An epidemic is an affliction, often understood as a “disease”, which spreads geographically, killing or maiming any number of people in its wake. The Black Death of the Middle Ages reduced the population of Europe by a tenth. Smallpox decimated British troops during the American Revolution. It does not matter whether the vector of spread is regarded as a swampy miasma or microbes. The point is that something is spreading the harmful disorder. The Black Plague moved from Southern Italy through Italy and France to England, and so people looked for and continue to look for a way to stop its spread, just as when they build firebreaks to keep forest fires from jumping from one place to another. Dennis Defoe records in his “A Journal of the Plague Year” how people were not allowed to leave houses that were quarantined because an infected individual was in there. The residents could only put out their dead bodies for disposal upon the arrival of wagons designated for that purpose.Read More
George Bernard Shaw in his still very witty and relevant play of 1914, “Pygmalion”, has Eliza Doolittle’s father describe himself, very eloquently, as one of “the undeserving poor”. They also have their needs even if they don’t want to work hard and prefer a life of women and drink. That is a comeuppance to the bourgeois morality of Shaw’s audience who might find room in their hearts for the deserving poor, who are people who work hard to improve their condition, accept standard middle class moral values, but for reasons not their fault cannot make a go of it. We still feel more compassionate for those burdened by life than we do for people who accept their poverty as a way of life. We want to raise the poverty class into being a working class whether they like the idea or not.
I would suggest that the distinction between the deserving and undeserving is even more important in our own time as a distinction to be made about the rich. There are the undeserving rich who, like Jeffrey Epstein, squander their money on sex and estates, while the deserving rich spend their honorably gained fortunes on philanthropy. Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and the Koch brothers qualify for this latter category. They buy honor from their peers and the public and perhaps justification for themselves through their money, their wealth being something they might otherwise have to live down. The rich sometimes feel guilty for being so much better off than other people, however cheap they may also be, sometimes bringing their lunches to the office in a brown paper bag because what they care about, as the Protestant Ethic thesis would suggest, is the making of it rather than the spending of it. The rich also have consciences and so, again following the Weber Thesis, they want to prove themselves spiritually worthy.Read More
Roland Fryer is a MacArthur Grant winning behavioral economist at Harvard University where, at the age of thirty, he was the youngest person ever awarded tenure, though he is now temporarily in eclipse because of sexual harassment charges. Fryer takes on as his major field of inquiry a major policy issue that has plagued social science ever since Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954: why is it that the achievement scores of African American students continue to lag significantly far behind the achievement scores of white students and that nothing much seems to be able to close the difference? Various theories have been offered. These include the idea that African American students are anti-intellectual, or that there are no books in their households, or that African American students need teachers of their own race to motivate them and act as role models, or that the conditions of poverty make it difficult for African American students to focus on schoolwork or that the socio-economic status of a family overdetermines the likelihood of academic success, people of lower SES always getting lower scores than the children of a higher SES. Fryer pursues this issue possibly because he was a poor Black kid who somehow made it and wants to open the gates for others. He uses some very sophisticated statistical analysis to make his cases in his studies of the matter but, I am sorry to say, is somewhat rickety in his reasoning. His studies are very valuable, however, because they open a window onto the present state of social scientific thinking on this matter.Read More
People come into life as if into the midst of a movie, trying to catch up with what has gone before as the story continues to follow its course, except that people in their real lives, or so I claim, are so taken up with the decade or two when they entered the scene, and maybe even a little bit with the times before that, that those are the times that continue to transfix and inspire them, that being when they got their bearings and those being what their bearings continue to be, while in movies we forget that we learned the beginning only through inference and cared about when we came in not at all but just want to get on with the story now that one knows what is going on. Let’s go over present, past and future of the moment you came into your own story in more detail.Read More
A long time ago, Marxist social theorists thought that advertising was the new opiate of the masses, up there along with religion and drugs. In making people think they were happy in a society in which they were exploited or at least not dealt with fairly, the rich able to continue in their money grubbing ways by lulling most people into a sense that they were both in control of their lives and also satisfied with those lives. Automobiles let people think they were free because you could get into your Chevrolet and tour the American countryside, going where you wanted when you wanted, when, in fact, people were tied down to their boring and unsatisfying manufacturing and white collar jobs, prisoners of the wage/salary system. People could improve their love life if they wore the right lipstick and deodorant, and that would make up for the unpleasantness of work life, sex another opiate of the masses. Cigarettes would relax them and appliances and dishwasher detergent would make the life of the harried housewife so much easier that she had time to indulge her fantasies of romance. There was nothing that advertising couldn’t fix.Read More
Both life and literature are usually understood in terms of drama. People make choices which alter them and their circumstances and it is problematic what will come next. That is especially true of courtship, where people know that life with this person will be different and somehow unexpected, and so our romances, which means potential marriages, makes each of us a hero or heroine within our own lives, and that is even true of arranged marriages, where at least the woman is going to live with a new family and put up with a man whom she may barely know. It is also true of the years one spends in college, transforming oneself into a different person, each person the hero of his or her own bildungsroman. So everyone is either young Werther, or the young artist portrayed by James Joyce. Prince Hal became a different person when he became Henry V and Hamlet became a different person we find out only when he returned from college to a home he found passing strange. This dramatic texture of life continues throughout the life cycle, though often, in its later stages, because of changes not of one’s choosing: the death of a spouse leading a person to alter their sense of their place in the world as well as possibly their living arrangements. Even retirement can lead to life alterations if for no other reason than that a person has to find out what they want to do with their time, which is a matter of choices not previously thought possible. Are their hobbies to be expanded into new vocations? Is it time for something different: a bucket list rather than an intensification of an already established side of one’s personality?Read More
I have come to understand that Carol Gilligan, whom I thought would be a passing fad when she first published, has come to be treated as a serious psychological theorist, taught along with Freud and Erikson, all of these psychological theorists treated as purveyors of what are, after all, just their own opinions about the driving forces in human psychological life. Well, that is not what theory is about, and any sensible theory of theory would not find room within it for Gilligan.Read More
I don't know how many people any longer read "The New York Review of Books" now that the publisher fired the editor, Ian Buruma, some months ago, because he published an article by some Italian who had been accused of sexual harassment but never convicted, apparently because of the pressure of the university publishing houses that supply the magazine with most of its advertising. The magazine never explained in its own pages what it had done even though there are now two people listed as editors. I know people who still carry around the latest issue and apologize for still reading it. But it really is a good publication because it does long essay reviews by prominent scholars who will give you a summary of a field of learning, whether it is Turkish history or Renaissance art or new insights in metaphysics, into which is tucked some remarks about new books in a field, usually also written by well established scholars.Read More
