Monday, February 14, 2005

P&P essay

If you've been reading this blog regularly, you know of my love affair with Pride and Prejudice. Well, that love has finally culminated (er, okay, I got an assignment) in my essay on P&P. Feel free to skip; I just thought that this would be a nice way to tie up this little obsession--now I can stick it out of the way for a while. So without further ado...

Addressing and Overcoming Flaws:
An Analysis of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

One who cannot recognize and reform his flaws remains forever trapped by them. The characters in Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice are defined by their faults; they are ultimately viewed favorably or unfavorably depending on whether or not they confront their weaknesses. Darcy’s and Lizzy’s self-realization, Bingley’s stasis, and Austen’s unusual plot devices all exemplify the importance of confronting one’s flaws.

The novel’s beginning teems with colorful characters, and no obvious protagonists emerge at first; many authors define their heroes by displaying their strengths, but Austen in fact first introduces all her characters—the trivial as well as the significant—by showcasing their weaknesses. Darcy is found “to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased” (6); Mrs. Bennet is “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” (3); Lizzy is neither “handsome…[nor] good-humoured” (2); and Lydia is “silly and ignorant” (2). None of the flaws are endearing; in fact, they negatively color the reader’s initial impressions of the characters.

As the novel progresses, however, those characters who gain knowledge of and react to their flaws begin to achieve greater depth. Darcy, for instance, shows a degree of self-awareness when he admits to Lizzy that his “behaviour to you [Lizzy] at the time had merited the severest reproof. It was unpardonable” (275). Lizzy herself is aghast and ashamed when she realizes her own faults. “Oh!” Austen exclaims, “how heartily did she grieve over every ungracious sensation she had ever encouraged…she was humbled” (243). Darcy and Lizzy are the eventual protagonists because they are the characters who acknowledge and make an effort to amend their weaknesses. Thus, a man is not propelled to become a hero by a particular strength of ability; ironically, his strength is rather the courage to face his weaknesses.

In contrast to Darcy and Lizzy—the two characters who most fully realize their flaws reform their ways—most of Austen’s characters remain solidly two-dimensional because they never recognize, much less overcome, their weaknesses. Bingley initially appears to be an ideal man: he is “wonderfully handsome and extremely agreeable” (5); and because he is additionally “a young man of large fortune…Nothing could be more delightful!” (1-5). But Bingley is weak and his mind easily swayed; he abandons Jane and his home at Netherfield at a mere suggestion from the strong-willed Darcy, who indeed has an “easy manner of directing his friend” (278). Even at the end of the novel, Bingley’s decisions improve not because of any increased self-awareness but rather due to Darcy’s change of heart. Bingley must realize that he adjusts his life and his own happiness according to the whims of a friend, but he makes no move to reform; consequently, even the upright and kind-hearted Bingley wins no great favor in the heart of the reader. In contrast to Mr. Bingley, who at least has the (albeit unrealized) potential for heroism, the officious Mr. Collins is hopelessly flawed; yet, as neither man addresses his faults, so neither develops great dimension of character or import in the reader’s mind.

Austen broadens the application of flaws as developmental tools when she deviates from common literary methods in her unusual handling of what may be termed The Lydia Debacle. A character’s degree of consequence is generally reflected in his page-time, yet the scandal which occupies a third of the novel centers around the actions of Lydia and Wickham, who, despite the attention Austen pays them, hold little significance to the reader. Rather, their situation serves as the impetus for Darcy—the real hero—“to overcome…[his] abhorrence against relationship with Wickham…In a cause of compassion and honour, he had been able to get the better of himself” (243-244). Not only do the weaknesses define the characters, they also drive the plot itself; and as the many mishaps that drive the plot result from character flaws, so Darcy’s and Lizzy’s self-awareness bring the plot to its happy resolution. Once again, the misfortunes that occur are insignificant compared to the way the characters deal with them.

Austen’s focus on the flawed nature of man makes all of her characters delightfully human; her focus on the natural reactions of her most heroic characters is what makes Darcy and Lizzy resonate so deeply with the reader. She counsels not that man must strive to live free of fault, but rather that he realize and attempt to overcome his weaknesses. Through her expert dissection of a very few, very distinctive characters, Austen strangely manages also to scrutinize and illuminate a picture of man that spans time, society, and temperament; she has created “a truth universally acknowledged” (1), a seemingly frivolous dissertation asserting that in their flaws lies the potential heroism of men.


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