Feeling of Emotions in Pride and Prejudice

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“Jane Austen characters are at their best when advised by their hearts and most of their errors come from their heads.” Discuss with reference to Pride and Prejudice.
“Despite the fact that there is a warm feeling pervading throughout her works, the situation becomes difficult somewhat when prudence plays a stronger part than emotion”. Do you agree with this view? Discuss with reference to Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen’s Spirit of Classicism

      Jane Austen wrote in the tradition of the eighteenth century novelists. Like Johnson and other classicists before her she prized sense more than sensibility. Classicist in spirit she strove to portray her major characters as being prudent and wise, free from the errors and misjudgements arising out of too much emotion. Passion is there, by implication in her novels but what is most important in Jane Austen is that passion must be guided correctly by prudence. Even in the expression of deep and true feeling one must be wise. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia is foolish and Wickham is villainous. The two are lovers no doubt but their love is not under prudent control and hence they do not have the approbation of the author. Elizabeth herself, tells Jane that she regards Darcy, with an interest, if not quite so tender, at least as reasonable as what Jane felt for Bingley. Tenderness is subordinated to reason and passion to principle in Jane Austen.

Prudence Vs Emotion

      Yet, in spite of Jane Austen’s predilection to support prudence—the head over emotion—the heart, in Pride and Prejudice we see that at least a few of her characters are at their best when advised by their hearts and are prone to error when they let their header prudence overcome their feelings. This is most obvious in the character of Darcy.

Darcy’s Errors

      Darcy’s faults arise from a mistaken idea of his own consequence. He thinks himself superior to everyone at Meryton and looks down upon all those who are socially his inferior. His pride blinds him to the merit of Elizabeth and he can cruelly and snobbishly refuse to dance with her for she is not beautiful enough to tempt him. When he does begin to feel the attraction, the power of her beautiful eyes and personality, his prudence intervenes. He cannot allow himself to be attracted to her, because he thinks it would not be prudent to associate himself with her low, vulgar family. It is this same prudence, this advice from the head, which leads him also to separate Bingley from Jane Bennet. When he does fall in love with Elizabeth inspite of his head advising against it, he proposes to her at Hunsford parsonage. But even while proposing he dwells more on the low circumstances of her family, rather than his feelings for her. Thus, when advised by his head, when guided by prudence, he errs badly. It is when he is guided by his heart, that he is at best. He may think of Elizabeth as being beneath him but his heart tells him otherwise. He feels attracted by the liveliness, the charm, the wit and intelligence of Elizabeth and it is these feelings which lead him to overcome the imprudence of such a match and propose to her. But it is only after his pride is totally humbled that his feelings really rise to the fore.

Triumph of Feeling

      It is his feelings for Elizabeth, his love for her which eventually triumphs over his pride or her prejudice. Had pride won the day he would have held his tongue, let her marry Wickham and be miserable. But he writes to her explaining and justifying some of his actions towards Wickham and Jane and Bingley. Begun in bitterness and mortification he ends with an involuntary ‘God bless you,’ By this letter, conceived in a moment of great feeling, he opens the whole train of circumstances leading to their eventual reconciliation and happiness.

      Once he has admitted to his love for Elizabeth, he is governed by these feelings in everything. He realizes that meanness and vulgarity or refinement and grace are not qualities typical to either the rich or poor. Lady Catherine can be as vulgar and mean as Mrs. Bennet Elizabeth and Jane can be more refined and graceful than the conceited Bingley sisters. Finally, he can let emotion overcome prudence to such an extent that he is even ready to associate himself with Elizabeth in spite of the scandal of the Wickham-Lydia episode. Advised by his heart, he can act for the best, overcoming his disgust for Wickham and even paying him to marry Lydia.

      The same is true of Bingley. He is at his best when advised by his heart. When prudence plays no part, he is affable and friendly, ready to find everything good in his neighbourhood, associating himself with everyone in an easy-going manner with no thought for social rank or snobbish pride. He can fall in love easily with Jane for he sees only her loveliness and her good nature and does not, like Darcy, think of her low family status. But he is pliable and allows himself to be advised by Darcy to prudently reject such an ill match. Acting according to prudence, he errs in leaving Netherfield, abandoning Jane and taking up residence in London. It is only when influenced by his heart that he is at his best.

      Elizabeth, prides herself on her discerning intelligence, on her ability to study characters. And yet her intelligence fails her with respect to Darcy. She can attribute all his actions to his pride and is blindly prejudiced against him. It is only during the moment of great feeling — the agony that she undergoes on receiving Darcy’s letter of explanation after she has refused his proposal — that she first begins to see him and Wickham in the proper light.

Jane Austen’s Limited Range and Theme

      Jane Austen is a novelist of a very limited range. But her limitations are self imposed and within the parameters she sets herself, Jane Austen’s art is perfect.
David Cecil tells us that Jane Austen’s limitations stemmed from her choice of themes. She could only be successful with themes that turned on personal relationships and were capable of being treated satirically or ironically. He further says in this connection. “This nature of her talent, imposed a third limitation on her, it made her unable to express impulsive emotion directly. She surveyed her creatures with too detached an irony for her to identify herself with them sufficiently to voice their unthinking gushes of feeling.”

