Thursday, August 7, 2014

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Thanks again to Jenna of The Lost Generation Reader for hosting the Austen in August reading event.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is such a well known and often talked about and analyzed book that I am in a little bit of a dilemma as to how to approach my commentary. First off, I shall render my verdict: this is an extraordinary and fun book that is packed with entertaining and dynamic characters. It is also filled with insightful and important observations about the human experience. The novel is infused with amusing, thoughtful and surprising deep philosophy. This book is all about people. Specifically, it is about our strengths, weaknesses, motivations and desires. As a latecomer to Austen, I can say with an air of impartiality that may be suspect in her more diehard fans that this book deserves the esteem that it is held in.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, the main character is Elizabeth Bennet. The narrative follows Elizabeth and her sisters as they interact with society. Romantic associations form a key part of their world. Jane is the oldest sister and although an incurable optimist, she is intelligent and perceptive. Catherine and Lydia are still in their teens and are frivolous, flirty and very immature. Mary, is bookish but pretentious. I will say more about Elizabeth below.

The various male characters who intermingle romantically with the sisters include the moody, complex and enigmatic Mr. Darcy, the charming, decent, but somewhat weak willed Charles Bingley, and the seemingly charming but duplicitous George Wickham. Many additional male and female characters, some very interesting in their own right, populate the tale.

As alluded to above, volumes upon volumes have been written about this book by professionals and amateurs alike. The character of Elizabeth garners much of the attention of the novel’s admirers. Such notice is well deserved. Elizabeth is a dynamic, amusing, intelligent creation who often seems like a real person. Her perceptive and biting observations upon the world and its inhabitants are a major source of her popularity as well as the charm of the book. Yet, like several of Austen’s characters, her psyche is well constructed and includes virtues as well as flaws.

What can I add to all of this that has not already been said? I also have in mind that this is the first Austen novel that I have read and the immense number of opinions on Elizabeth, Darcy and the main themes of the book have been formulated by many people who know Austen much better than I do.

Thus, in order to avoid playing in traffic, I will focus my attention upon a somewhat minor, or at least only moderately important, point and character in the tale. That is, Austen’s take on the Bennet family, particularly through the lens of Elizabeth’s father, Mr. Bennet.
We are all so accustomed in fiction to good natured and amusing tales of families whose members are quirky and imperfect. Often, such imperfections are viewed in the context of relationships that are, on the whole, positive. On the surface, this seems to be the situation with the Bennets. However, there is something going on in here that contains a surprisingly hard edge.

Mr. Bennet is a bright man who clearly imparted some of his keen perception and acerbic humor and personality upon Elizabeth.  He has, however, found himself married to a woman who he is contemptuous of,

Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown.”
Mr. Bennet has not fallen into despair, however. Instead, he sees his wife as an object of ridicule,

But Mr. Bennet was not of a disposition to seek comfort for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement.”

The fact that Austen herself, in the third person narrative, describes Mrs. Bennet in similarly harsh terms lends the sense that Mr. Bennet’s attitude is not just meanness. 

Elizabeth’s mother is thus pronounced,

She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.”

In addition, in several instances it is clear that thoughtful and generally sympathetic characters can barely stand Mrs. Bennet as she wantonly displays her narcissism, obnoxiousness and ignorance.

This is a complex situation, however. Mr. Bennet’s amused contempt for his wife has a detrimental effect upon the entire family. At one point, Elizabeth observes,

“that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.”

Worse still, while Elizabeth and her sister Jane are portrayed as intelligent, dynamic and thoughtful people, the younger sisters are seen to be taking on their mother’s bad attributes and are on more than one occasion described as “ignorant, idle, and vain.”

Yet the younger girls are still in their teens. It is somewhat surprising that Mr. Bennet, who seems to act with wisdom and understanding when supporting his older daughters, has given up on the younger ones. When Lydia is invited by friends to go on an ill advised stay at Brighton, where she will likely get into serious trouble, Mr. Bennet does not care enough to stop her. He even ridicules her and the other younger sisters’ flaws as he does his wife’s weaknesses. This is not just appalling, but unexpected as he shows wisdom and understanding when dealing with the older girls, and he is particularly close with Elizabeth.

Elizabeth laments this malfeasance,

"But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents, which, rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.”

Later, when Lydia marries the roguish George Wickham, Mr. Bennett amuses himself by belittling his son-in-law too.

What is one to make of Mr. Bennet? There is no excuse for his attitude and negligence of his younger daughters. Yet, he is intelligent, witty and perceptive. He shows admirable qualities towards his older daughters who he clearly views as worthy of respect. Often his humor is very funny, the reader laughs alongside with him, and he is a very entertaining character.