Academics lament what is happening in universities and colleges. Promising young scholars cannot secure permanent, tenure bearing, lines so that they can move up the ladder and devote themselves to what brought them into the profession, which was to pursue the advancement of knowledge or, at the least, the preservation of cultural interest in the authors and genres which they care about. There may not be a need for a new biography of Napoleon, but it is a good idea to remind people of every new generation of what he was and how he altered the world for good and bad and that his times were thrilling. The same is true of Montaigne and Dickens. I have known scholars who devoted their careers to reading and rereading a particular author and publishing their reflections on the author. We all need those reference points so that we can think of ourselves as cultured, though there are those who think we need less culture and more STEM (which means “science, technology, engineering and medicine”) because those are the things that profit the world while books are the kinds of things you can buy after you have made money doing something useful. Never mind that literature and history help you understand politics and the human soul: from Jane Austen, how people flirt, and from Jane Austen and others, how people contemplate their economic circumstances. The view of STEM advocates is that the soul does not need to be cultivated, even though that is what “culture” means. But there is another explanation, a structural one rather than a cultural one, that can show why part timers and short contract assistant professors have for a generation or two now been replacing full time professors in the humanities, the part timers making their livings by covering a few sections at one college with a few sections at another and so carrying heavier class loads and making less total money than someone on a tenure track, and short contract people moving from one campus to another until they find some sort of full time employment, possibly outside of academia.Read More
Work allegiance is a concept that refers to the engagement of employees and employers in the activities they carry out while on the job so that they can go on with these activities. That is aside from the motivation to do the job that is created by its remuneration, which is the reason most people go to their jobs whether they like them or not. Work allegiance has to do with the features of the job that are satisfactory or pleasing and so lead people to be able to get through the day, however much they also count the minutes until they can line up in front of the time clock and punch out for the day. Even slaves need some measure of work allegiance so that they can work through the day and go home to their families rather than just sit down in the fields and die. Work allegiance is the concept that looks at work in the exact opposite way than does the concept of work alienation, which was so much in favor among a previous generation of sociologists,who were concerned with how workers were disengaged from their work, just measuring out the time they had to operate as if they were machines while enduring their task of servicing machines. That was the kind of work that dominated the industrial age.Read More
A profession provides expert knowledge and judgment in dealing with matters functionally important for the maintenance of society, the profession allowed by law to largely regulate itself in exchange for a probity that requires professionals to treat their customers as clients, which means professions are there to serve the best interests of those who seek their services rather than just make as much money as possible when they peddle their products and services, which is the case with non-professional enterprises. Doctors are supposed to only prescribe to you the drugs you need. According to this definition of profession, which was provided by Talcott Parsons, doctors, lawyers, professors and baseball players are all professionals rather than only workers plying a trade.
Moreover, and as a consequence, professionals are involved very deeply in the culture of their profession and regard themselves as engaging in a high calling and are also very passionate about their work. They are invested in the way of life of their professional communities, a medical student, for example, not leaving his hospital for months on end, and dating only nurses because the two lines of work share the sophistication of the health professions about how much suffering there is in human life, that patients can die, and that it may be necessary to make instantaneous decisions about medical interventions with possibly tragic consequences to follow. So a professional is suffused with the matter of his occupation, while ordinary occupations allow people to care primarily about other things, like family or culture. We do not expect butchers to have a love affair with meat even if they have a finer sense of the textures of various kinds of meat than do the rest of us, and even though, in my experience, many of those who own and operate hardware stores are infused with a great deal of knowledge about the stock they carry, from what size nail to use to what are the various kinds of tools you can use to remove paint, and so hardware people earn the title of “professional”, at least as a courtesy. Moreover, professionalism isn’t all about the money, either, even if doctors and lawyers do make out better than most butchers and hardware shop owners. A poet is also a professional, part of a community of poets, going over a phrase in the head time and time again to get it right, and earning some begrudging praise for that dedication to his calling however silly a cause it might seem to be.
There are also a set of occupations that can be called dishonorable because they earn the disdain of the general population however much they are professions in all other ways, including in that they perform functions that are essential to society. There are a number of currently admired professions, including the police and the military, that were generally regarded as dishonorable before the Nineteenth Century except for those who had risen to the higher ranks, because they drew their members from the more unsettled parts of the society. Sailors were unmarried and had girls in every port. Police were drawn from the social classes they were supposed to supervise. The establishment of orderly and professionally educated police and military helped give those professions prestige, as the growing scientific basis and professional education for doctors and lawyers in the Nineteenth Century also turned what might or might not be a useful employee into someone respected with an awe that had in previous generations been reserved for generals and high clergymen.
There is a different explanation, however, for why some professions remained and remain largely dishonorable even if the practitioners of them are wealthy and honored and famous. It has to do with the nature of the activity the profession performs rather than the social classes from which the professionals are drawn. Military people engage in killing people wholesale and that was once discrediting because once a killer always a killer, the coarseness of the calling compensated for by the fact that veterans of a largely civilian army go through a period of rehabilitation and are honored for having suffered PTSS. So professionalism compensates for the inherently gruesome nature of the tasks that a soldier undertakes. There is a lot of pomp and circumstance available to make military men think well of their calling and to supply emotional support for them when some of their number are lost in battle. These people are to be honored because they died for their country, however grueling and gruesome was the work they did on their way to death.
The same thing is true with actors and actresses, whose wealth and fame and claims to a bourgeois lifestyle does its best to make up for the fact that the kernel of an actor’s job is to feign emotions, which is a very transgressive thing to do and so makes actors a version of that equally old profession, prostitution, where practitioners feign sexual emotions, or indeed have desensitized sexual feelings, in order to provide commercially available services. Both professions engage in a dishonorable activity, the actor and actress earning the dishonorable repute in which their occupation had for long been held because they feign an even broader range of emotions in an even more public way. So there is more to the sense that actors and actresses are prostitutes aside from the fact that they were once drawn from the same set of people. The craft of an actor or actress is not only to feign emotions but, according to one theory, the Stanislavski Method, actors use the feigning of emotions as an excuse and reason to conjure up and display emotions from their personal lives that would normally be a source of embarrassment if they were displayed to strangers. In an exact sense, play actors prostitute their emotions for cash and notoriety. It is a professional calling in the sense that play actors, for whatever reason, have a need to display themselves, whether this display earns derision or praise, as well as because they are members of a community devoted to doing so, and also because playacting has been considered a vital role in society for more than two thousand years.
The "bourgeois" sense of propriety about the display of private feelings is violated for the entertainment of strangers, and a craft is made of simulating feeling, as if the ways we appear to be honorable or sincere or loving were mechanisms to be mastered, rather than unalienable parts of ourselves. Play actors are therefore simultaneously off putting and liberating, sacrificing themselves to provide a momentary mental liberation for the audience. This is costly to the play actor, who faces the professional hazard of the profligate use of acting skills in his or her own personal life. Emotions are schooled and so untrustworthy, the person becoming theatrical offstage as well as on. The play actor is therefore dishonorable, even if he claims to be able to feign emotions only on the stage, without it affecting the rest of his life. A likely story. Moreover, evidence to support this suspicion that feigning emotion is a rejection of bourgeois life comes from the supposed fact that on-screen or on-stage loves become "real" passions. When does the feigning begin, and when does it end? Imitating immoral or licentious behavior gives not only expertise in feigning, which might be generalizable, but a kind of experience of licentious behavior that is not too far from the real thing and is difficult to segregate from it. Play acting therefore presents an illusion of the liberation of licentious behavior, but also the illusion of being licentious in an only illusory way.