Emotion Not Directly Expressed

      To a great extent, it is true that Jane Austen cannot or rather does not express emotion directly. The world of Pride and Prejudice is a limited world of Longbourn, Netherfield, Hunsford and Pemberley and it is entirely placid with no instance of violence or agitation. There is no frightful or pathetic scenes of death and even the Lydia-Wickham elopement is settled before it can create any rift. Therefore we may agree with Charlotte Bronte that there is an absence of vehemence and disturbing scenes.

      However, if the implication is stretched further to include the suggestion that there is a deplorable want of emotion, a general disdain of passion as Charlotte Bronte says, that would be an injustice to Jane Austen. It is true that family gossips, drawing room chats, tete-a-tete, balls, marriage proposals and country walks are the materials with which Jane Austen works. These materials are apparently trivial, but the ultimate impression she creates is profound because there is much psychological interest in her novels as Virginia Woolf suggests.

Emotions Controlled and Within a Social Framework

      Jane Austen’s theme in all her novels, is love, courtship and marriage. It is impossible that the feelings or emotion can be kept out of such a story. Jane’s involvement with Bingley is an affair of the heart of emotion. Elizabeth and Darcy for all their intellectual capability and reliance on sense also undergo the turbulent, conflict of emotions in discovering their love for each other.

      Thus, the passions do appear in her novels. But the emotion in Jane Austen’s world must be controlled and concealed—that is, violent emotion. It is a test of character that though one feels deeply, one does not distress other people by a display of feeling. As Norman Sherry says she deals with emotions which are experienced in a social framework. Jane Austen believed in the organic unity of the society and therefore the individual must not display his passions but subordinate it to the larger purpose of society. The violent passions of Jane Eyre and Lord Rochester, which Charlotte Bronte depicts would have been disruptive to the organic unity of Jane Austen’s society. Also, the passions had to be controlled for, the ironic detachment was a necessary part of her technique, style and vision of life. The characters in her novels thus, experience emotion and strong feelings but they are brought under the control of reason. Periods of solitude and contemplation are the habitual reactions of her heroines to moments of stress. The alternative is exercise or occupation. Elizabeth, after reading Darcy’s letter, wanders along the lane for two hours, giving way to every variety of thought until fatigue, and a recollection of her long absence, made her at length return home, and when she recovers from the shock of hearing Lydia’s elopement: ‘Had Elizabeth been at leisure to be idle, she would have remained certain that all employment was impossible to one so wretched as herself, but she had her share of business.’

Psychological Delineation of Characters

      Jane Austen’s novels are profound in the psychological delineation of characters. She is able to capture superbly the subtlety of thoughts, half-thoughts and reflexes of her characters in Pride and Prejudice. By mere hints and suggestions Jane Austen implies the deep emotions and impulses felt by her characters. Lydia’s unabashed and wild behaviour at Longbourn after her marriage with Wickham is disliked by Elizabeth. But she does not rebuke or admonish Lydia. When Lydia begins to narrate how she was trying to show her marriage ring to others, Elizabeth cannot stand it, she at once walks away from the place thus, hinting at her deep sensitiveness and feelings. Elizabeth’s thoughts and impulses are analysed by Jane Austen with great success. Her refusal of Collins’s proposal, her first impression of Darcy after Meryton Ball, her refusal of Darcy’s proposal at Hunsford, her trip to Pemberley and her last letter to Mrs. Gardiner seeking clarification about Darcy’s character clearly prove that the movement of Pride and Prejudice is on an inner plane. It is with great success that the mental conflict of Elizabeth has been presented in the novel.

Other Emotions

      The wilder emotions and passions may be lacking, but with minimum of rhetorical flourish, Jane Austen gives brilliant examples of other significant emotions like envy, jealousy, cunning, hypocrisy, pride, vanity, snobbery etc. and of these there are numerous examples in Jane Austen’s novels. There is the jealousy, conceit and hypocrisy of Caroline Bingley, there is the cunning villainy of Wickham, there is the snobbery and vanity of Lady Catherine.


      Thus, Elizabeth and Bingley and especially Darcy seem to elucidate Margaret Kennedy’s remark about Jane Austen that - “Her characters are at their best when advised by their hearts and most of their errors come from their heads”.

      Though there are no violent outbursts of passion we can agree with Virginia Woolf that “Jane Austen is the mistress of a much deeper emotion than appears on the surface”. Jane Austen does deal with emotion, but by implication and it is controlled within a social framework.

University Questions

Virginia Woolf remarks: “Jane Austen is mistress of much deeper emotion than appears on the surface.” Discuss with reference to Pride and Prejudice.
Charlotte Bronte criticized Jane Austen for not knowing, the ‘passions’ at all. Do you agree with this criticism?
“The nature of her talent imposed a third limitation on her; it made her unable to express impulsive emotion directly.” Discuss.
“She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound.” What defence is possible against Charlotte Bronte’s criticism of Jane Austen?

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