The power of Jane Austen

coffee shop

Savannah Nelson
English 4000
29 November 2016

Austen’s Evolution of Prejudice

            Jane Austen has created a world where her characters are defined by their values. Ugliness of manners manifest in men who cannot be trusted, gossip and inappropriate disclosure foster in the breasts of undignified women. And while many characters find themselves on either side of the spectrum with their outward display of etiquette or taste, Austen also makes moral judgments based on inner characteristics. Though there are qualities that represent both purity and obscenity, a character with both types of traits can be wholesome if they are justified in their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Two of Austen’s lasting themes are pride and prejudice—her portrayal of these traits evolve at the same pace of her writing, as seen in two denouement scenes, in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.

            Austen is known for writing her novels in the style of social realism. Women’s lives are written with historical accuracy—the marriage market is the basis of financial security for Austen’s characters, and there is an element of class structure within each of her stories. As the British Library notes, “Many of the crucial events of her stories take place indoors, in the female space of the drawing room. Often her plots move forward by means of overheard conversations” (Sutherland). Though there is a presumption that gossip drives the plot of Austen’s novels, the denouement of two major novels takes place with direct confrontation, outside of the comfort of a woman’s drawing room. Pride and Prejudice feeds more into this stereotype, as two women have a conversation that goes astray. In Persuasion, however, Austen writes more action into the plot. Instead of just a conversation, there is a letter and a tension of timing and an outside conversation and an outdoor connection, which come together to create a complex scenario for Austen’s characters. The purpose of these scenes also face staggering differences: Austen’s portrayal of confrontation begins as a sturdy assessment of right and wrong, as traditionally taught, but later transitions into a realistic assessment, where the lines of morality can be blurred and then recovered from.

              In Pride and Prejudice, Austen reinforces the judgement of character based on moral judgements between Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh through two possible character flaws: pride, which can be recovered from, and prejudice, which cannot. In this scene, two characters confront each other with their conflicting characteristics, which leads to a satisfying dispute. In contrast, the denouement scene between Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion is an admittance of prideful feelings, which leads to a dramatic, remedial result. Where Austen once focused on the flaws of character to separate the good characters from the bad, she ends her career with characters coming together despite their once damaging decisions, through the redemption of second chances.

            In the volume 3, chapter 14, scene of Pride and Prejudice, Austen presents her readers with a lively dose of confrontation. The heroine of the novel, Elizabeth Bennet, comes face-to-face with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, one of many characters who pose a threat to Elizabeth’s romantic connection to Mr. Darcy. As Mr. Darcy’s exceedingly wealthy aunt and the mother of his unofficial betrothed, Lady Catherine fears that Elizabeth is interfering with matters well beyond her status. Lady Catherine goes to see Elizabeth at Longbourn with two goals in mind: first, she wants to know if Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are engaged; second, she aims to dismantle their relationship.

            Both Elizabeth and Lady Catherine exhibit their pride openly throughout the scene. Their actions, however, yield opposite results—Elizabeth is prideful and just, whereas Lady Catherine is prideful and ignorant. The main difference between the two women in this exchange is the source of pride. Elizabeth’s pride is the result of being attacked, whereas Lady Catherine’s pride is fueled by prejudice. Critical analysists of Austen believe that the types of pride in her novels changes, and that they can be categorized: “We can distinguish three types of pride [in Austen’s novels]: self-concept pride, merit pride, and status pride—all of which can be found in Pride and Prejudice, though one of them is considerably more prominent” (Benditt). The types of pride and their severity evolves throughout each novel as Austen develops as an author. Austen shows us, through this Pride and Prejudice scene, that she believes the source of pride matters, and is integral to a person’s character.

            In the volume 2, chapter 6, scene of Persuasion, Austen reveals a new side to her traditional take on character differences. Austen reveals that a character’s actions in the present are more important than the actions of the past, despite how prideful or prejudiced they might have been at one time. Anne, the heroine of the novel, is confronted with the feelings of her estranged love interest, Captain Wentworth. He writes her a letter to express his love for her, to admit that he has not let go of his attachment toward her since Anne broke off their engagement eight and a half years prior. After Anne reads Captain Wentworth’s letter, she stumbles into his company, where he can now openly discuss how he feels and his personal journey. This scene reveals Captain Wentworth’s pain and the motives behind his distance and possibly unsavory actions. For the first time, he discloses in his letter, “‘I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. Half agony, half hope. Tell me that I am not too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever (Austen 1166).’” The entire novel leads up to the moment where Captain reveals his perspective and true state of mind.