Mr. Bennet’s portrayal is one of many reasons that this is a great novel. The man is really not so puzzling. Humans behave this way.  Sometimes, the same people who exhibit very noble behavior in some areas of life exhibit pernicious behavior in different contexts. One can understand Mr. Benet’s attitude toward his terribly overbearing and vacuous wife and his unscrupulous son-in-law, but only to a point. The point stops when this contempt begins to influence and even extend to the children. Mr. Bennet is unable to see that he has crossed a line and that his witty but cynical sarcasm is damaging his family. Though he exhibits admirable qualities and seems likable, he is infused with an unfortunate streak of narcissism and irresponsibility.

Above are my observations on one little aspect of this book. I can write a lot  more and plan to do so the future. 

This is a terrific book that easily reaches my definition of “high art.” Those who love to explore the human condition though fiction, or who just love great literature, but like to have fun while doing so, need to read this. Personally I plan to read a lot more of Jane Austen.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Austen's fathers are all absent, useless, or worse.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - I have just started Emma and have not read anything else. That is VERY interesting and food for thought.

Heidi’sbooks said...

Wowza. Great commentary. I never gave Mr. Bennett enough scrutiny, but you're right. And would Mrs. Bennett have acted differently if she were loved and respected in front of the rest of the family? Well....maybe not. She is Mrs. Bennett, after all. But it's a thought worth pursuing. I had never thought of her as an unloved woman.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi- Thanks so much.

I did not think about the possibility that Mrs. Bennett might have been a better person had Mr. Bennett been kinder to her. She is portrayed very negatively so I am not so sure.

Heidi’sbooks said...

PS I forgot to say that a lot of your readers are very jealous that you are getting to read Pride and Prejudice for the first time! Me included! A couple of years ago I found an Austen novella called Lady Susan that I had never read before. I reveled in the fact that I could read it for the first time. (Alas, it wasn't as good as some of her others. But, Lady Susan was a diabolical mother.)

JacquiWine said...

Fantastic review, Brian, truly excellent stuff. You've analysed Mr Bennet so well - I think he's one of the most interesting characters in the book, possibly more so than Elizabeth, even. I agree with your comments about his neglect of the younger daughters and how this provides a contrast to his relationship with Jane and Elizabeth...and it's part of what makes his character feel human and believable.

I'll look forward to reading your future P&P posts. Are you planning on looking at different aspects of the book in turn?

Suko said...

Very interesting and insightful commentary about Mr. Bennet, Brian Joseph. Usually, people focus on Elizabeth or Darcy. While I was reading this, I kept picturing Donald Sutherland who plays Mr. Bennet in the (2005) movie version of P & P (he does a great job in his role, I think). The next time I read P & P, I will keep your words in mind--thank you!

Anonymous said...

Great job, focusing on the minor characters. I've heard so much about Elizabeth and Darcy, that this was a very refreshing take. I wonder, in what you've written, how much of a class/gender hierarchy background is there that defines the father's behavious towards his wife (apart from simply personal idiosyncrasies).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - The Joys of discovering a great writer that everyone else seems to know about a little latter in life are priceless :)

I do find that even great writers have some obscure works that are not as compelling as their best books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Thanks so much.

Mr. Bennet really is the unsung "interesting" character of this work.

This book was interesting enough so that I will be putting at least one more post up about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gautam - I thought that Mr. Bennet's reaction to his wife was presented by Austen as understandable and defensible up to the point where it begins to affect his daughters negatively. Mrs. Bennet is shown to be a fairly bad person. He just goes way too far with it. this is part of what makes the characters so complex.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I have not seen any of the film versions yet but I plan to. Donald Sutherland seems perfectly cast in the role of Mr. Bennet.

Brona said...

You've summed up nicely why i love JA so much. All her characters are complex, flawed, nuanced human beings with good points and bad. Even Lizzie has to contend with her own prejudices and pride.
I can usually pick JA's favourites though, they're the characters that she allows to grow and change and learn from their mistakes.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Brona - Changing characters do indeed add a a level of complexity on top of complexity. The best writers do portray people like this.

In this respect Mr. Bennet does not seem to change all that much.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick correction: Mary is not the youngest Bennet daughter. (She's the invisible middle child!) Next comes Catherine, and Lydia is the youngest.

James said...

Thank you for articulating the complexities of Mr. Bennet's personality. I have always focused on his intelligence and wit, but there is obviously more to his character. All the more reason to plan to read Pride and Prejudice one more time.

Brian Joseph said...

Whoever you are Anonymous, thanks for the correction! I have corrected the error in the the text of my post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - The thing is I like Mr. Bennet's humor and attitude too. In many ways he looks at the world and people like I do. He laughs at the frivolous and does not really let it effect him.

