Thursday, July 9, 2015

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen
Trade Paperback, 325 pages
Wordsworth Editions
May 5, 1995
Classics, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Romance
Source: Purchased from The Book Depository

Book Synopsis:   Few readers have failed to be charmed by the witty and independent spirit of Elizabeth Bennet. Her early determination to dislike Mr Darcy - who is quite the most handsome and eligible bachelor in the whole of English literature - is a misjudgement only matched in folly by Darcy's arrogant pride. Their first impressions give way to truer feelings in a comedy profoundly concerned with happiness and how it might be achieved.

My Review

This novel is a standard part of every high school English Literature course, and that's when I first read it -- when I was a high school student.  Actually, I never quite finished it; at the time, I thought it was boring.  I now think my reaction was due to the fact that I had finished Jane Eyre shortly before I started Pride and Prejudice, and was comparing the two novels.  However, after a second, recent reading, I was feeling pretty much the same way I did when I read it the first time.  So I prepared to write a negative review, with much trepidation, since this novel is a beloved classic.  I wrote an entire, mostly negative review, but was not satisfied with it.   In fact, I had the gnawing doubt that I was somehow missing something.

I decided to go back and read the novel one more time. For some reason, this second re-reading experience was, surprisingly, a very refreshing one.  What seemed to me dull and tedious the first time, now sparkled with wit and ironic humor.   Austen is a very sharp observer of the foibles of human nature, and this is very apparent in the dialogues between the various characters.  Somehow, it didn't strike me that way during my first re-reading. 

I think the difference this time around was that I totally relegated Jane Eyre to the background, and read Pride and Prejudice on its own terms.  They are two very different novels, after all, with different aims, and written years apart from each other. 

Chapter One of Pride and Prejudice opens with one of the most well-known, and humorous, sentences in literary history: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."  The rest of the chapter introduces the reader to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, who reside at the Longbourn estate.  They are members of what is known as the landed gentry.  All of Austen's novels revolve around the lives of this British social class.

Mrs. Bennet is the epitome of the shallow, silly type of woman who thrives on gossip, and whose opinion of people, especially men, hinges on how rich they are.  Her life-long ambition is to see all of her five daughters married off to wealthy men, which will then raise her status in the society of the time. 
Mr. Bennet, meanwhile, has resigned himself to being married to such a frivolous woman, expressing his discontent through subtly sarcastic comments that his empty-minded wife always fails to understand.  My impression of his character is that he would prefer to be left alone as much as possible, spending most of his time in his library.  He is therefore not a very active husband or parent, preferring to observe from the sidelines, make some sharp, witty, comment, and go back to his books.

This opening chapter is indeed quite humorous, and the dialogues between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet display Austen's sharp wit in all its glory.

As we meet the rest of the family, we see more contrasts, especially between Jane and Elizabeth, the two oldest Bennet daughters.  Whereas Elizabeth shares her father's mordant wit and keen intelligence, Jane, although no less intelligent, is more predisposed to compassion and giving people the benefit of the doubt. 

The other three Bennet girls are more sketchily drawn, except for Lydia, who is shown to be as shallow as her mother, although it seems that she does have a well of passion that Austen obviously frowned upon, characterizing it as 'vulgar'.  Mary is a bookworm, so not much is said about her, while Kitty pretty much follows wherever Lydia will lead. 

As for the two main love interests, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, they are contrasted, as well.  Darcy is initially seen, through Elizabeth's eyes, as a rather proud and 'disagreeable' man, while she considers Bingley sweet-tempered and more 'amiable'.  Elizabeth greatly dislikes Darcy, who actually snubs her at a dance given at Netherfield, the beautiful mansion being rented by Bingley, where he resides with his two sisters, one of whom is married.  Darcy is also staying with them.  Jane and Bingley are immediately attracted to each other, and they are the secondary couple in the novel.

Since I remembered next to nothing about the plot, from my first incomplete reading of the novel, I was prepared to plunge in and be rewarded with a great romantic story, along with wit and humor.  Again, as I have said above, I found it dull and very disappointing during my second reading.  I was thus very pleasantly surprised by the change in my feelings the third time around!  Not that I would say this novel is my favorite classic (that honor belongs to Jane Eyre, of course!), but I certainly appreciated it more during my most recent re-reading.

Austen's main goal in this novel is to poke fun at the complicated social manners of the landed gentry of the time, and she succeeds admirably.  I would have wanted more descriptions of the countryside, towns, and houses, but realize that this would probably have interfered with her focus on dialogue.  Her intention is to display all the nuances of the society of the time, with all its silly, manipulative conventions, all its ridiculous posturing.  Therefore, although this is a light-hearted story, it is seriously and meticulously written, based as it is on keen observation.

Austen most especially shines in her funny portrayal of the clergyman, Mr. Collins, who, even at the age of twenty-five, displays all the pomposity and obsequiousness of churchmen twice his age.  He delights in long speeches that are full of hyperbole and adulation, and are excessively polite.  His specialty is to tell practically everyone he meets about his patron (or patroness, as she would have been called at the time) -- Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  To hear him describe her, she is the very epitome of kindness, good judgment, and benevolence.  The reality is very far from the truth, as becomes apparent in one of the novel's most dramatic scenes -- the spirited argument between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth Bennet.  Elizabeth stands up to her, refusing to be intimidated.  I really enjoyed this part of the novel immensely!

There are other memorable characters, such as the Gardiners (Mr. Gardiner is Mrs. Bennet's brother), who show themselves to be very loving and supportive to their nieces.  They obviously adore them, and are adored in return. 

