Written by Koh Tsin Yen, 1A01A, 30 May 1997.
To what extent is Pride and Prejudice an inversion and criticism of conventional romantic-novel expectations?
To a great extent, Jane Austen satirises conventional romantic novels by inverting the expectations of "love at first sight" and the celebration of passion and physical attractiveness, and criticising their want of sense. However, there are also elements of conventional romance in the novel, notably, in the success of Jane and Bingley's love. [Elizabeth points out Bingley's ridiculous dependence on Darcy's opinion]
The first indication of Austen's inversion of accepted romantic conventions is Elizabeth and Darcy's mutual dislike on first sight. However, Jane and Bingley fall in love almost immediately, and the development of their romance follows conventional romantic-novel wisdom, down to the obstacles in the form of Darcy's and Bingley's sisters' disapprobation (the typical disapproval of the Family) and the attraction between the rich young man and the middle class maid. Their Cinderella story ends in happily-ever-after, as does Elizabeth's and Darcy's. Elizabeth's defiance of Lady Catherine recalls Meg's defiance of her aunt in Little Women, and Darcy's willingness to accept Elizabeth despite the inferiority of her connections is a triumph of conventional romantic-novel expectations. [But Bingley and Jane are easily put off. The obstacles are slight, the passion slighted.]
One of the most striking examples of Austen's satire is her emphasis on reason, as opposed to the wanton passion lauded into the bulk of romantic novels. Lydia and Wickham's marriage is seen as a triumph of their "passions" over their "virtue", and she is certain that "little permanent happiness" can arise from such a union. This is exemplified by Wickham's continuance of his extravagant habits, and the degeneracy of any feelings between them to indifference. The indifference Mr Bennet has for his wife, and the unsatisfactoriness of his marriage, is another warning against unthinking passion.
Elizabeth rejoices in her freedom from Wickham. Austen shows the development of Elizabeth's love for Darcy, from "gratitude and esteem" after the letter to the certainty of love she realises at the onset of the Lydia episode. Even Jane and Bingley's happiness are accounted for by the presence of an "excellent understanding in Jane and the superexcellent disposition, and a general similarity of character in both." Elizabeth sees the mutual benefit that must arise from her marriage with Darcy; from her liveliness "his mind would have been softened, his mind improved" and she would benefit from his "judgment" and [gd.] "knowledge of the world".
However, the emphasis on the need for reason does not preclude all passion; Jane Austen does not, as she has been accused of, forsake passion for "consciousness". The rationale behind Elizabeth's love is sound; yet there exists another element of passion and love and care, that causes her to be embarrassed and apprehensive and eager in Darcy's presence, and that moves Darcy to propose to her despite the inferiority of her connections and the disapprobation of his aunt. Austen, unlike her Romantic counterparts, advocates a balance between passion and reason in romance. Elizabeth's and Jane's marriages are seen as the "happiest, wisest, most reasonable end" -- with the emphasis equally on "happest" as well as [gd.] "reasonable".
That Austen does not wholly invert romance-novel conventions and reject passion entirely is seen in Charlotte's marriage. Charlotte is the antithesis of the conventional romantic heroine, she declares herself that she "never was" a romantic, and that "happiness is entirely a matter of choice". Her marriage to Mr Collins is for the "pure and disinterested desire of an establishment".
Austen does not advocate going to the extent that Charlotte does and marrying entirely for "disinterested" purposes; Elizabeth was clearly right in refusing Mr Collins' proposal as she married Darcy in the end. Mr Benneth confirms this by remarking at Charlotte's silliness in securing a marriage that he doubted would allow her happiness. However, Jane Austen's depiction of Charlotte's "contentment" and Elizabeth's tribute to Charlotte's management of her house and marriage, that "it was all done very well" suggests a respect for Charlotte in following her own principles. Austen's frank acknowledgment of the necessity for intelligent young women to marry as a "preservative from want" and her constant mention of the futures of the parties concerned (seen in Mrs Gardiner's reminder to Elizabeth of the impropriety [gd] of marrying Wickham as he is impoverished) illustrate a truth about the society then and the state of womanhood. Doing so makes her unique among many conventional novelists who deride the wealth of detail she provides and the pragmatism which she acknowledges. Austen satirises the general unreality and fairy-tale quality of conventional romances.
In Elizabeth herself can be seen an inversion of conventional romantic-novel expectations. The heroine is generally expected to be more vapid and pliable. Elizabeth's physical attractiveness, "next to Jane in birth and beauty", is a genuflection to the accepted conventions of romance, but her appeal lies more in her "wit and vivacity". Her liveliness, which she terms "impertinence", and which leads her to tease Darcy; her moral integrity in exhorting Jane not to "change the meaning of principle and integrity" for a friend, and in standing up to Lady Catherine; her intellectual strength, in sparring with Darcy and in realising the contractions inherent in certain social norms; her level of self-awareness, often expressed with some self-deprecation, as in asking Charlotte not to wish her such an "evil" as finding agreeable "a man whom (she is) determined to hate"; and her capacity for reflection and growth, in contrast to the rest of her sisters, set her apart from the generality of romantic heroines.
Darcy, on the other hand, is first portrayed as the typical Romantic hero; dark, handsome, "of noble mien", mysterious, brooding, arrogant, clearly superior. Austen inverts typical romantic wisdom by allowing him to grow. He comes to realise and repent of his arrogance in disdaining Elizabeth and her family. The humility with which they approach each other is a criticism of the general thoughtlessness of the love portrayed in conventional romance novels.
Austen satirises the romantic form in her insistence on reason and reflection to balance passion. While she decries Lydia's wanton thoughtlessness and allows Mr Bennet one piquant moment of regret that he cannot "respect (his) partner in life", she does not celeebrate Charlotte's lack of passion and love. Austen inverts accepted romantic conventions by having Elizabeth maintain her dislike of Darcy right up to and including the time when he proposed. Her change of sentiment, while not lacking in the emotions that make her "the happiest creature on earth" are entirely justified by her perception of the "goodness" and moral strength of Darcy's character. The ludicrousness of Mr Collins' proposal to Elizabeth reflects the ridiculousness in adhering strictly to feelings and forms celebrated by conventional romantic wisdom (the necessity to profess the "violence of (his) affections" and his insistence that Elizabeth's refusal is but the coquetry of "elegant females"). [good]
Furthermore, the emphasis on moral integrity, mutual respect and need for a knowledge of each other's character and understanding is an invasion of conventional romantic-novel expectations and a criticism of the heedlessness and unthinking passion glorified in prevailing romantic sentiment. However, the fairy-tale element of the ending, with Darcy defying family pride, entrenched prejudice and previous rejection to win Elizabeth's heart, and Bingley returning to Jane despite his sisters' efforts, is in order with romantic-novel expectations, as is Jane's and Bingley's romance. Austen has taken the best of accepted conventions, the love that can redeem a man, and incorporated into her novel, while criticising the want of sense and reality of the other conventions.
NB also the mocking self-awareness of conventional romance which Elizabeth displays, in teasing Darcy towards the end about gender roles.
Well done -- excellent detail of reference and quotation, in support of solid arguments.
Lizzy the Superwoman (Mona's),
Lizzy the Superwoman (Yi-Sheng's),
Inversion & Criticism of the Romantic Novel (Tsin Yen's),
Inversion & Criticism of the Romantic Novel (Cheryl's),
Prudence vs. Inclinations Narrative Method (Yi-Sheng's),
Narrative Method (Cheryl's)
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