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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lizzy Bennet the “selfish being” who (never) knows herself!

....I argued that Elizabeth selfishly rationalizes, not once but repeatedly, her own total and unforgiveable concealment from sister Jane, of Darcy's interference that wound up separating Jane from Bingley for several months before Darcy undid his interference.

I.e. Elizabeth, in her heart of hearts, is more concerned for her own chances with Darcy than she is for Jane's chances with Bingley. Sad but true that Lizzy puts herself ahead of Jane—and it's only because Darcy reforms that HE chooses, entirely on his own initiative (i.e., without ANY prompting whatsoever from Lizzy) to undo his interference and press the Reset Button on Bingley's head that responds only to Darcy’s fingerprint (so to speak). 

Here are two lines of followup thinking that have occurred to me, the first with respect to ironic overtones in P&P, the second with respect to another Austen novel with a parallel situation:


Jane Austen’s razor-sharp irony is on full and spectacular display in the following famous passage in Chapter 36, when Lizzy is in the process of reading and rereading Darcy’s letter. Just read this passage keeping firmly in mind my claim that Lizzy has absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever as to her selfishness vis a vis Jane, as I described in my previous post, and then you will clearly see what is so devastatingly ironic about the ALL CAPS sentence:

“She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.
   "How despicably have I acted!" she cried; "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. TILL THIS MOMENT I NEVER KNEW MYSELF."
   From herself to Jane -- from Jane to Bingley, her thoughts were in a line which soon brought to her recollection that Mr. Darcy's explanation there had appeared very insufficient, and she read it again. Widely different was the effect of a second perusal. How could she deny that credit to his assertions, in one instance, which she had been obliged to give in the other. He declared himself to have been totally unsuspicious of her sister's attachment; and she could not help remembering what Charlotte's opinion had always been. Neither could she deny the justice of his description of Jane. She felt that Jane's feelings, though fervent, were little displayed, and that there was a constant complacency in her air and manner not often united with great sensibility. “ END QUOTE

Did you see it? Lizzy is blaming herself for having believed Wickham’s version of his history with Darcy, and for having therefore blasted Darcy about his mistreatment of Wickham when Darcy first proposed. But she doesn’t just change her mind about this point, Elizabeth goes overboard and tells herself that she has suddenly had her eyes opened, a powerful epiphany, as if Darcy were Moses who had just delivered his own autographed version of the 10 Commandments to her personally, straight from the mountaintop. Lizzy has been converted to Darcy’s way of thinking, and she believes she truly knows herself for the first time. Hmm….

And yet, Jane Austen does not waste a second in thoroughly undermining the validity of Lizzy’s “epiphany”. She does this by showing us that Elizabeth’s chain of thought moves immediately “from herself to Jane”----and what exactly does Lizzy think about Darcy’s interference in Jane’s and Bingley’s romance? That Jane was too complacent—i.e., Darcy did not do wrong after all, his interference was justified, it was all Jane’s fault! Hmm….

Talk about a monstrous self-delusion arising at the very moment when Lizzy believes she has become completely self-aware—now THAT’S major league irony, and also sound psychology! I.e., in the act of Lizzy unconsciously repressing awareness of how selfish she is being toward Jane, it is indeed the perversity of human nature that Lizzy will in that moment be extra motivated to slide her feelings of self-blame from where they belong (re Jane) to where they don’t belong (re Darcy, who actually has wronged Jane).

And the best (or worst) part of it is, that JA does not beat the reader over the head with this irony, quite the contrary—she HIDES the irony, and actually leads the passive reader down the garden path of accepting Lizzy’s twisted logic as gospel truth—so in effect, the passive reader is right there alongside Lizzy sharing in her self-delusion whole-hog! Only the reader who can peer around the wizard’s curtain, and see the machinery of self-delusion that JA subtly leaves in the lines under her words (so to speak)_can get free of the spell cast by Lizzy’s deluded reading.

This is JA’s didacticism at its most spectacular, this is how JA wished to teach her readers to read life better—but her lesson was not for all readers, only those willing to doubt their own first impressions, and to read very very closely and think about the complex motivations of the heroine, and how easily they can be misread. This is how JA teaches her readers what is worth knowing, not by preaching, but by winking.

And I also now see yet another ironic wrinkle of Elizabeth's lack of solicitude for Jane --i.e., it never even enters Elizabeth's mind after Darcy's first proposal that if Lizzy had accepted it, it would have given her a great deal of leverage to push Darcy to undo his interference that put the kibosh on Bingley's romance with Jane.

Now I am not suggesting that Elizabeth SHOULD have accepted Darcy's proposal solely for that purpose---that would have gone way beyond the call of duty of a loving sister, it would have made Elizabeth a martyr- but since we are privy to all of Elizabeth's thoughts in regard to these romances, it is striking that she never entertains that idea even for a second. Further evidence that in her heart of hearts, Elizabeth loves herself better than she loves Jane.

And here’s another textual irony—when Darcy makes his second, successful proposal to Elizabeth, he famously makes the following impassioned confession:

 “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own.”

The great irony here is that this very same confession is one that Lizzy could have made herself, if she were self-aware! She has been a selfish being all her life, she was not taught by either parent to correct her temper, she was left to follow her principles in pride and conceit! And, she was of course spoilt by her father, etc etc etc. Lizzy been a selfish being, and her utter passivity vis a vis Jane and Bingley is the best example of it.


So much for P&P in this post---it's also been tickling my memory since I wrote my previous post, that there was SOME other parallel situation in another Austen novel, in which another Austen heroine besides Elizabeth selfishly conceals important romantic information –and it was only in writing the above portion of this post, that I suddenly remembered who that heroine was—Emma!

Here goes:  Just as Elizabeth utterly fails to lift a finger to try to arrange for Bingley to know about Jane’s strong feelings for him, so also does Emma fail to speak a single word that would alert Knightley to Harriet’s strong feelings for him! And Emma goes through exactly the same sort of pretzel logic to rationalize away any duty toward Harriet to make such a disclosure to Knightley. And in the end, Harriet winds up with Robert Martin (we are never allowed to know how Harriet feels about having to settle for him after having her sights set on Knightley), through absolutely no positive action whatsoever on Emma’s part. From Emma’s point of view, it just happens as if by magic, and she is let off the hook of her own stunted conscience, for having elbowed Harriet aside in snagging Knightley.


You can go to the bank on the assurance that not only was JA fully cognizant of this parallel to Lizzy’s selfishness when she wrote Emma, she was, she did it on purpose. In P&P we have the heroine’s romantic selfishness under the surface, but in Emma it is foregrounded. Perhaps this was in part JA’s way of saying to her readers who had missed the irony about Lizzy, “Why don’t you reread P&P and see if you see how much Lizzy really is like Emma?”

But apparently I am the first to notice these ironies and parallels, and (as Alanis Morisette said) isn’t THAT ironic?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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