forced to read the book in high school, how many people (in the academic community and those who voluntarily read the book on their own) dislike it and why? Bringing in Bayard, are some of us forced to say we like it simply because of the ‘classic’ tag the work holds and it would be embarrassing to say otherwise? Looking forward to our discussion of the novel in Dr. Mentz’s class this week.

(On this laptop, I only have Microsoft Starter at the moment, which won’t allow footnotes so I will just post the works cited below. Apologies.)

Works Cited
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. James Kinsley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
“Charlotte Brontë on Jane Austen.” Classical Bookworm. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. .
Favret, Mary A. “Free and Happy: Jane Austen in America.” Ed. Deidre Lynch. Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2000. 166-87. Print.
About Steve Mentz 650 Articles
I teach Shakespeare and early modern literature at St. John's in New York City.

6 Comments

  1. Romance (and its cognate Romantic) is perhaps one of the most complicated words in literary history, about which we might have more to say in class tonight. But it’s also very helpful to see the Bronte v Austen smackdown come to light; these two novelists write very different kinds of books, with different artistic objectives and methods. In fact, this sort of literary rivalry is fairly common in literary history; a short list from classical to modern might include Ovid v Virgil, Chaucer v Gower, Shakespeare v Ben Jonson (or Christopher Marlowe), Richardson v Fielding, Wordsworth v Byron, Eliot v Stevens, Dickinson v Whitman, etc. We literary critics can use these conflicts to help us make more and better sense of literary history.

  2. I cannot argue that i do not at times prefer the stuffiness of the Victorian novel, with its subtle romances. I read Dickens and Eliot regularly and though their romances are none the sexier, I think the fact that more happens in their novels, aside from these choreographed romances, is what makes their texts a bit more readable than some of Austen’s.

  3. One of the most common mistakes we make in our approach to literature such as Austen’s, is we take from the opinions of scholars and critics while never fully reading the work for its own merit. On the other hand we sometimes do not allow enough room for the critical examinations and studies of others on a particular work to enlighten and further expand upon our own opinion.
    I can relate to Emerson and Twain’s opinion because I am all for upsetting the status quo, or for not flying in the face of popular opinion. Yes, there is indeed an absence of finding one’s self outside the standard set. Yet even so, there is characteristics of each character that refuse to conform to the social norms. Elizabeth’s pretension towards Miss Bingley and that type of aristocracy. She maintains her beliefs in their company rather than acclimating and joining with them in their snobbery.
    Conventionally, Austen is rather dull. There are happy endings, they abound towards the end of every one of her books. Rather than writing off her work completely, I see the merit she will have alongside Bronte to someone like my future daughter.

  4. WOW! I really enjoyed both posts but I must admit I’m leaning towards Neelam’s. I have my own issues with Pride and Prejudice and unlike Bayard I will not flow with the masses and love the book simply for its literary pedigree. The institution of marriage is not so much presented as the culmination of love but rather as a chore or a requirement that every self respecting woman must ‘endure’ whether she wants to or not. Some argue that this is one of the greatest love stories; however a story of coming to age and reason while finding oneself could also be argued as a theme. True there is passion but the passion comes not from love and lust but rather from trying to prove one is worthy (of that love). With almost all of the characters there is a constant struggle in this regard as well as social standing. The Bennet sisters are not good enough for most of the eligible men, certainly not good enough for Darcy and Bingley, everyone is too good for Collins, and anyone will do for Wickham. Austen’s portrayal of the classes is in itself somewhat self serving for as much as she prides herself on her disdain for social injustice, she rarely if ever mentions the lower and more subservient classes. She however does not lack in characterization of the snobbishness and obnoxiousness of the wealthy as is evident throughout the novel.
    Her double standard with marrying for money is also very evident. Her treatment of Charlotte’s wanting to marry Collins for ‘settlement and peace of mind’ is contrasted with her acceptance (or perhaps tolerance) of Wickham’s desire to marry for money and class. Both she and Darcy certainly have issues with class and monetary position which impede their imminent romance. Pride and prejudice certainly takes its toll on both of the protagonists and certainly one is not unique to the other. And although their love transcends both their pride and prejudices it is not without cost to themselves, their families, and their friends.
    I’m not a huge fan of Austen but perhaps it is because it frustrates me that such a strong and prolific female writer was still not strong enough to truly overcome the literary barriers of her time.

  5. Interesting. In general I think Austen is much more radical, more satirical, and less conventional than these posts suggest. Neither pride nor prejudice gets “transcended,” though education does happen, in fits and starts.

  6. I suppose I have a differing perspective than the aforementioned posts so far. Neelam, you ask: besides economic practicality, are any of these themes really dominant in Austen’s novel?

    YES! I believe a dominant theme is love <3
    After all, if it were truly about economic stability, Liz (the most sensible and intelligent Bennet sister) would have accepted Mr. Collins’s or Mr. Darcy’s (first) marriage proposal. I really was convinced that her marriage to Darcy was about love. I wanted to cite a passage that we looked at in our Jane Austen class, about the tradeoffs they receive in the marriage:

    “She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man, who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was a union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and her liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance” (387).

    It seems that Liz’s “ease and liveliness” will soften Darcy’s temper, and he in return will share his knowledge with her. It is a suitable union because they will benefit EACH OTHER.
    I was also really grateful for the Amy King article, we’ve had to read this week, because Professor King illustrates how passion, love, and lust are present in this novel. For example she discusses Darcy’s sexual gaze, when Liz arrives at Netherfield Park, and the sexually charged walk at Pemberley.

    Professor King also writes about “marital happiness”, “based on physical attraction,” which the courtship highlights (112). As King states, Darcy is described as a “man violently in love, with heartfelt delight diffused over his face” (366). I am convinced this is a union of true love. Furthermore, King writes, “Elizabeth’s delight with Pemberley and by implication delight with Darcy, (which) stands for the explicit articulation of love and attraction that Austen always withholds from her readers in the climactic scene” (112).
    Thus, while I can understand why these subtleties get overlooked, I am convinced that Jane Austen is more radical than she appears.

    P.S. Kathleen: You wrote that you felt Liz and Darcy’s marriage is at a cost to themselves, their families and their friends. I thought you might be interested in reading “Pride and Prejudice and the Pursuit of Happiness,” where Claudia L. Johnson states, “there is no sacrifice or conflict between survival, and self- respect, love and friendship” (92). I was convinced, by her argument, but that’s because I do love this novel (not because of its canonical nature or filmic versions).

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