Bourgeois play actors defend the honor of their craft, whether for themselves or to win the affections of their audience, by both feigning and living otherwise bourgeois lives, though this is often stretched to mean that nude scenes made with a minimum crew or only as part of the job do not therefore violate rules of modesty. The point is the play actors are always violating rules of modesty, of which sexual modesty is a small but significant part, because they show both respectable and unrespectable motives -- like greed or jealousy-- which are not regarded as fit emotions for public display.
Dickens, like Shakespeare before him, is acutely conscious of the way the theatre violates proprieties by its very existence --not by its message, or by its conveyance of illusions, but by what it does to its actors and directors. Dickens associates the theatre with the circus. The travelling company in “Nicholas Nickleby” is like the travelling circus in “Hard Times”. Each is a band of wandering players, anachronistic to the commercial world, filled with peasant vices and virtues but more self-conscious about them, and so engaged in the pretense of being as noble as the nobility they mimic. They are melodramatic not because life is not melodramatic but because the melodrama of ordinary, non theatrical life arises from the circumstances of life and from the florid personalities that are the makeup of every person, while play-actors have a go at it, embellishing on melodrama when it needs no embellishing and so falsifying their own presentation of life by giving it an illusory grandeur.
And so it is sensible to think that actors and actresses are not to be trusted, so good are they at feigning feelings they do not have. They can manipulate lay people into thinking they love them or that they are to be trusted or that they are reflective people. As one actress once told me, “I am not beautiful, but I know how to act as if I am.” Most ordinary people are more given to hemming and hawing, not knowing if they expressing correctly what they want to say about themselves, or are more abrupt in their physical advances than they would be if they were schooled in how to appear to be loving. So ordinary people communicate themselves clumsily, and so can be relied upon to be authentic, to show the seams of their performances, while actors and actresses are inauthentic because, as Bert Lahr put it, “Once you learn to fake authenticity, you have it made.”
Erving Goffman claimed that everybody puts on performances so as to seem competent in the way they go about their lives. But few of us are as adroit as actors and actresses in seeming competent whether we are or not in any number of aspects of life. Teachers may have mastered their patter well enough so that they are articulate in front of groups of people other than their students, but that does not mean they can feign personal emotions or know how to be what they think a good patient would be like in front of their doctor, but actors and actresses have very generalizable skills at feigning, and that is why people are either taken in by them or don’t trust them. It isn’t easy for an actor or actress to overcome the innate dishonor of their profession, however famous the person may become.
Trust is confidence that a person will reciprocate in a favorable way to an overture on your part. The person will return a phone call, listen to your pain, bail you out with money when called upon to do so. Trust is what makes the social world go round. But to be clear: trust is not an expectation in that you can command it or presume it. Rather, trust is built up over time. If you are constantly late for appointments, a friend will not rely on you to be on time and so make plans accordingly, maybe to meet in a restaurant where he can catch a cup of coffee while waiting for your arrival rather than on a street corner and so left adrift in the middle of winter. The friend knows he is indulging you for your lateness. Only when you show up regularly on time will the friend trust you to do so and take it as a surprise rather than an offense when you are late, being late an offense in that you have not given the appointment sufficient attention or priority to plan ahead to be on time. Maybe the person who is regularly late is someone who over schedules, but all that means is that he or she is in a position to stiff people or that he or she is egotistical enough to think that other people have time on their hands. Trust, then, is akin to capital. It can be built up or squandered, and a person can hoard it or try to dispense with it, but your trust account is always measurable, by friends and intimates, and, through your reputation, by anyone else, just as if you had a trust score calculated by an agency to go along with your credit score.Read More
Here are three perennial political issues. They keep turning up when pundits can’t think of a topic for a new column and so revive old controversies in the hope of getting some mileage out of them. So here we go again.
There is some talk lately of doing away with the Electoral College because of what is taken to be its inherent inferiority to a straight out popular vote plurality as the basis for choosing a President. And, indeed, the Electoral College does not serve the purpose it was originally designed for, which was to have the President chosen by a body of wise men rather than the population as a whole so that the fractious and unenlightened spirits of the mass of the population could be held in check. It hasn’t worked that way since the election of 1824 when the lack of a majority for any candidate in the Electoral College sent the election into the House of Representatives, where the establishment forces were able to prevail and so allow John Quincy Adams to become President in preference to Andrew Jackson, the uncouth Westerner, though Jackson took the Electoral College the next time around and became what had been expected: a racist who disrupted the banking system however much he was loyal to the idea of the nation remaining united despite the slavery issue. And there was the election of 1876, when the Electoral College settled the Hayes-Tilden election in favor of the Republican candidate, presumably as a trade for the removal of Union troops from the South, although historians disagree about whether there was a trade off or whether removing Union troops was by that time inevitable, the North having come to understand that the South would continue to rule itself as its white population saw fit, never mind the results of the Civil War.Read More
My Uncle Jack was a ne’er do well, which meant, in his case, that it took him a long time to settle into a career and into family life. He was drafted in the last days of World War II and never saw combat and reenlisted even though, as far as I could gather, he spent his time in the military losing his corporal’s stripes and residing in the stockade. When he left the Army, he used his G. I. Bill of Rights to study hairdressing, again for reasons I never understood, but he dropped that because, he said, it had too many fags in it, which even my early adolescent knowledge of the world told me he should have known going in. He took a job as a security guard at J. C. Penny and carried around with him a picture of the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton so that he might get a reward for identifying him if he ran across him in the street. Shortly afterwards, Sutton was indeed identified by Arnold Schuster, who was very proud of what he had accomplished and gave newspaper interviews about it, and Frank Costello, the mobster, thought Schuster was too proud of himself and had him murdered. Jack did not see the irony of this but my mother thought that it showed the wisdom of not wishing for something you might get.Read More
It is time for a screed about what is happening at America’s southern border. There has been a long term decrease in illegal border crossings from Mexico, but there has been in the last year or two an increase in the number of families, mothers and children, who have made that crossing, presumably to avoid the violence and lack of income opportunities that plague their home countries, which are El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. So how are these refugees greeted? Children are separated from their parents and the mothers deported without their children even though they had surrendered at the American border to American Border Police so that they might apply for political asylum, which is their right under international and American law. But the President has said that he doesn’t think it right to allow them that loophole and, in fact, has made it harder for immigrants to ask for asylum and forced many of them to remain in Mexico without food and shelter until it is their turn to apply for asylum which, some reports say, means that one family a day will be processed.Read More
