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Portrayals and Likenesses in Pride and Prejudice

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   28 January 2010
   Dmitri Kaminiar
   Student #995059083
   ENG 323H1

Portrayals and likenesses in Pride and Prejudice

   When people read Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, they very quickly become aware that while the narrator herself speaks in a relatively neutral and unprejudiced tone, very often the novel is narrated from the point of view of one of the characters - and they are often more prejudiced than the narrator herself is. Since most of the characters shown in such a manner are very important to the book, these presentations are significant because these portraits help to understand the development of the book's plot, they provide an insight into characters' inner turmoil, and show the development of both the characters in particular and the plotline in general. With this fact in mind, this essay will talk about the mental workings of the characters of Pride and Prejudice, focusing in particular on whether or not the lovers know each other's minds and whether or not knowing one's character is merely a matter of seeing or exposing the most accurate likeness.
   Jane Austen wrote "Pride and Prejudice" with certain ideas in mind. One of those ideas was a progressive way of establishing the natures of the characters in her book in a certain sequence of ways. Moreover, the first step was the use of mental imagery, where Jane Austen showed how her characters were thinking, how these thoughts affected their behavior and how their behavior defined them, their personalities (and their thoughts, thus completing the circle) and to an extent - their destinies.
   When it comes to mental images, Austen clearly shows her audience as to how a character's mental imagery can clearly `hint' at that character's personality, even if the other characters are unaware or ignoring the fact for some personal reasons.
   In Lydia's imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp--its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.
   (Pride and Prejudice, pg. 229)
   Now, it is obvious that Lydia is something of a shameless flirt, but this mental image, now firmly associated with Lydia, confirms with certain finality the status of Lydia as a silly, romantic girl, and ensures that as far as the development of literary characters goes, Lydia will not change, unlike the personalities of the main characters.
   All the same, though, Jane Austen does not make Lydia a negative character or even makes her into a silly girl. This mental image is surprisingly innocent, clearly indicating that Lydia has only a vague idea about how real life works (unlike her father), and it is because of that lack of knowledge that she gets into trouble - and the author was able to show (or at least to foretell) it all in a relatively small paragraph.
   Yet, while the mental images do give a certain dimension to the entire book, that dimension is secondary to the pictorial presentation of the characters - yet that is not all. For example, Mr. Darcy had his portrait `composed' by the various natives of Netherfield almost as soon as he and Mr. Bingley had arrived at the ball:
   Mr. Bingley was good-looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion. His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.
   (Pride and Prejudice, pg. 10)
   Moreover, Miss Bennet would - in her prejudice - go even further, so to speak; she would mentally compose a portrait, or an image of Mr. Darcy, and would firmly adhere to it until his letter to her at Rosings, at which point her feelings for Mr. Darcy - and her portrait of him - undergo a transformation:
   "How despicably I have acted!" she cried; "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself."
   (Pride and Prejudice, pg 207)
   This quotation is only an opening in a series of revelations that Elizabeth Bennet experiences towards Mr. Darcy in this chapter, during which her image of him changes completely. Since the image in question is a mental image, created by Elizabeth Bennet during their first meetings, this situation means that Elizabeth has carried the mental image with her like a photo or a snapshot, apparently perfect in every detail, especially the physical ones.
   Conversely such mental snapshots, while perfect, also tend to be static, unchanging, or rather unaffected, by circumstances even as the latter change with time. If put in such terms, then Elizabeth Bennet created a relatively accurate portrait of Mr. Darcy and was content with it, until a sudden external shock causes her to change her opinion, of course.
   The second stage is that of a pictorial presentation, when people develop their initially fluid or malleable mental images into more static pictures, almost like painted wall-portraits and adhere to them for a much longer time than they do with the regular mental images. Elizabeth Bennet had such a reaction towards Mr. Darcy, as she had created a portrait or a picture in her mind's eye, based largely on the way he presented himself at Netherfield and on Wickham's misinformation. Moreover, she kept on preferring it over the reality, until she received Mr. Darcy's letter at Rosings, which resulted in a shock for her, as well as an abrupt and sharp re-assessment of not only Mr. Darcy, but of herself.
