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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, April 10, 2016

“eight and twenty years” & “four times seven years”: Darcy & Iago the “honest” 28-year old deceivers

This is a followup to my previous post about the startling parallels I outlined between the playful witty banter (about the attributes and accomplishments of an ideal woman) engaged in by Iago and Desdemona in Othello, on the one hand, and by Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice, on the other. In that post, I showed how those parallels were, collectively, a giant hint by Jane Austen pointing to deeper, pervasive parallels between the characters of Iago and the Darcy of the shadow story of P&P that I have sleuthed out: both of them brooding, brilliant, enigmatic, stage-managing masters of deception.

Darcy is an enigma, in no small part because we only have two or three brief opportunities to hear his private thoughts during the entire novel; and few Janeites have ever freed themselves from the tyranny of the naïve Elizabeth’s confused perceptions, in order to see Darcy as he is. It is no surprise that two very different Darcys can be detected in the novel.

Whereas Iago is an enigma for a completely different reason. His is the focal consciousness of the ironically mis-titled Ohello; and yet, Iago’s sometimes cryptic asides, regularly shared with the audience, leave us far from certain in the end as to what really makes Iago tick. I.e., perhaps we can no more safely believe the accuracy of his statements to us, when we see the suffering that Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and Roderigo all undergo,  caused by their believing what “the honest Iago” says to them!

Today, in that same vein, I’d now like to point out three additional parallels between these two enigmatic protagonists----the last of which is, I hope you’ll agree, a true smoking gun deliberately left behind by Jane Austen in order to give her alert readers a better chance of spotting the Iago hidden in Darcy.

FIRST, Darcy, like Iago, repeatedly makes a big deal about being scrupulously “honest”, and both of them also liberally use the words “abhor” and “despise” with suspicious hyperbole.  Combining the two words, Darcy poetically and memorably epitomizes this predilection, when he avers that “disguise of every sort is [his] abhorrence” .

This is essentially the pose that Iago repeatedly and insincerely adopts with every other major character in Othello.  And when Eliza teases Darcy with “now despise me if you dare” and Darcy wittily replies, “Indeed! I do not dare.”, JA means us to hear another echo: that of Iago saying to Roderigo, “If ever I did dream of such a matter, abhor me.” and “Despise me, if I do not”.

SECOND, Darcy, like Iago, works hard at, and succeeds in, destroying the reputation of a charming but irresponsible younger man (Wickham, Cassio) who lacks control over his impulses, and therefore is very vulnerable to manipulative temptation placed in his path by a satanic opponent.  

When Iago decides to turn Cassio into a villain in Othello’s eyes, he plies Cassio with booze and exploits his drinking problem. When Darcy decides, after Eliza rejects his first proposal, to turn Wickham into a villain in Elizabeth’s eyes, I suggest to you that Darcy takes no chances, and has his own trusted double agent, Mrs. Yonge, lead him directly to Wickham and Lydia in London, so Darcy can then play the hero who rescues the Bennet family from ruin, earning Eliza’s undying gratitude and shame.

THIRD, last, and most telling of all, please now note the uncanny (and, I suggest, not coincidental) resonance between the following speeches spoken by Darcy and Iago:

[Darcy] “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. SUCH I WAS, FROM EIGHT TO EIGHT AND TWENTY; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased."

[Iago] O villainous! I HAVE LOOKED UPON THE WORLD FOR FOUR TIMES SEVEN YEARS; and since I could distinguish betwixt a benefit and an injury, I never found man that knew how to love HIMSELF. 

Darcy’s speech to Elizabeth is four times as long as Iago’s to Roderigo, and unless studied closely, they can superficially appear unrelated. However, upon closer examination, these speeches are seen to be eerily similar in two specific, interconnected aspects:

A: Each speech purports to be a philosophizing retrospection on life experience in “the world” with respect to self-love, albeit from opposite ends of the telescope. Iago speaks of the problem of man’s (meaning Roderigo’s) not loving himself enough, whereas Darcy reverses that logic, confessing to his own lifelong excess of self-love, until cured by a dose of Eliza’s miraculous truth serum.

But behind the apparently opposition of meaning, both such speeches cynically and ironically deal in the same currency of subtle flattery of the self-love of the listener. Iago works his black magic on the gullible Roderigo, giving his ego some major stroking about his chances of winning the hand of Desdemona, so that Roderigo will continue to unwittingly perform the valuable services that Iago still requires of him.

Darcy plays a very different card, which however is perfectly suited to his gull. What is Eliza’s greatest vulnerability? It is revealed early in the novel in the following exchange between Lizzy and Bingley, which Darcy joins in:

"That is exactly what I should have supposed of you," said Elizabeth.
"You begin to comprehend me, do you?" cried he, turning towards her.
"Oh! yes—I understand you perfectly."
"I wish I might take this for a compliment; but to be so easily seen through I am afraid is pitiful."
"That is as it happens. It does not follow that a deep, intricate character is more or less estimable than such a one as yours."
"Lizzy," cried her mother, "remember where you are, and do not run on in the wild manner that you are suffered to do at home."
"I did not know before," continued Bingley immediately, "that you were a studier of character. It must be an amusing study."
"Yes, but intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage."
"The country," said Darcy, "can in general supply but a few subjects for such a study. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society."
"But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever."

Darcy’s dry comment about the deficiency of Eliza’s education as a “studier of character” is actually spot on—Eliza is a 21-year old country girl, whose ego has distorted her own native quickness into a grandiose belief that she perfectly understands even deep, intricate characters. Darcy, on the other hand, has actually been around the block many times in both the country and the town, and therefore we may guess that he files away, for future use, his detection of Eliza’s unfounded narcissism about her own psychological acuity.

Then, 40 chapters later, after Darcy has softened Elizabeth up with Pemberley, Mrs. Reynolds, and finally Darcy-to-the-rescue, he’s ready to complete his campaign of Iagoesque deception, by giving Eliza an Oscar-calilber “confession” that will play perfectly to her idea of herself as master ‘studier of character”.

B: Both Iago’s and Darcy’s speech include the corroborative citation of the lofty perspective of age whence such retrospection and generalization is being made. And on this point, Austen tracks Shakespeare in deploying the identical irony. I.e., such a speech should properly be spoken only by a person of no younger than 50 years of age, after accumulating a vast amount of life experience. But as it turns out, the self-important, grandiose Darcy and Iago are both still quite young men, even by the standards of their eras---and what’s remarkable is that they both just happen to be exactly the same age: 28!:

In closing, then, I ask you---what are the odds that this degree of parallelism between Darcy and Iago, as I’ve outlined in both of these recent posts, might have occurred by accident? I suggest to you that this would occur only once in eight-and-twenty (or, if you like, four times seven)…..centuries!

Sincerely, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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