Slavoj Zizek is a contemporary Slovenian social thinker who is well versed in Hegelian Idealism, Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and film theory and, I am told, is very well thought of among young people. It is easy enough to see why he is appealing: his broad range of references, his graceful writing style, his willingness to bring in what would not seem apposite subject matters, but even there you have the beginning of a sense of why he is unreliable. He mentions “Gangnam style” which was a South Korean video and dance that made it into popular culture for a little while, but doesn’t have enough weight, less important than hoola hoops, for saying something about society. He reflects on the relation of North to South Korea, possibly because he had lectured in Seoul, when it would be more important to evaluate the meaning of capitalism in the United States, still its center, and so I am pressed to ask this question of his “Trouble in Paradise”, the title itself a reference to an Ernst Lubitsch film: what does he mean, really, by capitalism, other than it is the opposite of what is not yet, which is true socialism? That Hegelian opposition will not do, and so let us tease out his definition by bypassing his fascination with the Hegelian trick of turning everything into a negation or a negation of a negation, which is a philosophical parlor trick that doesn’t mean anything at all. Zizek says, with glee, that capitalism is a system which has two negatives: those in the surplus labor pool, who can’t get jobs, and those in the pool of educated persons who do not think they need jobs, and so capitalism includes both those it needs to keep the price of labor down, and those who it creates who seem surplus to the economy as a whole. All Zizek is saying in this formulation is that everything that happens in capitalism is a product of capitalism and so part of what is a combined mind set and social structure which does not have mechanisms which are either more or less essential. That holistic approach does not do justice to the complexity of what we know to be capitalism, where levels of taxation and central planning differ in, let us say, the United States and Sweden.Read More
I cry at television commercials, especially when they include babies or dogs, which happens a lot in ads for car companies and banks. A recent ad that caught my eye was for a company that would invest your money. It featured a baby lying on its father’s chest while the dad moved around part of his portfolio (or maybe it was to take out a loan) with a few computer clicks. The baby snuggled up, looking very comfortable, outfitted in an undershirt and a diaper. I thought that a very pleasing image because it meant the baby could hear his father’s heart and that would be comforting because the baby had for so many months during his gestation period heard its mother’s heart. The familiar would be comforting. And that made me reflect on, of all things, a basic sociological concept that had been troubling me ever since graduate school: the idea of norm. Let me explain.Read More
In the introduction to his very comprehensive but unoriginal study of the intellectual history surrounding the Protestant Reformation,”Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind”, Michael Massing, the author, wants to show that the debate between these two towering figures is still relevant. He does so by saying that American Evangelicalism, what with its insistence on piety and the examination of the personal consciousness and its reliance on group sentiments, is a descendant of Luther rather than Calvin. While this may be no more than a rediscovery of what Troeltsch said some hundred years ago when he distinguished sects, in which all people were equal in their faith and distrustful of outsiders, from churches, which create big tents so that people of very disparate levels of faith can claim to be believers, it also points out a valid observation of American religion, which is that conformity to a creed which will not brook objection is the basis of a community rather than what follows from community, and that community sets itself up against the enclosing and hostile world so as to fight for its distinctiveness, whatever that might be and whatever that might come to encompass, such as deviant political views or racial prejudice. I want to go a bit more deeply into the way Lutheranism is a key to American religion by pointing to two strands of it that emerge from considering a basic paradox in Luther’s theology.Read More
Tone is a set of feelings evoked by a novel and we have long established names for characteristic sets of feelings. These are the names of the genres: comedy, tragedy, melodrama, romance, and all those others, the hybrids, such as tragicomedy, referred to by Hamlet in his speech to the players. Texture, for its part, is the way these characteristic features are established through the stylistics of the text: how a text combines dialogue with description, how it leaves ironies hanging in the air; what it takes to be a joke or a resolution or even a mere development in a conflict. Jane Austen who, as the narrator of her novels, is a distant, jaundiced and amused authorial voice, works her will largely by how she structures her scenes so as to allow for verbal confrontations, a playwright as much as a novelist, which makes sense given her debt to Shakespeare. But as a novelist, she was quite good at changing and managing different tones within the same novel. This is certainly the case in "Pride and Prejudice", where there is a conflict between two families that differ in much more than wealth. The Bennets and the extended family of Mr. Darcy differ in tone. The Bennets are comic, always being a bit silly, though not always as much as Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth desperately wants to escape from that. The wealthy families, on the other hand, are given over to melodrama. They take themselves very seriously, and they exaggerate their emotions, as when Darcy finds the first ball he attends terribly dull. They are also touched by tragedy, which is what happens when Mr. Wickham ruins Darcy's sister, though the reader does not find that out until much later, when Darcy reveals his family disgrace to Elizabeth and so clinches the case that he really loves her by going into an intimacy that would be, at the time, truly shocking and from which his sister would not be expected to recover.
Darcy and his family also have the virtue of taking situations into hand when they need to with resolution as if a good deal depended on how you handled life rather than just responded to it. Darcy is not judgmental about Lydia falling for Mr. Wickham. Foolish girls will do such things. He just sets out to do the things that will make the situation right. He arranges for a marriage by paying off Wickham's debts and may have had a hand in seeing him assigned to a military post in the north where he and Lydia will be out of the way, seen only occasionally on visits. Darcy's first marriage proposal to Elizabeth may seem unromantic but it was full of good sense. There is a problem in the marriage of people of such different wealth and disposition and so his willingness to create structures that will help resolve the differences between the two shows just how much he loves her even if he cannot put it that way and comes over, eventually, to her view that a marriage must brook no such impediments: it must be done for purely romantic reasons and so Darcy puts aside his misgivings about how well Elizabeth will do as mistress of Pemberley. For her part, Elizabeth has to put aside her amusement at Darcy's haughty manner and take him to be the recently converted non-snob he now claims to be, knowing full well that he cannot give up that part of his character, nor would she want him to.
Texture, on the other hand, refers to the various techniques of writing that are used in moving ahead the plot through whatever tone or combination of tones the author chooses to engage. Texture is created by the balance between dialogue and narration, in the nature and type of authorial voice used in the novel, in the extent of the description of such atmospherics as furniture or architecture or countryside, in whether scenes are long or short, and on whether the author indulges in subplots to pass the time or give some relief from the central action of the novel. Dickens was long on subplots and atmospherics while having a strong authorial voice inclined to sympathy for the unfortunate lives being portrayed, while Jane Austen was short on subplots and atmospherics while also having a strong authorial voice inclined to a rational appreciation of the circumstances that drove her characters to have the deep emotions that they only sometimes expressed.
