Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

In the midst of the politeness in which the book is constructed, I realised that Austen's writing style does appeal to the modern sensibilities. She structures her plot in quick successions of scenes as if it were a play, dissolves much details about various settings and atmosphere (to put it in modern terms, she has a cinematic style of writing) but placing central focus on the feelings and reactions of her central characters which is a hallmark of the Romantic literary movement. This certainly appeals to us who have frail powers of concentration to imagine the details of the whole scene but evokes a reaction towards the characters as we are intimately acquainted with their feelings. This is certainly unlike Dickens who demands unwavering attention to his overwhelming details.

She also has a unique style of using letters to accelerate the plot by summarising a great deal of events into a single letter. She also uses letters as a rebellious tool in her highly structured, stratified and polite society for characters to express their most private and sincere sentiments. This striking use of letters (according to certain literary essays, there are more than 20 letters mentioned in the novel) is why many critics deemed this novel as a 'novel in letters'.

Finally, it is also interesting to note that while she is fond of dissolving much details she shares a similarity with Dickens in using certain key settings to reveal the interiors of a character's personality. For example, Austen only pays very close attention to Pemberly Estate (Darcy's house) as a tool for Elizabeth to realise who Darcy really is from his servants (all of whom gave very glowing testaments to his character) and the furnishings of the house. As much as Pemberly is very stately, it is also very elegant and tasteful in its design and furnishings unlike Rosings which is portrayed to be extravagant. In addition, Austen also uses the portraits (the idea of portraits is also used metaphorically in the novel as a reference to a person's image and reputation in society) that are hung on the walls of the estate for the very same purpose.

Aside from appreciating all the literary devices that Austen employs, I found three very pertinent themes that runs throughout the novel that compels me to consider how I conduct my relationships with others. One of the most important themes would be the struggle between our perceptions and rationality in judging others. Elizabeth, in being her very admirably spirited, perceptive and witty self, does commit the fault of confusing the true personalities of Darcy and Wickham due to their deceptive appearances. In fact, there is an interesting instance in chapter 17 where Jane, in all her goodness and innocence (some would say to the point of blissful naivety), proved to be a better gauge of character than Elizabeth. In that chapter, Elizabeth is informed by Wickham of Darcy's "ill-treatment" and preventing him from realising his ambition as he was left with no choice but to join the army. This left Elizabeth fuming mad at Darcy but Jane unwittingly gives this rather wise analysis that would pose as a hint to the readers that Darcy isn't what Elizabeth perceives him to be:

'...but consider in what a disgraceful light it places Mr. Darcy, to be treating his father's favourite in such a manner, - one, whom his father had promised to provide for. - It is impossible. No man of common humanity, no man who had any value for his character, could be capable of it.'

There are a few other instances where Elizabeth proved to be unwise in her judgement but it is not necessary to mention them here. Such an instance proves how we rely too much on our defencive faculties and judge people too quickly. But there is a problem - how are we supposed to form our opinions of people and friends aside from what they appear to be? We can't possibly be pedantic and launch a full background check on everyone we meet to truly make friends and depend on them!

Another theme that runs through the novel would be the idea of performance - the role that we play in society which is often defined by our connections and social status.The characters all play specific roles in this society and as much as Elizabeth and Darcy tries to break free from this, they are still obligated to their family or societal conventions. Such an idea sees everything linked to the idea of duty and the value of certain things such as love and marriage is stripped out of the equation. This can be clearly seen in Charlotte Lucas' marriage to Collins where she marries not out of love but out of what society demands of a woman, much to Elizabeth's horror. This theme is by far the most compelling theme for me. At times, I feel so suffocated because of various unnecessary obligations that binds us from doing what we want and that we often have to put up a pretense just to fulfill them. What good is pretense in fulfilling these obligations? As much as we want our freedom, we are sadly products of society and are certainly bound by such obligations as exhibited by Elizabeth (who is occasionally ashamed of her family's behaviour) and Darcy (who finally ignores his social standing and pursues his happiness though he has to make a compromise of accepting Wickham as his brother-in-law).

This conversation that I had with Austen was certainly thought-provoking and intriguing!

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