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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Miss Elizabeth Bennet Regrets: a web of subtly linked passages in P&P around the word "regret"

"She read over her aunt's commendation of him again and again. It was hardly enough; but it pleased her. She was even sensible of some pleasure, though mixed with _regret_, on finding how steadfastly both she and her uncle had been persuaded that affection and confidence subsisted between Mr. Darcy and herself."

As I read the above passage in Chapter 52 of P&P this morning, describing Lizzy's reaction upon reading her Aunt Gardiner's long letter which detailed Darcy's intervention to resolve the Wickham/Lydia fracas, at first I was confused, not being clear (and not remembering if I was ever _previously_ clear) as to the meaning of the phrase "though mixed with regret". That intrigued me, and prompted me to go through a chain of analysis to try to suss it out. I have now done so, and, as you will read below, I have concluded that there is not one, but there are actually _two_ equally plausible interpretations, which interact with each other in an exquisitely synergistic way. And it turns out that Lizzy's "regrets" are a leitmotif that JA, like Mozart developing a theme in one of his piano pieces that JA loved, skillfully develops during the second half of P&P, as I will show, below.

As I turned those sentences from Ch. 52 over in my mind a few times, my first hypothesis was that Lizzy in this train of thought was looking back on her past public behavior toward Darcy with the same sort of censorious gaze that Elinor directed at Marianne's overly free expression of affection toward Willoughby, and also the censorious gaze that Lizzy herself had directed at Lydia's previous unrestrained and licentious public behavior around young men.

From that sort of humbled (Lizzy actually thinks herself "humbled" in the previous sentence) perspective, Lizzy is feeling regret that she had somehow, in spite of herself---indeed _against_ her own conscious intentions---given the impression to observers in general, and her aunt and uncle Gardiner in particular, that she and Darcy were romantically involved. What irony, given how she has seen Lydia in exactly that light all along!

But Lizzy is by Ch. 52 more self aware, and therefore chagrined to find herself resembling Lydia more than she ever realized, and as a result she is no longer unconcerned about how her sharp and quick tongue might lead her to be seen by others as being flirtatious and seductive toward Darcy (think about what Lady Catherine says to her about her "allurements" in their confrontation in the wilderness of Longbourn). In short, LIzzy has come to realize that she _did_ indeed play a not insignificant role in creating that impression in others.

That interpretation is a solid one, I claim, but I was still left with the nagging feeling that there was more in that passage, something else _important_ I was missing. And that is when a _second_ meaning popped out at me, the one that, I now suspect, in hindsight, is the one that most Janeites who have given that passage any thought would ascribe to it, i.e., that at the moment when Lizzy feels pleasure reading her aunt's effusive praise of Darcy, because Lizzy is now besotted with Darcy--that is precisely when Lizzy feels yet a pang of regret. Why? Because her aunt and uncle's belief that she and Darcy were engaged _would_ have been accurate, had Lizzy not rejected Darcy's proposal in Chapter 35! And how much sharper is the pang she feels, because Lizzy did not merely reject Darcy proposal, she threw it on the ground and stomped it to smithereens!

And surely that is _also_ a valid interpretation of the meaning of Lizzy's "regret" in Chapter 52.

So, how do we choose between them? I say, as with all of JA's multiple meanings, we should not choose between them, because JA intended _both_ of them to be valid! I.e., JA was constructing a complex psychological portrait of her greatest heroine, who has mixed feelings about Darcy from the minute she lays eyes on him, in all sorts of ways. And now I see this _regret_ in Chapter 52 as yet another layer of those mixed feelings, welling up in a chaotic swirl just before the romantic climax of the novel!

I did not know if any Janeite had previously looked at the word "regret" in these two ambiguous passages in this way, but I do know that it is a subject of eternal fascination to ponder the ambiguities of Lizzy's feelings and thoughts about Darcy in a more general way, and so I offer the above as another window into that eternally fascinating question of Lizzy's mixed feelings toward Darcy.