So how is it that these two people, Elizabeth and Darcy, being of such different temperments, of two different styles, come together? They are brought together by Mr. Binkley and Jane Bennet, Darcy accompanying Binkley on his visits to the Bennet household, events that seem deeply unpleasant to all concerned, even to Mrs. Bennet who so much wants to move them in the right direction. Binkley and Jane, it is pointed out over and over again, are simple souls who do not see the complications of themselves falling into a love match, while Elizabeth and Darcy, at the beginning of their love affair, can see nothing but the obstacles that stand in their way. That is the way, by coincidence, that their love affair is able to prosper.
Consider the way Jane Austen uses both tone and texture to distance the reader from the scandal of Lydia's elopement, which is not just a shame on the family but a disaster for it because it means that none of the young women will be able to make a suitable marriage. The incident is rendered comic because Mr. Collins, when he comes to console them, candidly speaks of the very bad news in just the condescending and censorious tone that is likely to make the family regain a sense of amour propre. Only Mr. Collins would be so full of gloom and doom, however much what he says is true. No politeness here. Small mindedness may be rampant everywhere, but nowhere so clearly as in Mr. Collins. And the texture of the novel also distances the rendition from the emotions conveyed by the events themselves. The story of the elopement is revealed through letters concerning Lydia's disappearance, then her location, then her marriage, and then her impending visit, when, only then, does Lydia let the cat out of the bag by referring to something she was not supposed to, which was Mr. Darcy's presence at her wedding. So all becomes clear to the discerning Elizabeth, as it never becomes clear, fortunately, to the obtuse Lydia, that Darcy had arranged it all, and so introduced himself back into the story of the lives of the Bennet family, and contributed to changing Elizabeth's mind to him--clinched it, really, in that Elizabeth had already softened to him. That prepares the stage for he and his friend, Mr. Bingley, to reappear in the neighborhood, and propose their respective marriages, never mind that Lydia and Mr. Wickham have been moved off the stage so that their very unpropitious marriage can work itself out. What will happen when Wickham runs out of money this next time is not discussed by Jane Austen.
The way Jane Austen organizes her dialogues is so characteristic that it can be abstracted out to be a principle of organization and so part of the texture of the work as a whole. We have already observed the way she manages the conversations that take place at Netherfield between Elizabeth and Darcy, others present in the room. The dialogue is abbreviated, a quick set of piercing exchanges that leave the others in the room far behind and so bored but the conversations themselves crackling with bon mots and devastating insights. In the last one of these, Elizabeth says Mr. Darcy is mean and Mr. Darcy says that Elizabeth deliberately misunderstands people. Both are correct. There is nothing more to be said because each has reduced the other to some basic insight about the person: an emotion that is core to their characters.
Ending a conversation after hitting some bedrock after the preliminaries are out of the way is not the way most conversations in the real world proceed. Rather, people return over and over again to old themes and insights, to digressions, to newly invented rejoinders and side issues. But it is the way in which Jane Austen conversations operate because she is a rationalist who thinks that conversations actually do something. They clarify issues, get down to axiomatic disagreements, and then there is nothing left to say and so they are over. That is very much in keeping with Jane Austen's view of the novel itself, each of her own not simply giving the reader a window into a way of life with which the reader is unfamiliar and delicious to savor, but so as to solve a problem that Jane Austen has set up in the early pages of the novel. "Pride and Prejudice" opens with two eligible gentlemen of means coming into the neighborhood doubtlessly in search of brides, and by the end of it have been married off to girls who are either early or late all too glad to have them. Similarly, "Mansfield Park" is about how a poor relative taken in by a wealthy family makes her way with the family, changing it more than changing herself, and "Emma" is about a busybody who finally has to grow up and cope with her own feelings rather than the feelings of others. How will she manage that? "Persuasion" is also simple and straightforward in its story. How does a romance get rekindled, if it can, some years later, between people whose prior romance had not worked out? That is an intellectual problem for Jane Austen to contemplate, even as it is an emotional one as well, "Persuasion" having the most poignant of all her plots.
That this is Jane Austen's approach to dialogue and to plotting--start with a problem and end it with a solution or at least a recognition that there is no where else to go--is telegraphed many times, perhaps most successfully in Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth, which is farcical and always included in the movie versions of the novel because the irony of the scene is so readily grasped: that Elizabeth wants nothing to do with the man and that he persists anyway totally oblivious to her feelings. In spite of her not even wanting to be alone with him so he could propose, he clears the room, thanks to Mrs. Bennet, and then gives the rational basis for his decision--his comfortable position and the fact that his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, thinks he should marry--and when Elizabeth tries to let him down gently, he claims that is because girls are likely to turn down a proposal the first time out of modesty, and when she perseveres, saying that something as important as a proposal is not likely to be turned down a first time out of form lest the proposal not be repeated, Mr. Collins says right out loud why he thinks she should not turn him down: the family estate is entailed to him anyway and this is the only way for the family to get out of that difficulty, and that Elizabeth is not likely to attract another suitor. All of this is hardly gallant or likely to win over a girl. Elizabeth says her answer is final and flees the scene, but Mr. Collins will not accept that a conversation is terminated when it is over and so appeals to Mrs. Bennet to get Elizabeth to reconsider before he changes his mind, and so she appeals to Mr. Bennet to interceded, at which point, Mr. Bennet, fully aware of the disaster to his family that his judgment portends, says he will not speak to Elizabeth if she accepts the proposal, and Elizabeth, of course, is much more concerned with the judgment of her father than of her well-meaning but marriage obsessed mother.
The same principle applies to other instances of conversation in "Pride and Prejudice". There is a point to Lady Catherine de Bough's chatter, which is to intrude herself into everyone else's decisions about how they live their lives and even about things she knows nothing about, such as music, when she claims authority without being able to play herself, and people do not quarrel with her about that. She criticizes Elizabeth's family for having done without a governess and having introduced all the daughters into society, and is piqued at Elizabeth unwilling to declare her age, that to her an impertinence, however trivial a matter it is, so that Elizabeth complies by admitting to being twenty-one. So we know what conversations are about at Rosling: hearing what Lady Catherine has to say. Lady Catherine, however, is not Wilde's Lady Bracknell. She is neither wise nor witty; she is, instead, boring and boorish and no one should have to put up with her but they do simply because she is rich.
There is a different purpose in Elizabeth's conversation with Mr. Fitzsimmons, who provides crucial information to Elizabeth when she makes casual reference to the fact that Darcy seems to look after Bingley, perhaps trying to probe into a relationship where one seems so clearly the intellectual superior of the other. What Fitzsimmons reveals is that Darcy had helped Binkley by discouraging him from an inappropriate and unnamed relationship, which Elizabeth quickly enough recognizes to have been the one with her sister. So the exchange of gossip, as that takes place when any of us discuss friends who are not present, results sometimes in useful information, and that is the purport if not the intention of such conversation. Talk has purpose.
