Last year, to honor Pride and Prejudice on its anniversary, we shared the most witty and audacious zingers from a novel that is arguably literature’s greatest single repository of clever sallies, ripostes and quips. It’s important to remember the sharpness of Austen’s humor in an age of screen adaptations which, just by their visual and narrative nature, tend to highlight the romance and setting of her tomes.
But the popularity of Pride and Prejudice, published on this day in 1813, isn’t just thanks to the fact that it’s hilarious and features a central love story that evolves from improbable to inevitable; readers also love its depth and sagacity. Austen shows a level of human understanding, particularly in regards to the two follies of the book’s title, that many of us today still lack — including the many readers who misunderstand her books and think they’re simplistic or romantic rather than acute social commentary.
What Austen demonstrates that she understands particularly well throughout Pride and Prejudice is how our own vanity influences our choices and perceptions in regards others — or, as Elizabeth eventually says, “I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.” Her two main characters are both human beings whose fragile egos are deeply tied in to their tastes and perceptions. The more they untangle themselves from their pride and vanity, the less they are inclined to be prejudiced towards each other. In Austen’s novels, understanding one’s own shortcomings is always the prelude to the reward of a good and satisfying marriage.
She is particularly astute about the effect of family dynamics on people’s propensity to love. On the matter of unhappy marriage that serves as a model, for Elizabeth, of what not to do — the marriage of her parents — Austen sounds positively modern. Here is the concise history of a family, and its effect on its children’s psyches:
Had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had, very early in their marriage, put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. But Mr. Bennet was not of a disposition to seek comfort, for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments….
Basically, he completely withdraws from his family responsibilities and spends all his time being ironic in the library. But this has an effect on his daughters:
Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible. But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.
Austen shows how parental neglect sets up offspring for failure. Even self-aware Lizzy almost falls for Wickham and rejects Darcy because, like her father before her, beauty and charm and most of all flattery tempt her more than finding a real partner and sober match. Eventually, she realizes her mistake and admits that she truly comprehends herself for the first time because of it:
“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our aquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”
Just as she never knew herself, neither did he. For Mr. Darcy also speaks of parental indulgence as the source of his initial condescending and rude attitude, which led Lizzy to reject his first proposal with such blazing intensity. When he proposes for the second time, he explains his own flaws and how loving Elizabeth led him to reconsider his own place in the world:
Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”
Mr. Darcy is an incredible character — arguably stronger morally than anyone else in the novel — for this reason. He takes a verbal beating at Elizabeth’s hands and, after stewing for a bit, realizes she is right and tries to change his behavior. This, of course, is why he’s a fantasy object for women readers, but it also, again, shows how others’ perception of us can influence how we see ourselves. Everyone flatters Mr. Darcy; as a result, the one person who calls him out ends up attracting him most.
This is a beautiful, concise series of psychological observations that perfectly capture Austen’s ability to show us that her characters must make leaps forward as human beings before they fall in love. For Austen, understanding oneself is the key to finding lasting happiness with someone else. But she always leaves room for jesting misanthropy, as in this final quote from Lizzy that is one of my favorites:
There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.
Self-knowledge and true love aside, is there anything more profound during an election season than that?