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Austen, P&P: Vol. III
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Action vs. reflection?...
As you wrap up your reading of Pride and Prejudice, give some thought to the philosophy underpinning the book. Critics have characterised the first half of the book as "dramatic" and the second half as "reflective"; how far does this division hold true, in your view? Which characters "act," and which "reflect"? How does the novel seem to balance the need for action and the need for reflection in the pursuit of "happiness" or "success" (are happiness and success interchangeable?) ?

The "belief in natural law and universal order" and the "supreme confidence in human reason" that characterised Enlightenment thought did not go unchallenged before Austen. David Hume (1711-76) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) each attacked the notion that human reason could directly access something called "reality." Hume, an empiricist, argued that all our knowledge is a result of experience, or "impressions" (note the correspondence with the original title of Austen's novel, First Impressions!), which write themselves on the blank slate of our minds. Kant, an idealist, argued that all our experience was mediated by a structuring consciousness; that "pure experience" of reality "as such" is impossible. (Where does Austen's focus on "portraiture" fit in here?)

Thus we can summarise their two positions (and re-integrate them into our thinking about Pride and Prejudice) as follows:

  • Hume: "All there is, is experience" (="action"?)
  • Kant: "All there is, is mind" (="reflection"?)

Where does Austen fit in? To what extent can we see P&P as a dialogue between these two positions (Self as sum of experiences vs. Self as mediator and co-creator of experience)?

Study Questions
Please think about the following as you complete (or after you have completed) your reading:

(1) On Tuesday, I asked you to think about the way the following terms and concepts interact in the novel:

  • character ("nature," "disposition"; also, "handwriting." Think, too, about fores that act on character: some of you already mentioned "influence," "persuasion," "experience," "adaptation," "knowledge.")
  • portraiture/painting ("sketch," "picture," "portrait," "picture," "picturesque." Think also about what appears to make something "picturesque," in the realm of the novel: the word "symmetry" is often used (or implied) with reference to scenes that are visually pleasing, and is also a structural principle of Austen's novel. What other principles does Austen borrow from portraiture?)
  • perspective.

Note that I'm particularly interested in the interplay among these ideas, i.e. what does "character" have to do with "portraiture" and "perspective"? Why are these relationships important to the novel?

(2) How does Pemberley--as a place and as an idea--function in the last third of the novel? Note very carefully just how Elizabeth's series of epiphanies work there. How do the above terms (character, potraiture, perspective) operate in the Pemberley scenes?

(3) Belatedly, for this should have been among the study questions for last time--what tensions drive the novel? What single major tension is introduced in the first three chapters of the novel, and serves to motivate its plot (which many of you have dismissed as trivial or frivolous)?

(4) Think very hard about the ending of the novel. Are you satisfied? Why or why not? Why does Austen end the novel this way (I am referring to the last three chapters, not just the last paragraph)? When you have considered the ending of the novel in broader terms, look at the concluding paragraph. Why do you supposed Austen chose to finish here? Finally, look back at the opening of the novel. Has your relationship to this opening sentence changed? Do you feel, now, that it is a suitable/unsuitable/informative/ironic/? introduction to the book?

(5) Now that you have read the whole thing, what is marriage in this novel? What is it for? What are the right reasons to marry? And what are the characteristics of a successful marriage? Why does Austen choose marriage as the theme of her novel, and how does it serve her as a platform from which to examine more global concerns? Note that a wide variety of different marriages are portrayed here. What is revealed, through Austen's treatment of this topic, about the characters, about the world of the novel, about Austen's world, and about you as Jane Austen's reader?

(6) Is this novel really a "chick book," and if so, why? (I am not looking for the obviously sexist and dismissive answer, "because only chicks care about this stuff." IF that's the case, then why do you think it is the case? Is it simply that women are willing to identify with male narrators/protagonists, but not vice versa? Or is there more to it than that?)
       If not--that is, if you don't feel the novel's appeal is limited to female readers--why not?

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