The reader has been so well schooled in Jane Austen's view of dialogue, which is that it is over when it is over, and that extending it is ridiculous and shameful, that we are prepared to see Elizabeth's rejection of Darcy's first proposal just as she perhaps did not mean it to be: categorical and final, the end of the matter. That is the person she is, not a dissembler in the manner of Mr. Collins. Darcy understands that and, given that he is not very articulate in person, sends Elizabeth a letter where he candidly admits to having intruded between Bingley and Jane, but defends his behavior towards Wickham. In a letter, Darcy can deliver an extended argument that makes clear that he is both candid, showing his real motives, owning up to those that the one who receives the letter will disapprove of, as well as feeling honorbound to explain what others might misunderstand. He does in writing what Elizabeth does in speech: make points.This theory of conversation is also why it is very brave of Darcy to raise the question of marriage one more time, much later, after the Lydia-Wickham marriage, and after Lady Catherine has already informed Elizabeth of Darcy's continuing interest in her. This time, true to form, she does not hesitate, but quickly gives her consent, which means that it is an actual and rational and fully emotional assent, true to both her own and Jane Austen's sense of dialogue.
The movie versions of "Pride and Prejudice" are not true to either the novel's tone or its texture. Elizabeth as played by Greer Garson is too regal and self-possessed to be Elizabeth, while Laurence Olivier has just the right tone of arrogance and even a bit of meanness, though he is made out to be more articulate than he is in the novel. That film becomes a romantic comedy where spats rather than issues are at stake, demonstrating only that these are independant and therefore well matched people, sort of like in Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movies. The very well received, and deservedly so, multipart BBC production of "Pride and Prejudice" stars a much too beautiful Jennifer Ehle who is matched in her sweetness by a heartthrob Colin Firth, and so there is established a tone of not at all bittersweet romance, the emotions syrupy rather than rough. Keira Knightley, in the 2005 version directed by Joe Wright, is also regal and so self-possessed that no one could fault her virtues, thus betraying the real conflict that is going on in Darcy's soul, and which Jane Austen, who is no great fan of her heroines, is out to portray, while her soulmate, the most recent Darcy, is more moody than arrogant, a Heathcliffe without the moors, and so providing a drama that is deeply Romantic, full of feeling and poignant and pregnant expressions.
I much prefer the authorial voice of Jane Austen herself, which is clearly present in her narrative, ordering her story so that it is clear what happens first and what goes next and how complications ensue and are resolved, ever mindful, that voice, of how people respond to their good sense and not just their emotions, and come to decisions that are reasonable under the circumstances. Jane Austen is an Enlightenment, not a Romantic, writer, however much her sense of the thickness of custom and culture, in that it is real rather than imaginary obstacles that get in the way of our lives turning out as we would like, and that people are amazing in their ability to thwart what in other times would have been thought of as their fates, which, in the case of this novel, is that all of the Bennet girls would have been condemned to very unsatisfactory even if necessary marriages.
The third movie version takes an interest in the atmospherics of nature that is true to a Romantic consciousness but not to Jane Austen, who did not show much interest in descriptions of nature. Elizabeth stands on a bluff and Darcy arrives through a mist. In that movie, Elizabeth also lives in a house where pigs wander through, and so much too ramshackle for this respectable if not wealthy family. That a house befits your station is important to Jane Austen. Darcy's Pemberley is grand, while the Bennet house is not, although comfy enough, as in the Greer Garson version, and Mr. Collins' house is even more bare than that, with only a mere suggestion of a garden.
The movie versions are a backdoor way of making another distinction between tone and texture. Tone and texture are two characteristics of literature that are particularly relied on as resources for the novel, while structure and language are more important in lyric poetry and drama. The tone of a novel is front stage. It is what preoccupies the reader. How will the story turn out? What are the motives of the characters? The texture of a novel, on the other hand, is what is upstage, the scenery, as it were, of the novel, and so absorbed indirectly by the reader. The texture of a novel has to do with the social world it creates, the kinds of situations and social circumstances which people encounter. The costumes, manners, occupations, beliefs, institutions, of the society provide the texture of a novel, and the reader, like the audience to the movies that are the lineal descendants of the novel, is awash in that world which is an alternative to the present one for its vividness and its strangeness, but not so off as to be unrecognizable as the world of understandable situations that the reader does inhabit. In that sense, all novels are historical novels, in that they create a world just slightly different (and a bit before) the actual present, and embellish the setting so that it seems exotic and so sets off feelings which are perhaps more familiar to the time or setting of the reader than of the place and time described. That is one reason why the novel is told in the past tense: because it is a chronicle of what is past, although it contains information and characters new to the reader who has not heard this novel before. The reader wants to know what will happen to Elizabeth and Darcy but is also caught up, inevitably, in the manners and manors of Regency England: how people speak and how they live.
“This is the first of a set of nine essays that will appear weekly to show some of Jane Austen’s complexity, her charm, her never failing realistic evaluation of the human condition, however much she may seem to be showing only the most obvious of conflicts and resolutions, although that too was a part of her irony: to show what might seem obvious to be very complicated indeed. I do so by engaging in close textual analysis of the text, which is a technique not usually applied to the novel because it is such an ungainly form, and going into detail about only two of her novels: “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park”. That analysis is set in the context of sociological observations that will show what she has to say still bears learning. The reader of the series should come away resolute in a desire to plunge even more deeply into Jane Austen, even beyond what had been thought a sufficient understanding of her novels.”
George Saintsbury, a most neglected early Twentieth Century literary critic, ranked Jane Austen, along with Charles Dickens, as the most distinguished of the English novelists. I would go much further than that and assign to her the title of greatest novelist I have ever read. That is because, when it comes to technique, she can organize a gigantic set of characters into a plot that moves at the pace of a play, and write dialogue that both crackles with wit and complexity, revealing levels of character it takes a lifetime of study to fully appreciate, and she also evokes a social ambiance that is fully aware of the historical and economic forces at work, all this while seeming only to offer up an amusing diversion about the restricted lives of the country gentry in Regency England. Moreover, while her novels may all involve courtship as the defining feature of their plots, each novel is different, exploring different aspects of the nature of life, such as the nature of the past in “Persuasion” and, in “Pride and Prejudice”, the very difficult to access aspects of class differences that lie beneath the obvious ones, such as wealth and manners, which are so easy to ridicule-- something which Austen is by no means reluctant to do. Fun is to be had, but there are more serious issues afoot which are ubiquitous and yet amorphous. Jane Austen’s themes are universal and as deep as it gets. I sometimes wish that Jane Austen were used to train Senators and diplomats and psychoanalysts in how to do their jobs. Rereading Jane Austen shows her to be even better than we remember her to have been.