When he acts this way towards his daughters however, it becomes problematic.

Guy Savage said...

What a great idea: Austen in August. Like you, though, I wonder what can be said that hasn't already been said.

Anyway, I wanted to mention that a former professor, who just happened to be an internationally recognized Austen scholar made a great deal of Mr Bennet's studied, wry and witty neglect of his responsibilities. He's so busy scoring points against his wife, that becomes his main focus and look at the mayhem that results.

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian, I have been waiting for this post!
P & P was my first time reading Austen in my 20's and it was just right for me at that time. This is the author who got me reading more classic novels.

Interesting about Mr. Bennet isn't it? I think Lizzie is his favorite and he might just be waiting for the silly younger daughters to grow up. Like you said "this book is all about people". It really is about people and the world Austen inhabited. I think she's also making fun of society in a playful way with these characters. It would have driven me crazy living in a time where your main goal in life was to marry well.
I read somewhere that Jane Austen said that all her books would have happy endings, unlike real life. She wrote Jane and Elizabeth to model herself and her own sister, who were very close.

But you know what I truly love about this novel was the transformation of each Darcy and Lizzie. They complimented one another so perfectly, I loved that. I liked that she refused his first proposal and the respect he has for her.
And that naughty Wickham! Don't get me started :)

Thanks for the post!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Interesting that respected Austen scholar also focused on Mr Bennet like this.

Without a doubt his has virtuous qualities that if he applied to all of his family would have avoided a great deal of angst for his family.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - These characters are indeed a joy to read about.

Agreed that the change in in Lizzie and Darcy are a major factor as to what makes the characters so good.

Undoubtedly Lizzie is Mr. Bennet's favorite, but I think that he is too obvious about tit to the detriment of the younger girls.

Wickham is indeed a fun character to hate. It is a great moment when Mr. Bennet actually turns his sarcastic wit upon him!

I am big proponent of unhappy endings in literature, but in the case of this novel I am glad that the ending was happy.

Unknown said...

I totally agree with you about Mr. Bennet. Many people view him as intelligent and a strong, reliable father figure. But he wasn't, really. He failed to make good financial decisions - I'm sorry, planning on having a son is not a sound financial plan - and he spends much of his time mocking his wife and younger three daughters instead of influencing their behavior with fatherly support.

Upon rereading this novel a couple years ago, I also realized that Lizzie has her share of flaws, too. I'd always thought the "pride" part of P&P referred to Darcy, but it refers to both of them. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel- I did not even go into Mr. Bennet's financial malfeasance but that is another flaw of his. I think many people view him as strong because his support of his older daughters is strong.

Lizzie is certainly flawed also. These are reasons why I liked the book so much.

Lindsay said...

Brilliant commentary on this classic Brian. I totally agree that it is both fun and insightful reading matter, and there are some wonderful characters. Really enjoyed your post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay- Thanks so much.

Indeed one thing that distinguishes this book is the fact that it is was of the more fun books that is actually a very serious work.

Caroline said...

This is my favourite Austen book and I'm so glad you liked it too. I'm very keen on finding out which one you'll end up liking the most. Not everyone is as partial to pRide and Prejudice.
Tom's right about the fathers, of course. For a long time I thought Mr Bennet was an exception but he has his flaws as well.
I hope you don't mind my saying that you have a sneaky typo in your otherwise perfect post - it says Austin instead of Austen most of the time. I guess it'sdue to the auto-correct thingy - that I can't disable on my lapotop either - It makes such weird changes.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - First thanks so much for letting know about that typos. There were eight of them! I would not call them pesky, nasty is better word. Definitely the result of some kind of autocorrect kicking in at the last moment since they are not on the word document that I originally wrote the post on. I still am surprised that I missed this. All fixed now!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline again :) - i think that one important aspect about Mr. Bennet is that he has some really good qualities. Of course he supports and stands by his older daughters at some important moments. I also like his humor as he mocks the inane and vacuous aspects of the world.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Great review, Brian, it makes me want to read the book as soon as possible, even though I've seen the movie and feel like it won't be the same fresh experience.
Interesting facts about Mr Bennett, that puts the book in a new light.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - I have not yet seen the movie but want to ASAP. I would guess that if you liked ot then you would really like this book.

I am curious as tohow the movie portrayed Mr. Bennet.

Violet said...

