Written by Ng Yi-Sheng, 1A01A, 17 May 1997.
"Elizabeth is one of the finest products -- strong and intelligent, yet bewitching in a completely feminine way -- of our civilisation." Discuss Jane Austen's portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet in the light of this claim.
Jane Austen was a child of the Enlightenment, an age when reason was valued while many romantic traditions still lingered on in society. [* By the way the romantic period follows the Enlightenment (a reaction)] As one of the educated and intelligent women emerging from this era, Austen has used the character of Elizabeth Bennet to epitomise the harmonious balance between reason and emotion in a woman, making her a truly admirable and attractive character.
Elizabeth's strength of character is emphasised by its contrast with the weak, naäve acceptance of Jane's, the instability and excess of Mrs Bennet's and the blind, weak-willed following of Kitty's. Her strength is also shown in her rejections of the proposals of Mr Collins and Darcy. Unlike her mother, she does not base her choice of lovers on the financial security they will give her, and has the strength to reject them. This is especially evident in her rejection of Darcy's initial proposal, when she displays a passionate strength in her anger due to her belief that he has wilfully prevented Jane and Bingley's marriage and wronged Wickham by refusing to grant him the property that the old Mr Darcy bequeathed him. In both cases, the suitor is self-assured that his suit will be accepted, and as a result Elizabeth's rejections are amplified by the size of the blows that their egos receive. In Rosings, she does not let Lady Catherine tyrannise her as "the mere satellites of money and rank, she thought she could witness without trepidation." The Lucases and Collinses are submissive to Lady Catherine, with Maria being "frightened almost out of her senses", and it is probable that society as a whole behaves likewise, as Elizabeth suspects she is "the first creature who had ever dared to trifle with such dignified impertinence". She is again presented as a rebel against ideas of class when Lady Catherine pays a visit to her to ensure that she does not marry Darcy and Elizabeth refuses to accept the idea that Pemberley will be "polluted" by her presence. Elizabeth also expresses her rebellion against society by taking little trouble to become accomplished, as young ladies were expected to then. She devotes little time to becoming skilled at playing the piano, and has not learnt drawing at all.
Elizabeth's intelligence reveals her to be one of the few reasoning characters of the novel, a sensible individual in a society largely composed of fools. In this way, this attribute was less a product of the civilisation of her immediate society than of the civilisation of the Enlightenment which emphasised the importance of reason in life and served to educate Elizabeth. As the daughter of Mr Bennet, her view of society is a cynical, ironic one, heightened by the presence of brainless family members and neighbours. It is her sense of irony which enables her to survive in such a society, as she enjoys the humour of the ridiculous pomposity of Mr Collins as her father does. [I disagree with the introduction here. A sense of irony gives Mr Bennet the ability to survive a disastrous marriage, but Elizabeth does not share such emotional detachment -- she is "engagé".] However, she does not employ as insulting a tone as her father does, but chooses to define it as "impertinence". After Darcy's proposal is accepted, Darcy tells her that one of the reasons why he fell in love with her was "the liveliness of your mind", showing that her intelligence adds to her charms as she uses it in the form of [gd.] wit rather than cold cynicism.
She enjoys studying characters, and is able to tell Bingley, "I understand you perfectly." The relative objectiveness of her views of characters is emphasised when compared with people like Jane, who assumes that all people are good-hearted, and Mr Collins, who is automatically swayed to the favour of people of noble birth. Elizabeth's subjective first impressions of Darcy and Wickham show that she is human and can make mistakes in this field; but the fact that she can apply reason after her initial outrage on reading Darcy's letter demonstrates her ability to face truths and change her mind rationally. She is self-aware, unlike characters such as Mr Collins who do not realise their own absurdity, and can criticise herself, such as when she is "enraged with herself for being so silly" for hoping that Darcy still loves her, or even mock herself, as when she remarks on the potential [gd.] misfortune that she may "find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!"
The existence of contrasting characters in Pride and Prejudice displays the fact that Elizabeth has a balance between the cold knowledge of Mary and the wild emotion of Lydia. Mr Bennet brands both Lydia and Mary as silly, but he respects Elizabeth as she can use reason to apply her knowledge and to curb her emotion. The severe practicality of Charlotte Lucas, seen in her acceptance of Mr Collins' proposal which Elizabeth had refused, highlights the fact that although Elizabeth is not romantic to the point of ignoring reality, she is not overly pragmatic either, and understands the importance of love and emotion in life. [Moral principle, too: marriage for love.]
However, Elizabeth also possesses qualities which make her attractive in a traditional feminine way. She is undoubtedly pretty, being said to be "equally next to Jane in birth and beauty". After Darcy's initial rejection to dance with her, it is her "fine eyes" that begin to intrigue him. Despite her cynicism towards humanity, she is not as passive towards the silliness of her family members' actions as Mr Bennet, being embarrassed at the Netherfield ball [exactly -- she is not detached like Mr B.] ball and trying to prevent Lydia from gonig to Brighton. After marriage, she is able to reform Kitty by bringing her to live with her so that she becomes, "by proper attention and management, less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid." Her intimate relationship with Jane is touching, as they confide in each other and give each other advice. It reveals Elizabeth's capacity for sympathy, as seen in the vehemence of her accusation of Darcy for deliberately keeping Jane and Bingley apart. Darcy cites her "affectionate behaviour to Jane". Their sisterly relationship is seen as all the more valuable when contrasted with that of Kitty and Lydia, where Lydia simply encourages Kitty in foolishness and is insensitive to her when she is [gd.] upset. Her high spirits, which can be construed as flirtatious, also attract Darcy to her, as illustrated by her demand that he help to sustain a conversation between them when they dance together at the Netherfield ball. Her character is in no way unfeminine, and it is no wonder that Darcy is attracted to her after he comes to know and understand her.
From this, we can see that Austen has managed to create her ideal woman in Elizabeth. Her strength and intelligence are qualities that make her respectable and admirable to any man or woman, but the fact that she possesses a softer, feminine side makes her genuinely attractive in the eyes of the reader, and helps us to better appreciate her other qualities. With these attributes, in accordance with the intellectual atmosphere of the Enlightenment, we can say that such a character is the finest product of her civilisation.
Well done -- you make a unified, integrated character of her, rather than a list of qualities, and the illuminating illustration from the text is excellent. You even respond to the "civilisation" mentioned in the question.
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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