This is the first of a set of nine essays that will appear weekly to show some of Jane Austen’s complexity, her charm, her never failing realistic evaluation of the human condition, however much she may seem to be showing only the most obvious of conflicts and resolutions, although that too was a part of her irony: to show what might seem obvious to be very complicated indeed. I do so by engaging in close textual analysis of the text, which is a technique not usually applied to the novel because it is such an ungainly form, and going into detail about only two of her novels: “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park”. That analysis is set in the context of sociological observations that will show what she has to say still bears learning. The reader of the series should come away resolute in a desire to plunge even more deeply into Jane Austen, even beyond what had been thought a sufficient understanding of her novels.
A first cut at establishing the greatness of Jane Austen as a novelist can be done by comparing her to another great Nineteenth Century novelist, Leo Tolstoy, who also describes courtships that take place at balls and large social gatherings where people who are largely strangers to one another converse, flirt, and dance with one another. Leo Tolstoy is a describer. A central moment in “Anna Karenina” occurs when Anna dances with Vronsky at the ball. They have flirted with one another, but that is all. Something happens during that dance that moves them into being potential lovers. Tolstoy decided not to let the reader hear what it is that they said to one another, like a movie director who shows an argument or some other impassioned conversation taking place behind a window or a glass door, the lips moving, but not letting the audience know exactly what is being said, only indicating its purport. So is conveyed the information of a death or other bad news or the particularly good news of the declaration of peace after a war.
Why did Tolstoy do what he did? It is not that he does not have the talent to do conversation. He does many conversations between Pierre and Andre, between Levin and Kitty. But he hides the most important conversations because they are not the active forces in moving along the narrative. The actions that would be enunciated in words are already established, predetermined, by the characters and the circumstances of the people involved. We know why Anna would fall in love with Vronsky, and we know why he would fall in love with her to the extent he could. Words do not make things happen; they only can be used, therefore, to describe feelings and thoughts that are there for otherwise established reasons. Tolstoy is less concerned to explain what happened between Anna and Vronsky then to investigate its causes and consequences, even to her humiliations and eventual suicide. Indeed, one of the few times words count in “Anna Karenina” is when Anna’s husband speaks overtly to her about what is going on and gives a cynical account of how he will hide her secret for the sake of propriety. He reveals to the reader what had not been known to the reader before: how callous a man he is, one who took out the insult to his self respect by a refusal to acknowledge even his own feelings, not even willing to tell Anna how hurt he had been in his own soul by her action. It makes the reader think about what their personal life had been and whether that had not provided reason enough for Anna to look elsewhere for male companionship.
But that pulling back of the curtain on the intimate life of a Russian Victorian couple is used only to suggest what had already happened, not what was made to happen in the words, however much words had sealed the doom of the relationship. The words made neither of them free. This strategy of Tolstoy’s, to shroud pivotal conversations, is used in “War and Peace” and in “Resurrection”, and even in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, where there no conversation about death but only an internal monologue. That fact suggests Tolstoy’s sense of how alone people are at the time of their deaths, as well in the lives they lived before that.
Jane Austen, for her part, is a writer of dialogue, perhaps because she was so influenced by Shakespeare and Milton, neither of whom had much time for description but a lot of time to have their characters wax on at great length about one thing or another, some of those words, amazingly many of them, crucial for the movement of the narrative. Consider some scenes from “Pride and Prejudice” that serve the same function as the dance scene in “Anna Karenina”.
Elizabeth later admits to her sister and father that it was not love at first sight between herself and Darcy. Indeed, most of her early encounters with Darcy had been contentious. But over the long run, she had so grown on him that she says to her sister, when she does not think he will ever call on her again, that she very much regrets that he may be out there in the world thinking poorly of her. That is as fine a declaration of love as there is.
The long courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy over the course of years, takes place at occasional meetings that are remarkable for the slow pace of the developing candor between them. In fact, at first they barely speak to one another. Elizabeth overhears Darcy making a disparaging comment about her looks. At subsequent occasions, he finds himself trailing her and thinking more kindly of her looks, Jane Austen catching on to the fact that men who begin to think about a woman seriously gradually find her to be more attractive than they originally thought, their sense of a woman’s character informing their perception. Elizabeth notices that he has been overhearing her conversations and calls him on it, and he does not respond, but Darcy’s sister notices what is happening, and jumps ahead to tell Darcy that he should expect Mrs. Bennet to be a mother-in-law who is constantly visiting.
The first extended contact between the two takes place when Elizabeth walks three miles through the mud to visit her ailing sister at Mr. Bingley’s estate, and the women of the family comment on how much worse for wear Elizabeth looks, Darcy keeping to himself his admiration for Elizabeth’s devotion to Jane. That evening, in response to Mr. Hurst’s platitude about how accomplished women are, Jane downplays her own education and remarks that it is not much of an accomplishment to do the things that women do (or as we might say today, are allowed to do), such as stitching screens, and when Elizabeth leaves the room, the woman think it rude for Elizabeth to have disparaged her own sex, Darcy again left to cultivate his own thought that what Elizabeth said constituted an insight, allowing himself only to say that women who do something that is cunning, which is to say, requires some mind, are thought despicable, a remark that leaves others troubled for reasons they cannot say, perhaps because it is too foreign a thought for them to consider. Both Darcy and Elizabeth are caught up in a world of philistines, men and women who are devoted only to card playing and eating and gossip when they are in one another’s company.
Next day, Mrs. Bennet, another uninvited guest, shows up to see how Jane is doing and manages to be provincial enough to defend country living over town living, which even Elizabeth thinks is going too far, but that does not keep Elizabeth from offering another original thought, which is that love poetry puts an end to love because it substitutes for it and serves as a way to end a relationship. Darcy finds this piquant observation amusing rather than just contrarian.
And so the days pass while Jane convalesces. As if to outdo herself, or merely because she cannot resist the urge, Elizabeth does indeed turn rude in dealing with her host, Mr. Bingley, when he remarks that he dashes off his own correspondence while Darcy labors over his. Elizabeth says that he claims a false modesty because, in fact, he is proud to do things quickly, even if thoughtlessly, and so to say he would leave this estate if he took a mind to, it would mean he would neglect whatever business had been left undone, and so leave his life to chance. Darcy enters the conversation to say that a friend who asked someone to leave their estate to immediately attend upon him had offered no reason and so such a request should not be honored, to which Elizabeth replies, raising the moral stakes, that a friend need have no reason to make such a request, friendship sufficient reason to honor the request. Bingley is getting hot under the collar and Elizabeth plunges the dagger in all the way when she says that being simple does not mean being of bad character, something Bingley cannot take as a compliment. Bingley will have no more of arguments, and one wonders whether Darcy has no other friends that he spends so much time consorting with a person who is so much his intellectual inferior.
It is out of such conversations that a courtship is constructed: talk that is abbreviated, elusive, about apparently more general matters such as what is the meaning of friendship, and usually in the presence of others so that Darcy and Elizabeth do not have to confront or contend with one another, especially since their obviously growing interest in one another meets with the disapproval of all those around them. That has not changed by the time Darcy makes his first proposal to Elizabeth. He blunders about it, as if there could not have been a way to refer to their difference in positions in a less insulting way, though he is so conflicted about it, so much a prisoner of convention, that it would have been difficult for him to form a better way of saying it even if he had been much more clever than he is or nearly as clever as Elizabeth, who is able to meet not just him but Lady Catherine on equal rhetorical terms.