And the topic got more interesting still, when I searched the word "regret" to see where _else_ it appeared in P&P, and that's when I found a whole series of "bookends" to the above quoted passage in Chapter 52.

First, in Chapter 37, we read of Lizzy's reaction to another letter, Darcy's letter of self justification:

"In her own past behaviour, there was a constant source of vexation and regret...".

If you read the whole passage where that line appears, you will recall that it is a reflection of the chaotically mixed feelings that Lizzy is feeling overwhelmed by in the aftermath of reading Darcy's letter. And, just as in Chapter 52, I believe it is not possible to pin down what Lizzy regrets about "her own past behaviour". It could be that she regrets having been nasty to Darcy, but it could also be regret that she inadvertently led him on. Precisely the same ambiguity in Chapter 52 that I analyzed, above.

And Lizzy has in the interim added a bit of evidence on the subject of her "regret" over Darcy, when she glibly responds as follows to Jane's expression of pity for Darcy in Chapter 40:

""Oh! no, my _regret_ and compassion [for Darcy] are all done away by seeing you so full of both. I know you will do him such ample justice, that I am growing every moment more unconcerned and indifferent. Your profusion makes me saving; and if you lament over him much longer, my heart will be as light as a feather."

The narration at the end of that extended scene consisting almost entirely of dialogue does not shed any light on why Lizzy adopts such a flip, what-me-worry attitude toward Darcy for Jane's consumption, nor does it tell us which _regret_ Lizzy is feeling vis a vis Darcy--once again, it could be either of the two forms of regret I have outlined, above.

But then we have a series of usages of "regret" in regard to Lizzy's feelings about Darcy, which are all _unambiguous_, i.e., they seem to refer only to the regret of losing Darcy:

In Chapter 41, Mr. Bennet jokes about JA's regretting having lost Darcy (as Mr. Bennet is, as he himself tells Lizzy and us, not the kind of man to long be plagued by regrets over his own misjudgments and misbehaviors), without realizing that he has touched a raw nerve in that regard:

"Such squeamish youths as cannot bear to be connected with a little absurdity are not worth a _regret_. "

And then in Chapters 43 & 46, we again get only the _regret_ of losing Darcy:

"And of this place," thought she, "I might have been mistress! With these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted! Instead of viewing them as a stranger, I might have rejoiced in them as my own, and welcomed to them as visitors my uncle and aunt. But no,"—recollecting herself—"that could never be; my uncle and aunt would have been lost to me; I should not have been allowed to invite them." This was a lucky recollection—it saved her from something very like _regret_.


"Be that as it may, she saw [Darcy] go with _regret_; and in this early example of what Lydia's infamy must produce, found additional anguish as she reflected on that wretched business...."

And then, after the ambiguity of Chapter 52 (as described at the beginning of this messag) we are bombarded with a crescendo of Lizzy's "regrets" over the possibility of losing Darcy in Chapter 57:

"If, therefore, an excuse for not keeping his promise should come to his friend within a few days," she added, "I shall know how to understand it. I shall then give over every expectation, every wish of his constancy. If he is satisfied with only _regretting_ me, when he might have obtained my affections and hand, I shall soon cease to _regret_ him at all."

So, all in all, it seems like the regret of losing Darcy carries the day with Elizabeth, and whatever regrets she initially felt about the propriety of her public behavior around Darcy have all vanished from her mind without any apparent trace. This is not surprising, given that Lizzy issues the following famous edict about memory:

"You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure."

The above is, I think , a quintessential example of why P&P is a candidate for the title of "world's favorite novel"--like a Hegelian thesis/antithesis pairing, ambiguity that cannot be reduced, but that leads instead to a synthesis; the truest of depictions of human thought and feeling, all without any authorial intrusion--we are given Lizzy's thoughts and it is up to us to sort them out, to figure out what they mean; and we are _never_ allowed to be secure in a single meaning of what we have read, we are forced to struggle to reconcile ambiguities, and to recognize perhaps that the human heart and mind can never be reduced to a simple answer.

Cheers, ARNIE

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