            In contrast, Lady Catherine reveals her pride almost immediately. “‘Miss Bennet,’” she says, “‘do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this’” (318). These words are both defensive and threatening—Lady Catherine walked into another person’s home, wielding pride-driven insults and personal attacks, and never expected to be questioned; she assumed, because of her status, that there would not be any kind of retaliation. Lady Catherine openly shows her privilege. Not only is Lady Catherine uncomfortable with Elizabeth’s language—defenses against insults and denial to cooperate—she is unwilling to tolerate it. Austen inserts this statement to show that pride can be dangerous when it prevents intelligent conversation; where one side is closed off, where defensiveness prevents understanding.

            Elizabeth, on the other hand, handles herself very differently in the scene. Though she also displays her pride, it is a justified reaction. First, Elizabeth is forced to face the demands of Lady Catherine, followed by hurtful insults when she refuses. An example of these remarks is when Lady Catherine says, “‘Unfeeling, selfish girl!’” (389). Instead of retaliating with the same type of below-the-belt abuses, Elizabeth chooses to speak further toward her own values: “‘You have widely mistaken my character, if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these’” (388). Elizabeth is proud of her character, and while she admires the lifestyles of the upper class—namely Mr. Darcy and the Pemberley estate, and even Rosings Park, which she recognizes that “every park has its beauty and its prospects” (285)—she refuses to sacrifice her values to submit to the will of the wealthy.

            There is a significant different with how Austen’s characters deal with pride between the two novels. It’s clear that Elizabeth is a heroine because of how she disallows prejudice to affect her interactions with others, just as it’s apparent that Lady Catherine acts as an antagonist because of how she lets her pride-fueled prejudice cloud her judgement. Captain Wentworth, however, lets his prejudice interfere with how he treats Anne—“He had imagined himself indifferent, when he had only been angry; and he had been unjust to her merits, because he had been a sufferer of them” (1168)—yet he finds redemption. He is still the transparent hero at the end of Persuasion, though he went through a similar pride-mongering process as Lady Catherine. Anne had suspected Captain Wentworth of impertinent behavior, though she never thought of him as less: “She had not mistaken him. Jealousy of Mr. Elliot had been the retarding weight, the doubt, the torment.” This difference reflects a change in Austen’s way of thinking. In Pride and Prejudice, there was a very clear definition of right and wrong; in Persuasion, she reveals through her characters that redemption is possible, and that the frigidity of morality can be blurred when love is involved, and when a character can admit to their faults.  

            Captain Wentworth spends most of this scene recognizing his blunders. By revealing the past, he is able to be seen as a trustworthy character:

“In his preceding attempts to attach himself to Louisa Musgrove (the attempts of angry pride), he protested that he had forever felt it to be impossible…There, he had learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind. There he had seen everything to exalt in his estimation the woman he had lost; and there begun to deplore the pride, the folly, the madness of resentment, which had kept him from trying to regain her when thrown in his way” (1168).

Austen reveals Captain Wentworth’s motives in a way that Lady Catherine did not. Her actions did not lead to any kind of sympathy, because she was unable to admit to any wrongdoing. Austen’s portrayal of wrongdoing evolves from Pride and Prejudice to Persuasion—she acknowledges that prejudice, or resentment, can be prompted by hurt. And, most importantly, that it can be healed or forgiven by accepting faults and allowing room for love. If Elizabeth were confronted later by Lady Catherine’s apology, would she forgive the pride and prejudice immediately? Anne does; she looks past “the blindness of his own pride, and the blunders of his own calculations” (1169), to accept him as her love and forgive him for his pride. Captain Wentworth tells Anne, “‘Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant’” (1167). This consistency is his redeeming quality that makes it possible for Anne to accept his past blunders and his present admirations. Even though he allowed himself to succumb to prejudice and resentment, Captain Wentworth always loved Anne. In Persuasion, prejudice is approached as a forgivable offense.

            In the Pride and Prejudice scene, Austen creates tension as the pride of two women collide. Both of the characters also face moments where their own pride is temporarily wounded. For Elizabeth, this happens repeatedly as she is attacked (“‘Obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you!’” (387)), her family is insulted (“‘True. You are a gentleman’s daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts?’” (388)), and her future is threatened (“‘Do not expect to be noticed by his family or friends, if you willfully act against the inclinations of all. You will be censured, slighted, and despised, by everyone connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us’” (387)). Lady Catherine’s pride becomes wounded only when Elizabeth does not follow her orders. She wants to know if Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are engaged, but instead receives unclear answers: “‘I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your ladyship. You may ask questions, which I shall not choose to answer’” (386). Elizabeth and Lady Catherine handle their deflated pride with different levels of maturity, which indicate how strong their character is. Lady Catherine’s wounded ego leads to ill behavior. This is seen throughout their conversation, but especially when she storms off: “‘I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention’” (389). Lady Catherine loses control of her temperament and loses her propriety. Elizabeth, on the other hand, still maintains her manners when her pride is wounded. “Elizabeth made no answer; and without attempting to persuade her ladyship to return into the house, walked quietly into it herself” (389). By walking away without comment, Elizabeth shows her maturity and that she is capable of thinking before acting rashly. She also tells no one about the exchange—she maintains privacy and civility and refrains from gossip. Unlike Lady Catherine, Elizabeth’s reactions are not fueled by prejudice, though she is faced with greater reason to be offended.

