"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Monday, March 24, 2008

"Judge not according to the appearance"

In my last post I said that the main theme of a George MacDonald novel was relationships. The same could be said of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The whole is a series of mis-evaluations of character that are slowly reevaluated as new information is revealed to Elizabeth. The original working title of First Impressions gives a clear indication of what the story is about. Elizabeth’s first impression of Mr. Darcy is unfavorable; her first impression of Mr. Wickham is favorable, but in both cases, on informed consideration, she is forced to admit that her first impressions were wrong.

The present title of Pride and Prejudice is also apt. Everyone in the book has pride. The way Austen portrays this vise is often candid and funny as when Elizabeth says of Darcy: “I could easily forgive his pride if he had not mortified mine” (13).

The style of the opening page seemed a bit abrupt when I first started it, but really, who wants to read 10 or 20 (or 30, or 40, or 50) pages of introduction to a story. The details fall into place soon enough, and the comfort is that Austen doesn’t waste time with superfluous descriptions so dreaded in other authors. For some reason that I can not fathom now, I also thought the dialogue was odd. But that first impression is now wholly replaced. Instead, I now hold that each character has a unique voice that can almost be heard. Each character is clearly differentiated and personality is revealed without need for outside description.

For instance, Mrs. Bennet’s voice exactly embodies that nervous, thoughtless temperament that is hers. Mr. Bennet is full of ironic statements and the solemnity of sarcastic humor. Mr. Darcy never indulges in small talk or lets any emotion into his voice, thus gaining himself the mistaken identity of a proud, stuck up, uncaring prig. Lydia is unmistakable with her fast, exclamation riddled talk and interjections of “Lord!” Elizabeth herself, though the most complex, is also readily identifiable though I can not remember any one trait of her speech that stands out.

Austen’s characters come alive with real depth through the use of distinctive ways of speaking. Compare Sam Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings. Who will not instantly recognize his “save me Mr. Frodo! I’m drownded. I can’t see your hand.” Or “Lor bless me, sir, but I do love stories of that sort.” If there is one flaw in the Lord of the Rings (is there a flaw?) it is that Merry and Pippin are like twins: they don’t stand out from one another in speech or otherwise. (But there, that’s a digression, and probably the first time Pride and Prejudice has been compared to the Lord of the Rings). But the simple truth remains that great fiction has characters with distinctive and memorable speech.

The Comparison with The Lord of the Rings, though, highlights a fundamental trait in my past reading preferences. My fingers have often left untouched those books on the shelf that I consider “chic literature” and instead come to rest on heroic epics and tales of adventure with little or non of “that sentimental non-sense.” But call it maturing taste or what you will, I have found George MacDonald, Dickens’ Bleak House, and now Pride and Prejudice to be excellent books. They are able to penetrate into places that Homer and Beowulf never even attempted to approach.

Austen’s subtle exploration of human character and emotion, plus her masterly dialogue, sets her story apart. There is a barely perceptible humor, almost satire, which also distinguishes it. Throughout, these little observations poke fun at the foibles of human feelings.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004).

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