Notes on Pride & Prejudice

by Suspended Reason

  1. Austen is obsessed with card games, carriages, conversation, cotillions & quadrilles. The books’ primary seasonal rhythm is social, the oscillation between the public and the domestic life. Home is where teams” (families, friends, business allies) process past (public) outings & plan future ones. The carriages—obeying specific customs, and communicating depths about their occupants (e.g. one character gets cold-shouldered for arriving at a ball in a hack chaise)—cart the players from their private to their public arenas, where they engage in game-playing with real stakes: alliance-building, marital pledges, business deals—much of which happens through the bowerbird-like performance of sexual and class fitness (a la piano recitals, witty repartee), or in the conversations that pepper otherwise low-stake card games. And the players, organized as they are in these seasonal-social rhythms, occupy strategic macro-orientations in the stream: personalities, or masks, or “ecosystems of heuristics” which become Austen’s titular subjects: Pride, Prejudice, Sense, Sensibility.

  2. Dance is the ultimate example of these dynamics: part performance, part coordination exercise—a test of two potential mates’ ability to read and react to one another in real-time—a test of whether their orientations and play styles jive. Dances are the ultimate locus of conversation among the domestic team, when they retire from public play and speak more freely: who danced with whom; how many times; who upheld a sense of honorable propriety (fittedness, appropriateness) in subtle, continuously graded displays of both their skill at—and inclination toward (recall Mr. Darcy)—coordinating. Society is a teaching machine, whose primary pedagogical instrument is language. Censure is passed (privately and publicly, as gossip) against norm violations and undesired behavior; praise is awarded to norm-observance and desired behavior; and the whole macro structure is an extended explicit metaphor for courtship—love and war being dance’s primary subjects. (See e.g. the way many of the dances have a primary partner who is punctuated by a series of flirtations, partner-swaps—the same exploratory pattern of mate-rotation that defines e.g. teen dramas ft. Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, & Penn Badgley.)

  3. Jane Austen was perhaps the first microsociologist, and also one of the great theorists of opticracy. Pride & Prejudice is the great opticratic tract of the 19th C. Our heroine Elizabeth Bennet initially writes off her eventual love interest, Mr. Darcy—a man who abhors disguise of every sort”—on early impression. He appears prideful, conceited, cold, misanthropic. These appearances lead her instead to a flirtation with Mr. Wickham, a man who wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming,” whose appearance was greatly in his favour,” with all the best parts of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.” But we soon find that Wickham is the worst sort of scoundrel, and Darcy has been gravely misunderstood.

  4. What is Darcy’s greatest failure? He fails to dramatically realize (and reenact) his inner qualities and past actions.

  5. And there is regularly a distinction drawn between the extrinsic and intrinsic motivations—between Ms. Bingley’s view of a private library as a status symbol, and Mr. Darcy’s view of the private library as a resource for personal development. It is precisely extrinsic motivation, and the extrinsic motivation of an individual toward gaining Mr. Darcy’s regard, which repels him—“The fact is,” Elizabeth tells him near the novel’s end, when they compare notes on their courtship, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused and interested you, because I was so unlike them.”

  6. And opticsmization (optimization for optics) is everywhere. Prestige is one of the great motivators, for marriages in Austen’s world—second only, perhaps, to economic capital—and the youngest daughter’s eventual elopement with Wickham threatens to taint the family’s reputation through association, the possibility of scandal a mortifying and potentially engagement-ending affair.