             One specific exchange within this scene shows the collision of prejudice and pride. Lady Catherine’s prejudice-inspired pride is met with Elizabeth’s honor-driven pride. Lady Catherine says, “‘The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere, in which you have been brought up.’” Elizabeth responds, “‘In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal’” (388). Austen shows us, with this interaction, that not all types of pride are atrocious. Elizabeth stands up for herself and her family, by contradicting the accusation that her status is unequal to Mr. Darcy’s. By doing so, Elizabeth represents the power of female agency—she refuses to let Lady Catherine taunt her into submission. Austen shows us that prejudice is always ugly, whereas honest pride is powerful.

             Persuasion’s denouement looks entirely different, as the characters do not clash in an altercation. Instead, the power of the scene comes from emotional closeness rather than separateness. The dramatic element comes from the sudden resolution, rather than an explosive meeting of two opposing forces:

“There they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure everything, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement. There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion, than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to at, more justified in acting” (1168).

Austen shows a growth in patience. The Elizabeth and Lady Catherine scene is appealing to watch unfold, in the same way that gossip is entertaining to overhear. With Captain Wentworth and Anne, the power of the scene comes from a patient development of plot and an anticipated sense of completion. This scene is brief, yet emotional. Austen used the previous chapters of the novel to enhance the difference and separation between Anne and Captain Wentworth, and this scene acts as a long-waited reconciliation. When the letter reads, “‘I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you’” (1168), the reader understands that this is the anticipated climax of the novel.

            Throughout the confrontational scene between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine, it becomes clear that prejudice is toxic. Austen reinforces this theme through confrontation and the juxtaposition of the two opposing characters. Lady Catherine repeatedly demonstrates abundant prejudice results in blindness. As a matriarch and influential woman, Lady Catherine should appreciate Elizabeth’s determination. However, that is not the case—Lady Catherine fails to acknowledge Elizabeth’s strengths, namely loyalty and confidence, because her prejudiced pride is her hubris. She becomes unable to listen; Lady Catherine misinterprets Elizabeth’s strength as person attacks:

‘“You refuse, then, to oblige me. You refuse to obey the claims of duty, honour, and gratitude. You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his friends, and make him the contempt of the world’” (389).

Prejudiced pride prevents clarity and stains Lady Catherine’s character, while elevating Elizabeth further as the heroine. Though this interaction is brief, Austen presents her early rendition of a thematic truth within Pride and Prejudice: a character can be just if they have pride, but a character cannot recover from prejudice. In this scene, a character who acts out of spite or resentment is not likely to find themselves on the track to forgiveness.

            In the biographical notice of the author, used as the preface for Persuasion, Henry Austen wrote lovingly of his sister’s life and talents. He noted that “Her power of inventing characters seems to have been intuitive, and almost unlimited” (Austen). The two denouement scenes are opposing in style—through pacing and deliverance and characters, yet they both strongly reflect Austen’s strength in delivering messages through theme. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen takes a stance and delivers, believing wholeheartedly that character is shaped by the motives behind action. In Persuasion, the same messages are established. Through the climactic scene, however, something more is revealed: that second chances are possible, that characters can be salvaged through redemption. Austen reveals that mistakes, specifically acts of prejudice, are not all permanent, in the same way that pride can be justifiable:

“There they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure everything, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement. There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion, than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to at, more justified in acting” (1168).

From one classic Jane Austen scene to another, the denouement scenes evolved, matching the growth of the author.

Works Cited

Austen, Henry. "Preface to Persuasion and Northanger Abbey: BIOGRAPHICAL NOTICE of THE AUTHOR." Letter. 13 Dec. 1817. The Works of Jane Austen. Austen.com, n.d. Web. <http://www.austen.com/persuade/preface.htm>.

Benditt, Theodore. "Jane Austen and Pride." ANQ: A Quarterly Journal Of Short Articles, Notes And Reviews 29.2 (2016): 62-66. Skyline. Auraria Library, 2 Sept. 2016. Web. 28 Nov. 2016. <http://0-www.tandfonline.com.skyline.ucdenver.edu/doi/full/10.1080/0895769X.2016.1207500>.

Sutherland, Kathryn. "Jane Austen: Social Realism and the Novel." The British Library. The British Library, 12 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2016. <https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/jane-austens-social-realism-and-the-novel>.

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