As for Mr. Bingley's sisters, I don't like them at all.  Caroline, the unmarried sister, doesn't like Elizabeth, and her behavior clearly demonstrates this. There's a reason for this, but I don't want to spoil things for anyone who has not read the book. The other sister, Mrs. Hurst, goes along with Caroline, for the most part, just as Kitty does with Lydia.

George Wickham is at first presented as a very charming, well-mannered young man who joins the militia, and seems interested in Elizabeth, nearly as much as Darcy is. Later on, it becomes apparent that things are not always what they seem....

The reason I found this novel boring during my first and second readings is that Austen didn't write much of a plot.  The action is subtle, hinging on social interactions.  I wanted excitement, passion, wild romance.  None of that is to be found here.  This novel presents the machinations of the society of the time, the very cool, civilized interchange of people who know very well that their reputations in society are linked to their skillful ability to navigate the sometimes rough waters of social interactions.  Wit and sarcasm, as well as crystal-clear intellectual acuity, abound.

In spite of the fact that my temperament thrives on reading romance novels abundant in passion and high drama, I was, during the third reading, able to appreciate Austen's cooler approach to romantic fiction.  Her goals, after all, are satire and humor. Besides, it seems that hers was indeed a rather cool temperament.

She definitely disapproved of Lydia's actions in the latter part of the novel, apparently not understanding the lengths that people in love are willing to go to.  After all, she never married herself, and  is known to have received only one proposal of marriage during her life.  She did, however, caution her niece, Fanny Knight, not to marry someone unless she really loved him. 

In short, while definitely not my favorite classic, I have been able to enjoy Pride and Prejudice as a brilliant satire on the social customs of the time.  While the relationships of Darcy and Elizabeth, Bingley and Jane, are by no means handled quite to my satisfaction, I can truly say that this novel gives the reader an enjoyable reading experience.  However, I wouldn't recommend reading it  to a teenager; it can best be enjoyed at a later time, when life has provided plenty of examples of the types of games played by people in different settings, such as the office, parties, and, of course, at the beginning and during the course of romantic relationships. 

Jane Austen


Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary as always Maria.

I first read this within the past year. It is indeed a great book.

I am glad that you brought up Jane Eyre because mentally, I have been comparing authors like Charlotte Bronte with authors like Austen. It seems that writers like Bronte, Fyodor Dostoevsky or Herman Melville try to tell monumental stories about the nature of the Universe and life itself. Their books are filled with monumental characters that match the nature of their tales.

Writers like Austen and Anthony Trollope seem to find wisdom is everyday occurrences and people. They often do so in a humorous and laid back way. I think that they do so brilliantly as they seem to illustrate a lot of important truths.

There was a time when I only really liked the former type of writer, those who were full of big ideas. In the last few years I have come to appreciate the later type a lot more. When they get it right, as Austen and Trollope do, the result is just as impressive as books written by the "Big Thinkers".

I actually was never assigned this one in high school. Is this popular on curriculums? I also think that I really would not have liked Austen at all when I was younger , partially for the above reasons.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Thanks for the compliment!! : )

What you say about these two types of authors is very interesting! I actually hadn't thought of it that way. Well,I definitely prefer the first type of author. As a matter of fact, Dostoyevsky is one of my favorite writers, even though I've only read "Crime and Punishment". As for Melville, I only read one of his minor novels, "Billy Budd", in high school, and found it very depressing..... I refuse to read "Moby Dick" because I hate whale hunting. From what I've read of the plot,Captain Ahab has a HUGE ego, too. I have always despised the hunting of animals for the purpose of displaying trophies. That's one beef I have with Hemingway. I'm not sure what kind of trophy a whale would make, but I think Ahab was obsessed with Moby Dick because he wanted to 'prove' he could 'win' the battle between him and the whale. At least, this is what I remember reading in the Wikipedia article. UGH, UGH, UGH!!

I agree that authors such as Austen and Trollope, as the second type of writer that finds literary gold in the trivial everyday occurrences in the world, can also be great masters. However, they still won't appeal to me as much as the first type of writer.

You know, I do suspect there are perhaps a handful of writers who manage to do both types of writing. For instance, Hermann Hesse, in my opinion, wrote some novels of the first type, such as "Narcissus and Goldmund" (which I love), and "Steppenwolf" (which I hate). I consider "Magister Ludi" (a/k/a "The Glass Bead Game") to be a novel of the second type, as there's not much of a plot. This novel moves along at a very placid pace. All the 'action' takes place in the mind. I still love it, though!

Maybe I should change the first sentence of the review. I was under the impression that all high schools assigned "Pride and Prejudice" in their Literature classes.

And yes, you probably would have had the same reaction to this novel that I did, had you read it in high school. Back then, I found it unutterably boring.... Happily, however, my opinion has changed since then, although, as I stated in the review itself, Austen's novel will never be a favorite, as Bronte's novel is!

Thanks for giving me some food for thought!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

The whale hunting in in Moby Dick is disturbing to me also. Not to give too much away but at least in that book the whale gets the last laugh so to speak :)

Ahab is indeed an unlikable character. He actually is not the main protagonist in the book and I do not think that he was meant to be sympathetic.

There are indeed authors that transcend the categories that I alluded. Hermann Hesse is a great example of one. He really was in class by himself! "Magister Ludi" really was an extraordinary book in particular. It seems so different from anything else I ever read.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Oh, so the whale gets the last laugh in "Moby Dick"? I like that!

I thought Ahab was indeed the main character. I'll have to go check out the Wikipedia article to find out more about the plot.

You're SO right about Hesse! He really was in a class by himself. "Magister Ludi" is an awesome book! It won him the Nobel Peace Prize. If only he hadn't written "Steppenwolf".... that book totally offended me. Honest.

Thanks for commenting again!