Thanks again to Jenna of The Lost Generation Reader was hosting Austen in August reading event.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is such an enjoyable and yet substantive book. As I observed in my previous post on the book, so much can be said about this novel. For this post I want to concentrate one particular event in the narrative.
One of the major elements of the plot involves the first marriage proposal made by Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet. Due to a combination of misunderstanding, bumbling by Darcy, as well as unfair judgment by Elizabeth, the proposal is spurned.
I initially planned to share some thoughts concerning the passage in which the proposal is made. I intended to argue that Darcy did indeed exhibit enormous arrogance, thus justifying Elizabeth’s appalled reaction. This is indeed how I remembered the passage. When I went back and read this part of the book, however, something surprised me.
The content of Darcy’s proposal is below. This quote begins with Darcy speaking,
"In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
Following a few words describing Elizabeth’s surprised reaction, Austen continues to describe Darcy’s offer.
“the avowal of all that he felt, and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well; but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed; and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit. “
Why would Austen, an extremely skilled artisan of human speech, refrain from putting words in Darcy’s mouth at such a critical juncture of her story? Could it be that the author was trying to say more about Elizabeth’s perception of the event than the event itself? One of the basic themes of the book seems to be the “prejudice” that Elizabeth holds towards the characters of others, particularly Darcy. The question arises then, is the above description of Darcy’s proposal perhaps shaded by this prejudice? So shaded, in fact, that she does not remember the actual words. It is very difficult for me to think of other reasons why this important moment in the narrative is so sparse in dialogue.
Perhaps Austen may not be saying anything definitive here. We are left wondering what Darcy did say. To be sure, up until this point in the narrative he has shown himself to be socially uncouth and, at times, insensitive to the feelings of others. Thus, it would not be all that surprising if he were to blurt out inappropriate and even insulting things in his proposal. Based on Elizabeth and Darcy’s characters, it seems extremely unlikely that she completely imagined Darcy’s insult to her status and family. On the other hand, even if his speech left much to be desired, was it as bad as the paraphrase indicated that it was? Are we certain about its tone and severity or whether or not there were ameliorating words or arguments included?
Admittedly, I am on shaky ground here. I cannot really determine what Austen’s intentions were. I can say that, at least for myself, while the text leaves me certain about how Elizabeth perceived the proposal, I am fuzzy as to what Darcy actually said. I must also note that my own slightly distorted recollection of this passage prior to my rereading might just reflect how good Austen was at creating this ambiguity in the mind of the reader.
Later in the novel Darcy sends Elizabeth a letter in an attempt to clear up some misconceptions that our heroine has about him. It is significant that upon her first reading of the correspondence, Elizabeth is a bit lukewarm concerning Darcy’s words. However, with further rereading, she strongly warms to what he has to say and eventually comes to cherish the letter. Is this further evidence of Elizabeth’s unreliable perception? Had the earlier conversation with Darcy been recorded or transcribed, might she have perceived it differently after several reviews?
What Darcy actually said in his initial proposition will now forever be unclear for me. I would argue that such uncertainty only adds to the complexity and aesthetic value of this novel. Like some other nineteenth century English novelists, Austen seems to have been a very good psychologist. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this very curious passage. Austen’s understanding and ability to exhibit the human psyche and its equivocality adds to the brilliance of this book.