'Pride and Prejudice', appreciation of ch.1 (last paragraph excluded)
Reading for Writers
workshop run by Prof. Sandie Byrne
Albert Hans - assignment # 1 - submitted on August 10 / 2006
“1. Write a brief critique of one of the passages below, paying attention to the
form and style of the writing, including narrative, dialogue and
characterisation, and identifying a number of features (perhaps four) which
you think are significant. (c1000 words)”
= Literary appreciation of an extract from chapter 1 of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice
What a marvellous way to open a novel with! Its very introductory sentence confronts us with a “truth” that is undeniable, unquestionable. It works as a device in a dual function: a) it rouses our interest in what is set forth, b) it heightens and sharpens our senses as to what to expect of such an interesting ‘concoction’ of details promising a story tinged with suspense and entertainment as well.
Thus the very first sentence epitomises the keynote to the complete novel. It is charged with the character of a ‘leitmotif’ bound to wind like a thread through the course of the plot. On the surface the statement contained in the sentence seems to bear a mere ‘truism’, and as such is trivial and unchallenging in itself. Yet upon closer inspection there is more to it than that. We feel this right away. We wonder how the author is going to materialise, to put into concrete shape, so to speak, what she promises us by means of such a drama-like, tight exposition. We can’t resist the temptation to move on, to ‘jump into the story’, a boat loaded with adventure lying ahead of us.
The universal aspect of the writer’s statement entails several ‘sub-truths’. There is no happiness in ‘singleness’, for instance. No matter whether someone is wealthy in terms of having liquid money (through a high annual income), portal or landed property, they are desperately lonesome if they stay single. Austen virtually pounces on this fact, turning it into fiction. It is the constringency of an intricately intertwined triangular system that permeates her thesis:
a) Man is a social being, from which follows no-one can live alone.
Everybody is dependent on somebody (else at least).
[And this in so many respects.]
b) There is no happiness in ‘singleness’ (= staying single), which is
to be equated with loneliness, a state of condition, which
'singleness' boils down to in the end.
c) Wealth in itself is no guarantee for ‘happiness’.
In times of hardship, failure and distress it takes someone else
to share one’s burden with. Conversely, sharing one’s joy with
someone else, passing it on to them means enhancing it.
It is those three points which form the gist of Austen’s splendid opening, the crucial hinge, around which the entanglement of the characters’ mutual relationship to one another is to pivot, on a communicative as well as action-charged level, which does not mean that ‘verbal interchanges’ cannot assume the quality of ‘battles’ adding up to the dramatic effect of a sequence of interrelated actions, some kind of ‘knotting the plot’.
So what is it ‘fortune’ is so inextricably inherent to? Is it a question of (female) ‘beauty’ versus (male) ‘property’, ‘educatedness’ versus ‘silliness’, richness in children foiled against the backdrop of ‘genteel poverty’ versus immense material ‘wealth’ in bachelorship, or a well-balanced combination of all those ingredients that make up a good recipe, a ‘good fortune’?
To Mrs Bennet happiness for her and her family will remain unachieved, at least incomplete as long as her daughters – and she’s got five of them – are not married to someone to provide them with what is prerequisite for a “good fortune”: economic, i.e. existential security. Only on that basis will they be in a position to get their share of life in comfort and ease.
Whereas Mrs Bennet seems to “suffer” from this unsolved problem resting upon her like a burden, Mr Bennet takes things with a sense of humour. Varied forms and subtle shades of irony are his weapon to make life bearable with.
Irony in its manifold forms of acute witticisms and underlying subtleties of derision in ripostes to his wife discloses the weapon by which Mr Bennet tries to make life endurable. The portrait of his wife delineated to us in this rather indirect way of an extensive conversation at the outset of the novel is the one of a garrulous woman fond of continuous talk, which he interprets as shallow and superficial. The way he responds to her request to strike up contact to their new neighbour reveals to us that he doesn’t want to be bothered by her little queries, deep-set worries in her eyes, which he doesn’t regard serious. There are numerous instances of witty interchanges embedded in the course of their dialogue, one of which adopts the form of a ‘pun’ to the effect of a hyperbole. Thus when he metaphorically refers to her “nerves” having become his “friends” for the “last twenty years”, he jokingly exaggerates his final compliance with her demand by assuring her he would be prepared to visit even “twenty” such persons solely desirable for their outstandingly “good fortune”, persons whose social status is emblemized by such items as “a chaise and four” and an income of “four or five thousand a year”.
Apart from the figurative language applied mainly in the dialogue we can see the writer’s persistent use of contrasts, especially as far as persons and their characters are concerned. The advantage of this device is beautifully realized in the case of Mr and Mrs Bennet. This is particularly relevant in as much as all further action is to evolve from them. Therefore the amount (and quality) of light the novelist sheds upon them becomes significant. It is what is uncovered to us in terms of their true characters that will enable us to pursue the story with increasing interest, to foresee the sort of influence they will have on the framing of the plot.
Mr Bennet embodies reason juxtaposed with the sensitivity and passion of his wife.
Whereas she is more practically minded – as all women are: a universal truth(?) – a pragmatic person, he seems infatuated with rationalising, perhaps even theorising and as a consequence of this, setting himself aloof from his family as well as his social environment. Seeking only himself as company, he would drift into self-imposed isolation, had he not his wife to re-integrate him into the community of his family and neighbourhood. It is commonly (cf. “universally”) acknowledged that opposites/contrasts attract each other. They supplement one another in a kind of ‘symbiosis’ to form a workable unit. And this is what we re-experience in their case, so delicately and craftily presented to us.
So in the knowledge of his dependence on his wife and his responsibility for his family as a whole, Mr Bennet in the end complies with her desire (to go and see the new neighbour), despite his violated pride through her humiliating treatment.
The theme of pride in its far-reaching ramifications is thus touched upon quite daintily and skilfully.
The fact that life is a game, in which “fortune” can turn into “misfortune” and ‘a man of property’ into “property” himself, thus getting deprived of his personal dignity in a way, is played upon in the second paragraph. Again, under the scheme or rather façade of ‘common (= universal) knowledge’, behind which the omniscient narrator retreats, we are made acquainted with Mr Bingley, the new neighbour, who obviously is in need of help, too. The pieces of information we get about him are scarce and few so as to make us wonder and speculate how things will turn out for him.
Taking into account the kaleidoscope of techniques used right from the start, the novel wins taste, perspective and a heightened sense of suspense.
 extract in so far as the last paragraph of the chapter is excluded
 = a ‘zoon politikon’ according to Aristotle
 according to her own words at the bottom of page 2