Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy's Proposal

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. “

The first thing that strikes me on this second reading is that after Darcy’s initial protestation of love, there is no actual dialogue presented. There is only a paraphrase of what was said. It is important to note that although the novel is written in a third person point of view, it is written from Elizabeth’s perspective.

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.


Suko said...

Brian Joseph, excellent, thoughtful commentary. I agree that the uncertainty adds to the complexity and aesthetic value of Pride and Prejudice. I am not sure if Elizabeth's perception is unreliable, but it is surely mutable.

Brona said...

I love how you've taken one moment (albeit a very important & pivotal moment) and delved deeper into it.

I've never noticed before that the bilk of the proposal is from Lizzie's perspective, but of course, the first half of the book is all about Elizabeth's prejudices.
It's only from Darcy's letter onwards, that our views change, along with Lizzie's.

Austen was the master of complexity and deliberate obtuseness. I think that's why rereading Austen brings so much pleasure. You have the time and knowledge to appreciate what she's done.

I experienced the same thing with my reread of S&S. We're meant to be left in the dark about the characters of Edward, Willoughby and Colonel Brandon - just like Elinor and Marianne, we're meant to wonder, doubt, reassess etc.

Thanks for highlighting this moment. Very thought provoking!

JacquiWine said...

Excellent post and commentary, Brian. It's roughly ten years since I last read P&P and my recollections of the proposal scene have almost certainly been coloured by watching various TV/film adaptations. The sense of ambiguity and subtlety you describe demonstrates Austen's skill as a writer, and I agree with your closing comments on her understanding of the human psyche. Fascinating stuff.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

I enjoyed reading what you have written here and now have to admit that I have never read Pride and Prejudice.... I know, I know... I must do so.

Heidi’sbooks said...

It never dawned on me that the dialogue wasn't written out! I just watched the Kiera Knightly movie, and that scene always has the dialogue spelled out in all the movie versions I've seen. The Colin Firth version is better, but both are good. Interesting.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Loving that first quote from Mr Darcy. Romantic if a little flowery. I can't help but wonder if it were set today how it would be done. If he would take out an advert in a local paper or perhaps a banner.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Thanks so much.

I agree and I avoided the word unreliable. I do think we all to some degree have biased or mutable perceptions and I think that Austen was trying to reflect that.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Brona - Your point about rereading Austen is a good. I suspect that if I gave this one a full read I would gain some very different perspective.

I have not yet read sense and sensibility but I want to soon!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Thanks for your kind words.

As I am new to Austen I have not yet seen any of the on screen versions. I did think of them however when writing this post. I would imagine that the ambiguity of this moment would be destroyed on the screen.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Shelia - I am new to Austen myself. I highly recommend her!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - I really need to see one of the film versions. Thanks for the recommendation.

As I mentioned above, the film version would very much change the much of the meaning of the passage for me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - You made me laugh again. That quote on the banner would be a superb thing to do.

I like it to. It fits both the character and the times. It is believable and it was sincere.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - You made me laugh again. That quote on the banner would be a superb thing to do.

I like it to. It fits both the character and the times. It is believable and it was sincere.

The Bookworm said...

Interesting observation about the proposal Brian.
I think that maybe Elizabeth's prejudice really comes out here in her reaction as Austen mainly writing this scene through her eyes.
Like you mention, Lizzie kept on reading the letter and it ends up changing her mind once Darcy explains himself. We can't look back on the proposal the way we can the letter.
I wanted her to say YES to the first proposal! lol But then, I was glad they waited.
In the Kiera Knightly version, that proposal is one of my favorite scenes. And, it's done in the rain to boot.
Great post!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Errrgh. I'm going to try to patiently rewrite what just disappeared.

One of the things I love about Austin is how she does write in third person but from only one person's (the female protagonist) perspective. That allows the readers to see the limitations and personal prejudices of that character.

Darcy insulted Elizabeth at the beginning of the story and it colors everything he says to her for the rest of the story. It takes that climatic scene with the proposal to slap her upside the head and re evaluate her attitude towards him.

All of Austin's female protagonists are presented this way. I love it because it makes them so normal and human and someone I can relate to. Her insight into human character is what makes her writings worthwhile reading.

Sharon Wilfong said...

PS I remember that I also wrote that I enjoyed your commentary on one of my favorite Austin novels. Thanks for the review.

Sharon Wilfong said...

PSS I agree with Heidi. Nothing can compare to the 1995 mini series version of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth.

James said...

You have raised some fascinating questions about an admittedly important passage. In reviewing the paraphrase I am taken by two phrases within it. First the comment "he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride" suggests her unease at the way he put the proposal. Second, the reference to "His sense of her inferiority" suggests that she still senses that he sees himself as superior to her in ways that are, if not unacceptable to her, make her uncomfortable. But, as us point out "we are left wondering" what he really did say. This is undoubtedly just more evidence of Austen's genius.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I must see the film version two.

I do think that one of the wonderfully complex things about this book was that Darcy did have some serious flaws that somewhat improved throughout the narrative. So perhaps the initial rejection may have done him some good.

