"How despicably have I acted!":Perhaps it is somewhat less than daring to examine chapter 36 (Penguin edition) of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, in which Elizabeth Bennett's reactions to Mr. Darcy's letter are explored; clearly it is the most obvious choice for a discussion of shifts in attitude between characters. However, I found the scene to be the most stimulating and satisfying in the book, and since it is always better to write about those things for which one holds some passionate feeling, and since my own disposition is disinclined to get very passionate about the writings of Jane Austen (I prefer the Brontes or Eliot), I shall disregard the usual urge to go spelunking in some hitherto unexplored crevice of the book, and opt for walking boldly through the huge, double doors below the neon sign which flashes the words "PLOT POINT."
Attitude Adjustment in Pride and Prejudice
The first description of Elizabeth's state upon perusing Fitzwilliam Darcy's revelatory missive is characteristic of Austen when relating heavy emotion: she doesn't. "Her feelings as she read were scarcely to be defined," she tells us (p. 233). Compare this to Emma's reaction to Mr. Elton's marraige proposal in Emma (Penguin, p. 150): "It would be impossible to say what Emma felt, on hearing this..." Of course, all this negation of representational skills is purely for dramatic effect, and Miss Austen goes on to provide a full account of every aspect of Elizabeth's emotional upheaval per her reading of the letter, but not, however, without using the device again in the second paragraph, in treating the subject of the truth about Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth's feelings are conveyed as having been "...yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition." Said difficulty is indeed short lived, as the next sentence reads, "Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her" (p. 233).
The Wickham segment of the chapter, spanning pages 234, 235, and the better part of 236, is significant not so much in its development of Wickham's character, as in what it does to Elizabeth. After the aforementioned astonishment et. al., Elizabeth momentarily engages in denial ("This must be false! This cannot be! This is the grossest falsehood!" (p. 233)) but eventually her intellectual faculties regain their footing and she settles down to a second "mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham, and command[s] herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence" (p. 234). As she does so, she gradually comes to what might be described in contemporary self-help parlance as a "moment of clarity," in which she realizes not only that she misjudged (or rather pre-judged) Wickham, but that her whole method of evaluating others has been wrong, that she has been, in fact, living a lie--her whole good opinion of Wickham had been based on nothing more than his "countenance, voice, and manner" (p. 234), shallow criteria indeed for a young lady not unaware of her own quickness, or, as she puts it, "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! -I, who have valued myself on my abilities!" (p.236). Her self-deprecating tirade finally ends with the statement, "Till this moment, I never knew myself" (p. 237). For me, this is the crux of the book; what care I for the petty concerns of the landed gentry at the turn of the 18th century? But a moment of pure epiphany, the acquisition of self-knowledge, these are what art and literature are all about in my opinion, and what make this the most important moment in the novel. Of course Elizabeth's eventual visit to Pemberley is a turning point in her understanding of Mr. Darcy, but chapter 36 is such in her understanding of herself.
The issues of pride and prejudice certainly come to the fore in this chapter, both in direct mention as well as their presence in Elizabeth's character. It is a common interpretation that the two qualities of the book's title apply to Elizabeth and Darcy, the former to him, the latter to her, but in reading chapter 36, we see that both are really concerned with her, and that Darcy's possession of each is more subordinate plot-wise, serving to contrast and highlight those aspects of her character, and likewise to serve as a catalyst for her ultimate transcendence of them. At the outset, Elizabeth reads Darcy's letter with "...a strong prejudice against every thing he might say..." (p. 233), and after the second reading, much chastened, she realizes "that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd" (p. 236). Also, she comes to realize that "...vanity, not love, has been my folly" (p. 236). Vanity is, of course, an extension of pride, and it does double duty here, not only being at the heart of her initial disapprobation regarding Darcy, but, going the other way, serving as a sugary bon bon with which Wickham was so easily able to sway her opinion towards himself and against the other fellow. It is the shattering of Elizabeth's pride and prejudice, in relation to both Mr. Darcy and Wickham, that lead to her startling revelation about herself.
In class discussions of Pride and Prejudice, the metaphor of "reading" was employed in attempting to understand Elizabeth's abilities, as well as her shortcomings, and it is useful in the context of our discussion of Darcy's letter and its reactions in chapter 36. To start, Austen's decision to allow us to read the letter itself does a number of things: it moves the plot, it gives us an insight, via the style and length of the letter, into the character of Darcy, and it provides added punch to Elizabeth's reactions by allowing us to empathize with her. No doubt, Miss Austen was aware of the benefits of the epistolary device, coming as she did out of a literary tradition greatly influenced by Richardson and Smollet, as well as French writers such as Laclos and Rousseau. By giving us a peek at the personal correspondence between two characters, their verisimilitude is heightened and a mild prurience is satisfied on our part; by reading their letters, we are, in a sense, reading them. Miss Austen utilizes this device, and then not only has the heroine read the letter as well, but has her do a close reading, the scrutiny of which would have made F.R. Leavis proud, and, of course, as all close readings must, her's brings her new insight and understanding.
In closing, it only remains to be said that of the three Jane Austen novels I have read (the third being Sense and Sensibility), Elizabeth Bennett is by far the most interesting, as well as the most completely realized character, and for no reason do I make this assertion more than the very fact of the revelations and self-discovery that are explicated in chapter 36. This is not to say that Elinor and Marianne and Emma don't have their own epiphanies, but theirs do not have he same level of intensity, the same sudden, total self-confrontation that is Elizabeth's. The writing sparkles more in Pride and Prejudice than it does in Emma, there is a wonderful brevity (which, of course, is the soul of wit) in the dialogue, a briskness to the narrative, as well as more concern for the deeper human qualities and less for the trivialities and small talk of provincial life. All of these qualities add to the rendering of Elizabeth as a character about whom we can care, in the midst of a narrative which it is not a chore to read.
©1996 Patrick Galloway
Pat's Lit Page