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In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen demonstrates a flexibility of genre in which realism and romanticism are balanced through the novel’s socioeconomic accuracy and the characterization of Mr. Darcy, along with Elizabeth Bennet’s idealistic approach toward marriage. Austen successfully justifies this duality by depicting Elizabeth’s social mobility within the confines of the British Regency’s stringent class hierarchy. Although romanticism and realism are the primary genres of Pride and Prejudice, the flexibility of genre goes further, incorporating elements of Gothic literature. Critics have argued over the genre of Austen’s novels. To William Dean Howells, her writing exemplifies literary realism, which he considers superior romanticism. In “Novel Writing and Novel Reading,” Howells argues that it is “only the false in art that is ugly” and categorizes authors as either “truthful” or “untruthful.” Yet he leaves no room for the fluidity of Austen’s genre, which is indeed a major source of interest in the narrative as a whole. Regardless, Pride and Prejudice includes the basic attributes of literary realism. No element of fantasy is present, with the characters finding themselves in realistic situations. The social class of each character is clearly defined, providing a nuanced depiction of the British gentry.
Entire chapters of Pride and Prejudice involve the characters lounging around to discuss letter writing and the kind of books they read. Much is revealed through letters instead of dialogue; a plot device of stoic functionality. In “Ventriloquized Opinions of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma: Jane Austen’s Critical Voice,” Katie Gemmill discusses Austen’s opinion of her own work. Her research suggests that Austen would consider herself a realist author. She cites Austen’s letters to Anna which show how Austen was “opposed to characters who displayed virtue or vice in their absolute forms. She preferred a realistic depiction of human fallibility” in her novels, accomplishing “what Mary Waldon has described as a ‘blurring of the moral focus’ that ‘leaves the reader unsure whether to approve or disapprove of characters.” In Pride and Prejudice, it is unclear whether Austen successfully achieves this goal. Few characters are depicted as perfect, and this includes the more favorable characters such as Darcy. But others consider Austen’s characters to be more simplistic. Toby R. Benis discusses the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice in “The Austen Effect: Remaking Romantic History as a Novel of Manners. Benis quotes Andrew Davies, the screenplay’s writer, who argues that “no other 18th or 19th century novelist matches Austen’s adaptability for the screen.” Davies cites Austen’s “ear for dialogue” and plots that “work.” Benis mentions that Austen’s novels contain “naturalistic and appropriate detail,” but he doesn’t agree that her novels are entirely realistic in their depiction of social interactions.
Despite Austen’s opposition to depicting vice and virtue in absolute terms, Benis discusses how Pride and Prejudice is a “typical Austen novel” where the heroine must choose one of two suitors; “one virtuous and one less so.” Between Darcy and Mr. Collins, however, there isn’t a clear dichotomy between vice and virtue. Both characters have personality flaws, but neither of them were potentially shameful to the Bennets like Wickham. Benis argues that as a “novel of manners,” Pride and Prejudice has created the “Austen Effect,” since the “conventions historically associated with the novel…resurface in films representing historical figures and controversies in Georgian England, even when there is little evidence to support this reading of history.” This suggests that Austen provides an inaccurate view of her time period, discrediting the realism of her novels. But Austen should not be blamed for directors misinterpreting her work. All of her novels, including Pride and Prejudice, depict a narrow segment of British society. The novel’s opening statement “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” is ironically idealistic. The narrator mocks this generalization by mentioning that the “feelings or views of such a man” are “little known.” Still, the statement is described again as a “truth” believed by the Bennets and their “surrounding families.” No characters expresses this “truth” directly, but if any of them did, it would have to be Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet is one of the novel’s more realistic characters. She doesn’t care about how compatible a potential suitor might be for one of her daughters. While discussing Bingley to Mr. Bennet, she mentions that he is “a single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. Her utilitarian approach toward marriage is appropriate, considering the inheritance laws described early in the novel. These laws would leave the Bennet sisters in a precarious situation, since the estate can only be left to Mr. Collins. But Mrs. Bennet isn’t fully grounded in reality. Despite her family’s social status, Mrs. Bennet is highly optimistic. By placing too much emphasis on how Bingley’s fortune would be beneficial to her daughters, she never considers why Bingley might want to marry one of them. Yet she still believes it’s “very likely that he may fall in love with one of them.” She doesn’t care if her daughters fall in love with Bingley.
