As a student, I regarded William Shakespeare as a played out hack. As I’ve said before, it not so many words, one must remain skeptical of the excessively popular. Yet, as I studied, against what I thought constituted better judgement, I found what I hold as the reason for Shakespeare’s world regard and esteem. Of course, I did not discover anything profound or “new” in his works because everything we read now blooms from the ground he broke. Even then, I do not credit Shakespeare with discovery, even for his time, but rather for noticing with a genius eye and a sharp mind. For seeing. And understanding. Us.
As I finished Pride and Prejudice, I felt the same surge of admiration but this time for little ole Jane Austen. Despite her reputation for humorous jests and satirical lyricism aimed at the quirky institution of English match-making, for me, she illuminated a universal truth about human relationships.
I imagine any artistc craft as a permanent filter. The loftiest of critics and artists may argue for the extraction of that filter between two individual human essences. I regard true artistry as the act of cleaning the filter rather than removing it. Imagine a screen door between Jane Austen and her reader. The door consists of paper, ink, language, construction, etc. These things must remain. Yet Austen knows something, sees something, has noticed something which her visitor has either idly ignored or pompously replaced with a personal construction or belief in order to satisfy their longing for the truth and because of their inability to find it. Austen scrubs her screen door to an astounding transparency. Yet she has also created the representation of what she has noticed by focusing on the holes in the mesh in order to sublimely articulate her findings. Yet during her construction, she must also treat her craft, her work, as a glass filling with water only to ignore it as it overflows. If she continually gazes over at it, to assess her ability to fill it, she may stop and find herself pleased in the amount of water she has poured into it. Or she may cringe at her inability to control its containment. Yet only by allowing the water to overflow, and release her control over this thing she has noticed by the virtue of her genius mind, can she watch it delicately seep through the holes in the mesh and into the life of her reader.
I read Pride and Prejudice as a story of deep psychological insight into the war between human companionship and human institution. In modern times, we might cherish the destruction of institutional marriage and glorify the rebels who live together and make families out of wedlock. I neither promote nor abhor such behavior, but rather enjoy Austen’s trust in the natural transcendence of companionship within the institution rather than having to demolish the institution in order for real, genuine love and companionship to prosper. After all, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy rebelled against socio-economic match-making only to find themselves large beneficiaries of its luxuries. Elizabeth prided herself on her ability to read people’s characters, much to her later dismay, and her inability to naturally and pitifully follow her sister Lydia’s path. She refused to label herself as a woman confined by the mandates of cultural dictation. Mr. Darcy, though a well-intentioned man who seemed to promote others’ misunderstanding of him, simply hated the way his socio-economic position forced him to behave in an unnatural way – lurching after girls like Miss Bingley. He implodes like an introvert at a college frat party while others view his disdain as pomp. After all, a man of his position must wish to lavish himself on the Miss Bingleys of the world. Neither character fit into their culture but, in the end, both found themselves greatly rewarded by that culture without changing themselves for it – but they would change for each other.
Jane Austen noticed how a happy relationship actually flourishes. In modern times, we have expounded on this idea and even tried to add to something so all-encompassing and universal. To Austen, a happy relationship must involve personal growth derived from the influence of another but by the will of themselves. Elizabeth, by her own flawed virtue, inspires Mr. Darcy to change for the better as does Mr. Darcy inspire Elizabeth to take a look at her own flaws and grow into an amazing woman. Pride and Prejudice beautifully and astonishingly follows the evolution of two heroes who would not have grown at all had it not been for each other. The dual nature of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, their separate evolution, seamlessly revolves around the other in a cosmic uniformity.
I must mention my feelings towards a few of the minor characters – my sickening disdain for Lydia Bennet’s immaturity and superficiality, as a representation of an all too common victim of a glorified institution which all young girls long to fulfill (right?); my premature annoyance with Mrs. Bennet who simply wanted to see her daughters safely hidden from a vicious entail law; my whimsical attachment to Mr. Bennet for whom I can only admit my admiration and total respect; and my simple, yet powerful, glee for Jane and my undying promotion of the literary romanticism she represents with her benevolent perspective on all circumstances. Yet all these characters and their relationships to one another compare and contrast in order to sharpen the image of that something which Jane Austen noticed. She cleaned her filter, allowed the water to overflow and soak us. Like those in Shakespeare’s time and place who hadn’t noticed the timeless truths of humanity until he unveiled them, I understand Jane Austen as a woman who saw deep into the muck of socio-economic match-making and found the dungeon in which we imprisoned our humanity and freed it in the form of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.