Written by Cheryl Chan, 1A01A, 30 May 1997.
To what extent is Pride and Prejudice an inversion and criticism of conventional romantic-novel expectations?
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen describes the union of 4 couples -- namely, Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, Lydia and Wickham, and Charlotte and Collins. For the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship, it is clearly an inversion of romantic expectations, and Austen makes it clear that this steadfast, rational relationship is desirable, yet the Charlotte-Collins relationship, [very rational] whilst also being unconventional, suffers some criticism. Jane and Bingley, though playing very much to expectations of a romantic-story, are dealt with gently and not unkindly by Austen, yet in the same vein, the same sort of tempestuous emotional heady impulsiveness of Lydia and Wickham, so typical of romantic novels at that time, is clearly criticised.
Many critics in the nineteenth century approved of Austen's work, as she was vastly different from other novelists, injecting little of the "screams along the corridor" variety of novels that is suitable only for "maids and chamberwomen". This is characterised largely by the story of Elizabeth and Darcy, which is an inversion of romantic book expectations. Unlike the instantaneous, fiery passion that Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights had for Catherine, [not true, but I see what you mean] for this couple, it was more akin to extreme dislike-at-first-sight. Haughty, reserved Darcy, revealing none of the gushing, wondrous, she-is-the-most-beautiful-creature-in-the-world type of sentiment, caustically notes that she is "tolerable ... but not handsome enough to tempt me." Elizabeth, rightly incensed, takes a "decided dislike" for him throughout much of the first 2 volumes of the novel. This inauspicious beginning, in no way signifies to readers the first time upon reading it, that this début, devoid of fireworks and passion, can, in fact, result in love blossoming.
Darcy's proposal to Elizabeth is also unlike the passionate, romantic love proposals of that era. Whilst Brontë's Jane Eyre had Mr Rochester to tell her that there was a string from Jane tied to his heart, so that if she left, it would break and he would bleed to death, [good comparison] Darcy (consciously or otherwise) insults Elizabeth to the extreme by saying that it was a great sacrifice on his part to overlook her "vulgar relations" to condescend to her social status to marry her -- clearly not of the prose that dreams are made of.
And even after Darcy and Elizabeth are united, there is little of the grand passion that marks typical lovers. Elizabeth "knew herself to be happy, rather than felt it" and this is typical of the restraint that is shown throughout the novel. Clearly, this goes against the grain of everything that is "required in typical romance novels. And in describing this, Austen shows her disdain for the norm of the day. She approves of this couple, as they have a love that complements the other ("that he was the man, in disposition and talents most suited for her") and educates the other ("and I would have remained this way, if not for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth!"). This rational, clearminded approach is preferred by Austen over the gushy, erratic approaches that are so favoured.
She highlights this criticism by inserting Lydia and Wickham. Their relationship can be described as a typical response to romantic-novels, if its mad impulse (elopement to London), abandon and disregard for others (being unmarried and living together) and force of emotion ("if you only love Darcy half as much as I do Wickham") are the guidelines. Lydia's affair is passionate and "romantic", and Austen abuses this unthinking couple by the response of the thinking people in the novel ("and for this we are to be thankful .... Oh Lydia!" said by Elizabeth). Clearly, Austen favours the relationship (unconventional) that has grown out of friendship and self-awareness, [reason] and disdains the other (conventional) that is never likely to yield long-lasting happiness. In doing this, she is reacting much like Hardy in his Far From the Madding Crowd, where Bathsheba's impetuous marriage to Troy yields heartbreak and disaster, and her steady, firm relationship with Gabriel Oak brings them all happiness. Austen's reaction to the triteness of romance novels then is perhaps not unexpected, as writers such as Hardy have also felt the inappropriateness of passion without reason.
Yet, by the 2 other couples in the novel, Jane Austen shows how dangerous it is to yield to over-rationalization and not yield to the romance that is before you. Jane and Bingley have a very conventional relationship -- love at first sight. Jane thinks him the "most agreeable man I've ever met", and Bingley is clearly infatuated with her, even dancing with her twice, as Mrs Bennet so triumphantly recounts. Jane and Bingley are both beautiful people, on the inside and outside, again in keeping with the expectations of [gd.] romance novels (although Elizabeth and Darcy are just as goodlooking, because it is possible that Austen did not want to provoke the public too much by writing a completely unsatisfying story). Finally, they are kept apart, not because they are madly in love with the other, but because of the manoeuvrings of others and misunderstanding between themselves (such as Bingley believing that Jane was not in love with him). [character faults, weakness/timidity, in both] These 2 characters are never really very interesting, both being unstintingly good, and hardly develop in character, unlike Elizabeth and Darcy, yet Austen's approval of them is clearly felt by the end of the novel, signifying in this instance an acceptance of the romantic novel expectations, and serving as a point of contrast between the Elizabeth-Darcy affair. [But they were just lucky -- Darcy changed his view.]
In this same vein, Austen criticizes the relationship (but not very much) that is completely contrary to romantic-novels expectations -- that of Charlotte and Mr Collins. Charlotte is completely rational in her choice, yielding (uncomplainingly?) to passion or emotion. She knows that she will never get another offer, and that it would be difficult to live on the family's slender incomes, so she enters into marriage with the pompous, hypocritical, ridiculous Collins with her eyes wide open. As she practically puts it, "happiness in marriage is completely a matter of chance." Austen does not condemn Charlotte, painting her as a woman who will not lament over what she has chosen ("she was sorry to see them (Elizabeth and Mary) go, but her home and household ... had not yet lost its novelty), and she will not criticise her stupid husband in front of others. Yet the reader cannot help but wonder if Charlotte is able to maintain this stoicism all through the rest of her life with collins, when she hides in a room with a poorer view so that he will not enter, and sends him to the garden so that she does not have to talk to him. One wonders if indeed, any happiness can be found once the "novelty" is lost, and here, Austen warns that romances straying too far from expectations are not likely to be romances at all. [But they can be "comfortable".]
In fact, from Jane Eyre, Jane, like Charlotte, has the option of marrying a self-righteous, fastidious (but far less annoying) clergyman, St. John Rivers, but she staunchly refuses because she has no love for him. In this case, the typical heroine of Jane does seem to act far more satisfyingly than Charlotte.
Austen does not turn expectations topsy turvy and declines a scathing criticism of typical romantic novels, but has shown the benefits and costs of both. If however, in the process, she has shown the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship to be the most interesting and substantial, that perhaps reflects her own beliefs that this is the type of romance that will survive away from the pages of fiction.
NB The self-awareness of romantic expectations -- Elizabeth's consciousness of typical "roles" as she teases Darcy at the end.
Well done -- clear A.
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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