Bingley validates this optimism when he first meets the Bennets. He immediately tells Mrs. Bennet that he intends to marry one of her daughters, ignoring their social class and his lack of familiarity with the family. But Bingley’s mother considers a willingness to marry beneath himself so shameful that she lectures Darcy for his attraction to Elizabeth. She considers Elizabeth’s decision to walk to their house an “abominable sort of conceited independence” and “indifference to decorum.” Miss Bingley points out Elizabeth’s dirty petticoat, and reminds Darcy that he wouldn’t want his sisters to be like Elizabeth. Unlike Mrs. Bennet, Miss Darcy seeks to enforce social norms more strictly. This doesn’t mean that Mrs. Bennet disregards social norms, but she lacks tact and is shameless in her opportunism. The older and younger characters display a generational divide in their attitude toward marriage. Elizabeth Bennet has a lofty view of marriage. She refuses to marry for money alone, and rejects two marriage proposals. Like Bingley and Darcy, she’s willing to disregard social class when contemplating marriage. This gives the novel a sense of romanticism despite an otherwise realistic setting. Anxiety toward class difference is presented less harshly than in Persuasion. The heroine of each novel marries her lover, but the rejection of proposal in Persuasion brings Anne to the more melancholic situation of eight years wasted. Elizabeth isn’t given time to evaluate whether she made the right choice because she doesn’t have to wait long to reverse her decision. These characterizations aren’t enough to discredit Pride and Prejudice as an example of realism, since their personalities and story arcs are entirely plausible.
To Kenneth L. Moler, however, this interpretation cannot be applied to every character in the novel. In “Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen’s Patrician Hero,” he argues that “the transition between the arrogant young man of the early chapters of the novel and the polite gentleman whom Elizabeth Bennet marries is too great and too abrupt to be completely credible.” He explains that Austen based Darcy on the “patrician hero archetype,” which others have described as the “byronic hero.” Sarah Wootton discusses Byronic influence in Pride and Prejudice, explaining that “pride is a ubiquitous trait of the Byronic hero.” She argues that Austen introduces the “usually isolated Byronic hero into an intimate, domestic setting” to highlight Darcy’s flaws, including how he gives “offense at a provincial dance” and is “ungracious to the partnerless women” there. Wootton considers his first proposal arrogant, since he had “no doubt of a favourable answer.” Wootton cites the Gothic villain as another parallel between Austen and Byron. Although Northanger Abbey is the Austen novel known for satirizing the Gothic genre, Wootton mentions how other critics such as Paul Giles have “detected a residual Gothic charge in Pride and Prejudice. Giles considers Darcy a “radically double character,” noting that Austen depicts him as a “haughty Derbyshire gentleman one moment and an enigmatic Gothic hero the next.”Considering this, Darcy might represent an ideal fiance by the end of the novel which may not exist in reality. Moler also notes that his transformation from arrogance to politeness can be attributed to Elizabeth’s realization that her pride led her to be prejudiced against him. This interpretation is consistent with Susan Morgan’s argument that Elizabeth does not follow “external structures,” and is “preoccupied with creating her own.” She describes this Elizabeth’s perspective as a “fluid reality,” discussing how “the nature of character” can conflict with the “nature of reality.” She argues that Austen “has no truths to tell,” which explains why the novel strays from realism without fully embracing romanticism.
Like Elizabeth’s perception, the genre of Pride and Prejudice is another fluid reality. Wootton argues that as a contemporary of Byron, Austen may have been reacting to the “overnight success and the emergence of the semi-autobiographical Byronic hero when editing the novel.” Still, Wootton isn’t fully convinced that Austen was directly influenced by Byron. Instead, she argues that their similarities are derived from shared influence. She points out how Austen was familiar with some of the same literary figures including Milton’s Satan, Hamlet, and Richardson’s Lovelace. I consider Pride and Prejudice a pragmatically realistic novel, presented romantically. The novel begins with Mrs. Bennet’s challenge to see her daughters be married as soon as possible, and she celebrates how three out of five successfully do so. Although the plot focuses on Elizabeth and her more romantic ideals about marriage, Mrs. Bennet’s reacts to this marriage by exclaiming “how rich [Elizabeth] will be,” emphasizing the “pin-money,” jewels, and carriages” she’ll have. Lydia’s marriage is less than ideal. Darcy literally pays Wickham to change his mind and marry her.
It is clear that Pride and Prejudice is more than a lofty romance and cannot be defined by a single genre. Austen probably did this intentionally. Gemmill’s analysis of Austen’s letters leads to the conclusion that Austen was “torn between her own conviction of the need for specific novelistic innovations, and her desire for readers to understand and appreciate them.” Gemmill argues that Austen’s characters “set the stage for nineteenth-century realism,” but I would argue that her innovations transcend the limits of 19th century realism. In combining the Byronic and the realistic, Austen’s genre was a transitional form of realism that connected two artistic movements.
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