We’re All Very Bad at This: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Vol 1.
By Sarah Skwire
A Three-Part #ReadWithMe Series
After the recent EconTalk episode with Janine Barchas, we promised we’d discuss this book… So here goes!
(Although this post focuses on Volume One of Pride and Prejudice it will contain spoilers for the rest of the novel. Given the near-infinite number of adaptations of Austen’s novel, I’m assuming you’re all likely to be familiar with the book’s major plot points, even if you haven’t read the novel before.)
Like many of us, I was first introduced to Jane Austen when I was a teenager, reading Pride and Prejudice for a school assignment. On first read, and with the characters and major events of Pride and Prejudice less ingrained in the culture than in our current, Austen-enriched days, I was completely hornswoggled. The rude Mr. Darcy turns out to be the hero? The charming Mr. Wickham is a scoundrel and worse? The witty Elizabeth, whose good sense (and sense of humor) I had already taken as #goals was…wrong? About pretty much everything? How could this be??!!
Leaving teenage effusions aside, the surprise we feel at the plot twists when first reading Pride and Prejudice is surely one of Austen’s great accomplishments. The novelist Neil Gaiman has observed that the most important words for a storyteller are “and then what happened?” because this is how you persuade people to turn the page. Austen is a master of the art of luring readers on through her plots from a sheer need to know “and then what happened?” And her mastery is all the more impressive because she warns us about all the plot twists well in advance.
And she does it in the first two sentences.
Pride and Prejudice begins, famously, with the observation that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The sentence is sharp, funny, and well-phrased, and as perfect an example of why Austen is such a good writer, as well as such a beloved one. But we forget that Austen follows that sentence with this one, “However little known the feelings or views of such a young man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”
We are warned, right there, that Austen sees the world as a place where people operate from incomplete and incorrect information with absolute confidence in the complete correctness of their interpretations. In other words, Austen sees humans as mistake-makers.
We see small examples of this immediately. Mrs. Bennett persuades herself and her daughters that Mr. Bennett will never call on their new neighbor, Mr. Bingley. But in nearly the same moment she convinces herself of this, Austen informs her readers that “Mr. Bennet was among the earliest of those who waited on Mr. Bingley. He has always intended to visit him…”
A few pages later, the group of visitors who are reported to be staying with Mr. Bingley is described in this way:
A report soon followed that Mr. Bingley was to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him to the assembly. The girls grieved over such a number of ladies; but were comforted the day before the ball by hearing, that instead of twelve, he had brought only six with him from Londong, his five sisters and a cousin. And when the party entered the assembly room, it consisted of only five altogether; Mr. Bingley, his two sisters, the husband of the eldest, and another young man.
We should, as well, reassess our own distaste for Mrs. Bennett’s aggressive, obsessive match-making when we learn that the Bennet home is entailed, and that when Mr. Bennet dies, his wife and five daughters will have no home and very little money.
These relatively small examples of mistakes in assessment set us up for the much larger ones that begin to unfold throughout the first volume of the novel. Among those greater errors, we see that Jane Bennett is decidedly mistaken in her initial sense that Bingley’s sisters will be charming friends. We see Mr. Collins learn, fairly brutally, that his assessment of himself as a desirable husband for Elizabeth Bennett is woefully mistaken. We see Mr. Darcy begin to realize that his early dismissal of Elizabeth as “not handsome enough to tempt me” was so wrong that, by the end of the volume, he finds that she is on his mind every moment,
Again and again, Austen’s characters make confident assessments of individuals and situations that are simply, sometimes devastatingly, incorrect.
First time readers who do not pick up on all these hints are not foolish. Austen sets out to fool us, and she’s very good at it. There are much bigger mistakes, misjudgments, and reversals of fortunes coming in the following two volumes. But one of the rewards of returning to Austen for a second read after high school–or for a repeated read at any point–is the pleasure of finding more and more of these moments where she bluntly tells her audience that all is not as it seems, and then allows us to go tearing off on our own, trusting Mr. Wickham and wrinkling our noses at Mr. Darcy.
- What are some other moments where Austen warns us about unreliable assessments of situations and characters?
- Which characters seem to you to have the best sense of judgement? The worst?
- Mr. Darcy is inarguably very rude to Elizabeth. Does Austen give us any hints that this may be a mistaken assessment of his character?