Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Pride and Prejudice

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I have just finished reading “Pride and Prejudice”—and find myself both puzzled and disappointed: While I was well aware that Jane Austen was a “chick-lit” writer, I had expected a work of depth and quality commensurate to its and her reputation. Not so.

The book is not only chick-lit and extremely “high concept”*, but is also void of anything that would raise it above mere entertainment literature.** There are minimal or no attempts to explore questions of ethics, philosophy, personal development (except as below), social criticism, …, and no sign of a “higher” purpose. There is some space given to psychology (in a wide sense), but not much and most is trite, not going much beyond the typical in even entertainment literature. Above all, there was nothing that made me stop to think, showed me something important that I did not already understand, left me an even marginally better person after the reading, …*** For intellectual purposes, I might just as well read a Bond novel—and if I did, I would at least be entertained.

*Specifically, focusing on twists and turns during the process of finding a husband in the then upper-class Britain.

**Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with reading (I often do) or writing entertainment literature. The point is the difference between reputation and reality. (Also see an excursion at the end.)

***A potential lesson is that trying to figure people out without communication is extremely error-prone, including the apparent female habit of trying to deduce a man’s feelings and intentions towards her based on small actions and endless speculation. Ditto understanding a situation after hearing only one side. However, I have understood both since I was a teenager.

The characters are without exception one-dimensional, and most are truly silly and/or unsympathetic people, be it out of stupidity, narrow-mindedness, shallowness, immaturity, or, indeed, “Pride and Prejudice”.* Some lee-way might be given to the teenage or border-line teenage characters acting like teenagers; however, the situation is not that much better when we move up in age, as exemplified by e.g. Mrs. Bennet and Lady de Bourgh. Consider the main character, Elizabeth (“Prejudice”), who builds her entire impression of Darcy (“Pride”) based on hearsay, without any attempt to find out his side of the story—how many twists and turns could have been avoided which just a little bit of common sense and fairness. (While it is true that this failing is very common, it also made it very hard for me to sympathize with her—and even harder to understand that Darcy would be interested in the long-term.)

*Writing this, I contemplate whether the intention might have been some type of deliberate satire of or comedy based on human absurdity, stupidity, silliness, or similar—possibly, something along the lines of “The Pickwick Papers” or “Three Men in a Boot”. However, if so, it is not very skillfully done, and Austen leaves the impression of taking these people seriously. (On the character level: That some were deliberately written as stupid is clear.)

Now, based on the juxtaposition of “Pride” and “Prejudice”, and looking at the initial developments, we might expect personal growth to be a theme. However, even that is not truly the case. Elizabeth did not come around through learning to disregard prejudice, get both sides of the story, whatnot—she was forced to re-evaluate specific prejudice in light of ever more evidence that she had been wrong. To boot, she took far longer than reasonable to complete her change of mind. Whether she truly learned her lesson is far from clear. Darcy might, depending on interpretation, have developed farther; however, most of his later behavior, e.g. his explanatory letter or his help to Lydia, could also be seen as rooted in continued pride*.

*At least the latter illustrating the question (posed in the book) of whether pride is necessarily something negative. (An deeper exploration of this topic could have made the book more valuable.)

In terms of plot, events, whatnot, there is not much to be found—for most of the book nothing actually happens. Who gets whom is not enough to fill a book this long… The main intrigues could have been contained in one volume (as opposed to the actual two), with considerable margin to spare, with no loss of value, and a considerable improvement in readability. The only point of the book that brings something resembling excitement, roughly three-quarters through, is when Lydia, one of Elizabeth’s sisters, unexpectedly elopes, throwing the family into panic. This caused a few chapters worth of more dynamic story, but the situation was soon resolved, and things went back to “nothing actually happens”. Indeed, I suspect that even this episode was not added for excitement, but more to give Darcy an opportunity to validate himself. (Else it would likely have taken place much earlier.) Many of the events and developments that did take place are too predictable, even hackneyed*, including the Elizabeth–Darcy situation: That a woman has strong negative feelings for a man at the beginning of a story, is a very strong hint that they will be romantically involved by its end…

*At least from today’s point of view: Some of it, in all fairness, might have been more novel at the time.

The length is not undue merely because nothing happens, however: The long-winded (even to me!) prose also extends the length of the text considerably, without adding anything over a more compact formulation. (Admittedly, this is a fairly common problem with works from that time.) I often even found myself drifting off, unable to concentrate on the text, because the amount of information gained from reading a certain passage was too small to keep my brain alert.

Even the romance parts are, at least by modern standards, not that romantic. There is little difference made between love and infatuation. Much of the marriage seeking is merely convenience; and this (even with marriage as truly life-long commitment at the time), is often reduced to “is he/she socially suitable, attractive, and willing”*, without spending sufficient time on examining actual long-term compatibility**—where someone with sense and sensibility might, today, consider asking for a date, marriage is already on the table. And, no, this is not the take of the parents—it is the take of the presumptive spouses. This is the odder with an eye on the example of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth’s parents, who are stated outright to have married too optimistically and been less than satisfied because of it. I might go as far as comparing parts to pubescent school romance, in terms of both shallowness of criteria and the roundabout approach to determining whether an interest is returned.

*Echoing the famous first line of “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”.

**Two previous texts of mine ([1], [2]) are highly open to marriages based on reason, and would allow a fairly short period of prior acquaintance. However, this went hand-in-hand with an exploratory process and a great focus on ensuring that both parties would know in detail what to expect.

A partial saving grace is humor: I found myself laughing on several occasions, but the overall amount of humor is simply too small to make up for the weaknesses. A dash of humor in an already enjoyable or valuable work can be the icing on the wedding cake—here, we have the icing on a plain layer of sponge.

Excursion on “popular” and “classic”:
I have long suspected that many of the “classic” works have earned their status more through popularity than quality—that the popular of today is the classic of tomorrow. “Pride and Prejudice” is a likely candidate. (At least some of Dickens’ works, while often having considerably more depth, could also be examples. Similarly, would anyone read “Le Morte d’Arthur” today, had it not contained knights, magic, and whatnots?) This is not necessarily a bad thing; however, when being a classic is automatically seen as a sign of quality, instead of enduring popularity, then caution is needed. The popularity issue is worsened by the lower competition in earlier days, with e.g. far more books being published today than in the 19th century or far more TV shows being broadcast than in the 1950s.

As a counter-point, I have repeatedly encountered books and authors with more depth than their reputation/my expectation. For instance, I recently read a few books by H.G. Wells: I had expected something decidedly pulpy, but found them to be surprisingly intelligent and containing more food for thought than “Pride and Prejudice” did. I have earlier written about “Black Beauty” as a very positive surprise.


Written by michaeleriksson

October 15, 2018 at 3:12 am

4 Responses

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  1. […] my recent review of “Pride and Prejudice”, I have spent some time thinking on actually and apparently simplistic literature vs. something […]

  2. […] the negative side, works like Pride and Prejudice show how verbosity can be taken too far, e.g. through turning the joy of reading into boredom or […]

  3. […] the book. But what to do when the purpose cannot be discerned? A partial reason while I was so critical against “Pride and Prejudice” is that I could find nothing that this book was good at, implying that more-or-less any purpose […]

  4. […] comparison, there are definitely some similarities. Notably, one of my main complaints in my unfavorable review was the lack of tempo and how little actually […]

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