   To demonstrate the complexity of this situation, take this as an example: for certain point in time, Mr. Darcy apparently did resemble that mental snapshot that Elizabeth had taken off him:
   "I cannot give you credit for any philosophy of the kind. Your retrospections must be so totally void of reproach, that the contentment arising from them is not of philosophy, but, what is much better, of innocence. But with me, it is not so. Painful recollections will intrude which cannot, which ought not, to be repelled. 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."
   (Pride and Prejudice, pg. 359)
   The quotation above demonstrates the fact that if the letter has been Elizabeth's turn to realize and to change both her picture of Mr. Darcy and of herself, then the earlier confrontation was Mr. Darcy's, who also created a mental snapshot of Elizabeth for himself. However here is something of a discontinuity: Mr. Darcy had begun to change, but Elizabeth herself had not - naturally, this raises a question: how does the couple (and the rest of the book's plot) manages to successfully work things out by the end of the book?
   On some level, of course, this discontinuity gets resolved after Mr. Darcy's letter to Elizabeth - a fact that caused a reaction and a transformation of Elizabeth's character, making the novel's happy end possible. However, it should also be remembered that Mr. Darcy fell in love with Elizabeth before she changed, and after she changed, his feelings for her did not. Obviously, something fundamental in Elizabeth remained the same, something that attracted Mr. Darcy to her no matter what... However, besides these connotations, this quotation also does bring forth a question: Is the notion that knowing one's character a matter of seeing or exposing the most accurate likeness? Consequently, Pride and Prejudice claims that that statement is true, but also that it is only a part of the whole - after that likeness is seen or exposed, the viewer must decide what he or she will do with this knowledge and to what end.
   Naturally, this leads up to the question if knowing one's character is a matter of seeing or exposing the most accurate likeness? The answer to that is yes - to a point. Elizabeth Bennet's pictorial presentation of Mr. Darcy's character (and through her, the readers') was quite correct, but only to a point. The confrontation at Rosings culminated in a letter that changed Elizabeth Bennet's perceptions of both Mr. Darcy and herself, but the letter itself was the result of Mr. Darcy changing his own perception of himself due to Elizabeth Bennet's accusations. Consequently, seeing or exposing the most accurate likeness and thus learning about one's character is only a step in the process - doing something with that knowledge is the next step. Therefore, the lovers in the book, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet know each other only to a limit (a limit that was described in the book, that is), and will probably continue to learn about each other after their marriage as well.
   Now, getting back to the earlier points, let us remember that Jane Austen uses mental images (such as in case of Lydia Bennet) to establish basic proto-portraits of various minor characters to explain their actions better. With the characters becoming more important to the novel (such as Elizabeth's parents or the Bingleys), she used more complete, more picturesque images, and when it came to the protagonists, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, these picturesque images became full snapshots. Moreover, since such a mental approach has both advantages and disadvantages, Jane Austen did not hesitate to show this state of affairs in Pride and Prejudice, whether her audience saw this or not.
   And in conclusion, the above-stated fact raises an interesting question that was already mentioned earlier in the essay: how well does the couple know each other in the book? On one end, at Rosings, things came to a showdown of sorts between the pair, between Mr. Darcy's pride and Elizabeth's prejudice, albeit resulting in eventual change of both of them (even if some of that change was related to changes in attitude instead). At the other end, however, there is a fact that at the point of the countdown (and possibly before it), the two had rather accurate mental images of each other (Elizabeth Bennet had, at any rate - the audience does not learn as much about Mr. Darcy), and that prompts the change in both of them. In other words, the notion that knowing one's character is a matter of seeing or exposing the most accurate likeness is true, but it is only a part of the whole - after that likeness is seen or exposed, the viewer must decide what he or she will do with this knowledge and to what end.
   Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Joseph Pearce. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008.
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