This was what this post was originally going to be about. In retrospect my argument is a bit weaker then I originally thought,. Though I still think that there is some merit to it.

Brian Joseph said...

HI Sharon - Thanks for the good word.

Pride and Prejudice is the first Austen novel that I read but I am in the middle of Emma now. I see that the point of view that you refer to holds for this one too.

I have decided that I will watch the 1995 miniseries.

Sorry about the posting trouble. I know how frustrating that can be!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Indeed I do not believe that Elizabeth is completely unreliable. No doubt at least to some extent Darcy did put his foot in his mouth.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting points. I didn't catch this about the first proposal, but I did notice that later on in the story when Elizabeth and Darcy become engaged that Austen doesn't provide a second proposal scene. Elizabeth and Darcy walk together and seem to agree to get married, but Austen doesn't share with us their conversation.

Violet said...

I think it's hilarious when Darcy starts going on about his sense of Lizzie's social inferiority, how it would be a degradation to him and his family if he married her, and how it would 'wound his consequence'. I think that a whole lot of dialogue would ruin the impact of his prejudice and arrogance because, for me, part of Austen's satirical genius was that she allowed the reader to imagine things for themselves instead of spelling it out in dialogue. I think that's why generations of readers have been intrigued by her writing. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi EbooksClassics and thanks for stopping by.

I suspect that there is a lot of summarizing of conversations that I really did not notice the first time around.

As I mentioned I think that a reread of this book will provide many insights.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I think that your concept is interesting as if the summarizing was meant to increase the impact, then perhaps Austen was not trying to obfuscate here.

So many books, so little time said...

I think I said it in your pride and prejudice post but I have the complete novels of Jane Austen and haven't read P&P for years and some of the others never. I think I need to read them and revisit your commentary as I love seeing other peoples takes on things as we all view or notice different things, sometimes even missing parts so it will be interesting, I think, to compare. I don't often go into too much depth with things however I wonder if now reading your observations if I will pick up more :)


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - It is really interesting how folks do see different things when they read a great book. Foe me it is one of the things that makes blogging so fun.

Lory said...

I think this is an excellent point about the words of the proposal not being given, and I do think that the purpose is to emphasize Elizabeth's point of view and keep us in her "prejudice" mode. This is one of the subtleties of the narrative art that can be lost when transferred to the screen, and why I seldom find film versions of books satisfying. Though I do love the BBC version, it will never replace the book for me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lori - Thanks for stopping by.

I think that films and books are different art forms. I agree no movie can replace a great boon. I think that when films are great they are so for different reason.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

I enjoyed reading your analysis - I haven't read the book but it's interesting to read your thoughts.
I didn't know about this event, it sounds fun. I have a copy of Northanger Abbey, maybe I'll join if it's not too late.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - I just became aware of the event at the last minute. I would love to read a post of yours on Austen.

JaneGS said...

>Could it be that the author was trying to say more about Elizabeth’s perception of the event than the event itself?

I think so. If Austen had shared Darcy's actual words, the reader could evaluate them without Elizabeth's filter. This way Austen controls the reader's perception more and we cannot like or esteem Darcy much before Elizabeth does herself.

Emma is even more so like this. It works because Austen keeps the reader in a the same fog that Emma is in.

Great post--I love reading your newbie reactions to P&P!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I am about three quarters through Emma and I am seeing that perception plays a gig part of that story too. It seems that it even comes into play with other characters there.

Thanks for the good word.

Lindsay said...

Love this analysis Brian and this is such a memorable moment in the book, I agree that Austen has such insight into human behaviour. I recall the moment now more strongly from the tv and film versions I have watched so it's nice to read the original words again.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - Thanks.

I hope to see a screen version soon. As we have been discussing this moment in a such a version would need to be more "written out" . Likely it would be very dramatic but different in meaning.

Unknown said...

Yet again, I agree with you. I think watching the movie colored my opinion of what Darcy said for many years. Upon reread, its Elizabeth's POV that causes problems as much as Darcy's.

Emma is another book where the dialog is presented not as spoken but in third person, because Emma was always seeing things her own way. It's one of Austen's genius devices.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - I am almost finished with Emma and I am really taking note of the "summarized" conversations. There are a few of these passages and yes, they do seem to show the world from Emma's somewhat biased viewpoint.

LMR said...

Interesting to see Austen play with perception like this. Now that I think of it, she does the same, a bit, in Northanger Abbey: the heroine misconstrues many things and then reinterprets them in a different light, on a journey of growth.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - I am almost finished with Emma and she plays with perception there too.

I want to raed Northanger Abbey soon.

Anonymous said...

Excellent commentary, Brian.

I don't know if Austen did it on purpose but by not writing a dialogue, she prevents the reader to pick a side by themselves. You're forced to see things through Elizabeth's lenses. If you had the dialogue on the page, you could make up your mind about the characters.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - Thanks for the good word.

Yes, after now finishing Emma, this seems something Austen seems to do a lot of not letting the reader pick, but instead shows the one perspective. Only later does she reveal that the point of view may be faulty.