I love Mr Bennet. He's such a great character. I think that in him, Austen satirises the quintessential indulgent father, and the husband who just wants a quiet life but he lives in a house FULL of women. Poor Mr B! I think he is just rather bewildered and overwhelmed by all the womenfolk and retreats to his study for a bit of peace and quiet. :) I think the Bennets are an example of the old saying, 'Marry in haste, repent at leisure'. She was probably really pretty when she was young and he overlooked her less-stellar qualities. :)

Austen was a brilliant satirist. She just sticks it to everyone and has a fantastic time doing it. I think you would like Mansfield Park, which is a more serious kind of book full of issues. Many people dislike it and find it boring, but it's my second-favourite Austen novel, after Persuasion.

I cannot recommend the Kiera Knightley film of P& P. It is too GHASTLY for words! Try and watch the BBC series with Colin Firth as Darcy. It's really, really good. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Mr. Bennet has so many qualities that I love. His outlook on the world is so much like mine.

Being the only male a house surrounded by women is a funny and interesting predicament that he is in. On reason that I loved this book so much is that Austen was able to convey all this while making him do some really questionable things.

Thanks for the film recommendation. I have heard the BBC series was the best.

Your comment also made me laugh :)

Harvee said...

Amazing when children reach the point when they can observe their parents in a realistic and maybe not so flattering light!
Book Dilettante

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - That is indeed what Lizzie is doing here. I would venture to say that it is common at a certain age for children to critique their parents like this.

JaneGS said...

Welcome to the club! Austen's realistic characters are marvelous. I happen to really like Mr. B--I'm charmed by his regard for Elizabeth but cannot forgive him for, as you say, damaging his family through his indolence.

P&P is a tremendously fun book to read, and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - that is the thing about Mr. Bennet, he is easy to love. But Jane Austen is being very complicated here.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Put off by the old fashioned language to me the women are all simpering but then I could be mistaken, that the message has got lost in translation as it were.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - You made me laugh.

The manors of the time and place were so very different from ours indeed.

Definitely some simpering going on, I find it just as so with the male characters though.

Maria Behar said...

(The "Typo Monster" did it again, so, being a perfectionist, I promptly deleted my previous comment.)

As always, I greatly enjoyed reading your insights, as well as your interesting, unique take on this beloved Austen work! What you say about Mr. Bennet is absolutely true, and rather sad, as well. I do think it's great that he so admires and supports his older daughters, but I'm dismayed that, as you've pointed out, he seems to have given up on his younger ones.

I think the greatness of this novel, and indeed, all of Austen's works, is that, underneath the humor, there's something dark and dysfunctional. It seems as if she's saying that the only way to tolerate these things is to attempt to see the humor in them. After all, there were no psychiatrists or psychologists at the time.

I also think that there’s a very important reason Austen contrasts the personalities of Mrs. Bennet and the younger daughters with those of the older ones. By doing this, I believe she's pointing out two contrasting views of women -- the younger girls are what the society of the time expected women to be like -- very adept at maneuvering through social intricacies, shallow, and with not an ounce of interest in intellectual pursuits. The older girls are the type of women Austen admires, and would have liked the society of her time to approve of -- women possessed of a sharp, witty intelligence, who can see underneath the shallowness and hypocrisy of the society they unfortunately had to live in. By having Mr. Benent admire and approve of Elizabeth and Jane, Austen might have intended to elevate intellectual women to a position she hoped they would enjoy in the future. In other words, Mr. Bennet could be symbolic of the society of the time, which was obviously controlled by men.

Thanks for the great commentary!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for your kind words.

Without a doubt you are correct. Austen is contrasting the intellectual women with the vacuous one and her sympathies are firmly with the intellectuals.

Austen is such a complex writer. She does show the underlying darkness as we both observed. yet all is not dark, It is indeed a mix.

Anonymous said...

Finally, I have time to read your thoughts about Austen

I agree with Tom, fathers in Austen's world are weak creatures. (Emma's father is terrible, don't you think?)

To me, Mr Bennett seems a bit lazy or lacking perseverance. He's closer to his oldest daughters but they didn't need anything from him. They're bright enough by themselves. The others need direction and it requires perseverance. You can't utter a rule to a child and expect it to be respected or give directions and see an immediate and long-lasting change. It requires repetition, follow-up and attention. Mr Bennett doesn't have that in him.

Sure, the poor man married a Charles Bovary in a female body. But he definitely lacks courage when it comes to limit the influence of his wife on his daughters.

I'm glad you loved it. It's a fine piece of literature. I would have loved to meet Jane Austen. She must have been interesting.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

"Charles Bovary in a female body" - ooh, that's pretty good.

Brian Joseph said...

I Emma - I just completed Emma and indeed we have another weak farther in that book. I do perhaps give Mr. Bennet a little credit for the virtues of his older daughters.

I agree with Tom, the Charles Bovary reference is a gem.