Early on in the novel, Jane gives forth with a sententious statement, something unusual for her, as the narrator notes, but which is key to understanding the novel. Jane says that pride is a belief in one’s own powers, while vanity is a concern with what other people think of you. Darcy is guilty of both. He is so prideful that he remains mute before most of the people with whom he associates, while he is overly concerned with the prejudices of his relatives about Elizabeth as ungainly, unmannered and overly intellectual and what they will think of her should she become his bride and so someone who has risen far above her station. So he is the one who has to overcome pride and prejudice while Elizabeth is not particularly prideful, but rather dismissive of her own accomplishments, and is not vain in that she is unmindful, to a fault, of how she might come off to other people. It is up to Darcy to see the diamond in the rough and attend to it accordingly, invoking and transforming his own feelings and beliefs. That is the gravamen of the novel: it is up to the man to be up to the task, even for an Elizabeth worthy of his love.
This point is more than adequately made by the last of the conversations at Bingley’s estate, which again takes place with others in the room. Miss Bingley asks Elizabeth to stroll around the room with her and Darcy declines to draw them insisting that there are only two reasons the two woman would do that, and he is prompted by Miss Bingley to name them: either to share a confidence or else to show off their figures. Noone is shocked, however candid Darcy may be, and Elizabeth enjoins Jane’s distinction between vanity and pride to get Darcy to say that pride will get a man to control his vanity, which leads to something of a direct confrontation, Elizabeth saying that makes Darcy perfect, if he says so himself, which brings Darcy out enough to defend himself by saying that he does not trust his own temper and that a bad opinion once formed is not likely given up. Elizabeth does not give up in spite of the fact that such self-deprecation on Darcy’s part might be thought a way to make peace. She finishes him off by saying that his propensity is to hate everyone, and the best he can reply to that is that her defect is to misunderstand him, which is true enough. Darcy emerges from the encounter warning himself that he will never get the better of her and so pursuing her is a dangerous thing to do. Elizabeth and Jane return home in the next chapter. The couple, not yet a couple, know well enough what they are each about, though they have not yet learned to see what they take to be vices are also virtues.
The pace of a Jane Austen novel picks up as it reaches its end. What had been told at a leisurely pace, as we shall see again when considering “Mansfield Park”, turns feverish or even operatic. What that means in the case of “Pride and Prejudice” is that the quality of the many important conversations that take place towards the end of the book change from being stilted or out of control to being eloquent, each character coming to say exactly what they want to say, nothing more and nothing less. This happens when Lady Catherine confronts Elizabeth and tries to get her to promise never to marry Darcy, which, as Elizabeth notes in her response, must be a prospect more real than she would have thought it to be for otherwise Lady Catherine would not be here to get a denial and a promise. Elizabeth does not go further than she wants to, as she often has before, especially as she had in denying Darcy’s first proposal, because all she says is that she is not engaged to Darcy but will not promise what will happen in the future. So Elizabeth is forewarned of what will happen when Darcy does show up again, he clearly having discussed what a marriage to Elizabeth would mean for his family, his sister already thinking well of her, whatever Lady Catherine might think. So she can accept his apology for her having treated him so badly after he first proposed, even if he had very clumsily though not untruthfully put the question of the differences between their stations in life. She had over-reacted then, but not this time, accepting him for the snobbish and proud man that he is because he is also a person of depth and integrity who seeks to right wrongs, very much a knight who had embarked on a quest to save the honor of Lydia through the means appropriate in Regency England: no duels, just payoffs.
And then Elizabeth handles her father in just the way he has to be handled to give his consent to the marriage, as if he could do otherwise even if he does not want to lose the apple of his eye. Elizabeth treats his permission as something that is freely given, not just to secure a fortune that would get his family out of hock, by declaring, truthfully, what her feelings are, which is that she truly loves Darcy. A father would not be fooled by a false declaration. As Jane Austen well knew, that scene brings a tear to every reader’s eye, and is a meaty scene for whomever plays Mr. Bennet, whether it is Edward Gwenn, Benjamin Whitrow, or Donald Sutherland. Mr. Bennet is shown to have deep feelings rather than just the avoidance of feeling that might come from having been cooped up in his library to avoid the nagging wife he must have found charming twenty years before. And so the next generation embarks on its life journey, as that is always measured by the circumstances of courtship and marriage, which may seem to be and are rendered comic, but is for most people the dramatic highpoints of their life, when they themselves become heros and heroines rather than character actors who fill up the background.
I have been told that Jane Austen’s portrayal of the courting dynamics of two hundred years ago do not hold up for the present generation which is given up to a “hookup” culture where a series of one night or abbreviated sexual relationships do not provide the basis for a long term relationship because the premise of long term relationships is that there is a process of delayed gratification whereby people try to come to understand one another before they become committed to one another and so afterwards become sexual familiars. But people can engage in sex while still holding in abeyance whether they want to have a long term relationship. People can start a new relationship, as Madonna puts it, “for the very first time”. Romance is possible even after previous sexual experience. Courtship is the process of making up one’s mind about having a stable rather than a temporary relationship. The point about stable relationships is that they are stable. People know who they are sleeping with every night, what their habits are like, what they smell like. There is less tension than there is in unstable relationships. People fall into an emotional division of labor as well as a financial one that suits their personalities and capacities. Couples become codependent. The desire to do that does not seem to have changed even if circumstances present different difficulties in Jane Austen’s time, when there were not enough eligible men in the neighborhood, and so one would have expected any girl to take up the first offer, which Elizabeth does not do, though it is suggested to her that she ought to, and the circumstances in our own time, where there is a plethora of men to pick for one night stands and therefore girls have to use other criteria to decide whether one of these or a man drawn from another pool is a subject for courtship.
The insight Jane Austen has is that courtships are conducted through conversations in which people either explain who they are or give off who they are through their words. Not everyone is equally articulate. Elizabeth pays an unwarranted compliment to Jane when she says her sister always reports what she thinks, which is perhaps because Jane is so pure so as not to be able to lie, but may also be because Jane does not have the mental equipment to dissemble. Her courtship with Mr. Bingley is an easy one because they are so well suited to one another’s personality that they cannot but be candid, while the courtship between Elizabeth and Darcy is fraught with difficulty because both of them have their reasons not to be candid: he to protect his wealth and the feelings of his family a well as his own privacy, she to overcome the embarrassment of her family. But most of us communicate well enough to engage in courtship, to plight our trow, according to the customs of the time, and that is the drama of courtship that remains fascinating whether in romantic comedies or in farces or in romances or in the serio-comedies and tragedies of Jane Austen.