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Community as a Character in Pride and Prejudice

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It is a truth universally acknowledged: an individual who wishes to belong is inevitably influenced by his or her community. The extent to which the village actually raises the child is the crux of William Deresiewicz’s argument in his critical analysis of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, entitled “Community and Cognition in Pride and Prejudice.” According to Deresiewicz, the community serves as an actual character within the novel. It has its own expectations, conventions, and activities; in essence, the community is the impetus that drives the plot. Furthermore, because the community is the stimulus, the way in which it thinks, talks, and exerts influence over the characters actually drives the plot, therefore creating the plight of the novel’s heroine. This community, however, is admittedly imperfect; the plot thus serves as constructive criticism, enabling Austen to contrast the community in the novel with her idealized community. To better understand the developments of the human characters in the novel, the community’s personality and idiosyncrasies must first be understood.

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According to Deresiewicz, the community not only dictates conventional social activities and behavioral norms, but also provides a set of “cognitive processes” or “mental processes” which guide the other characters (504). The community acts like any other individual: gathering information, making judgments based on that information, and communicating its decisions to others – but on a far larger scale. The community serves as the basis on which all of the other characters learn to glean information. Because the neighborhood is limited and relatively homogeneous, “beliefs once accepted harden into ‘universal truths'”(505). These edicts that guide perception then translate into the mentality that evaluates (or makes judgment on) all input from the outside world. Deductive reasoning is the thought process of choice within Austen’s community because it is definite and quick. This syllogistic thought process can be illustrated by the fact that:

All single men in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Mr. Bingley is a single man in possession of a good fortune. Mr. Bingley must be in want of a wife. (505)

It requires far less energy for this community to passively accept generalizations and apply them to specific instances than to aggressively seek out patterns upon which to formulate an overview. Deresiewicz uses examples in which “everybody” is in agreement about Darcy’s rude and haughty disposition to convey the fact that many specific assessments are accredited to the community, rather than to specific characters. This implementation of deductive reasoning yields a mental response which in turn triggers a gag reflex (506). As soon as Mrs. Bennet hears of an eligible bachelor, her mind races ahead to a potential marriage because society has trained her to do so. Even Elizabeth is susceptible to this ill-informed mentality: she first deems Darcy insufferable only after she tells her friends of how he dismissed her at the ball and witnesses their horrified reactions. She falls victim to society’s dictates again when she regards Wickham as a good man because of his “good countenance.” This critic believes that the ultimate shortcoming of this form of judgment is its inability to deal with contradictions and exceptions to the syllogism. The plot is thus propelled by one character’s desire to break the patterns and think beyond the boundaries of her restrictive society.

Beyond the homogeneity and ingrained Pavlovian reactions lies a complex internal environment that looks slightly different to each character. The way in which the community thinks, talks and exerts its influence is crucial to its exposition as a character and to its effect on the members of that society. In essence, the community thinks as a singular body, using communication to clarify and homogenize these thoughts into a collective and slightly broader worldview (511). After the women gather to discuss the ball, the consensus about Darcy’s temperament is that he suffers from “pride,” regardless of the distinct perceptions each had before that conversation. The community’s mentality gives Elizabeth the framework within which to determine her response to reality, because she “could not stand apart from the group were she not standing firmly within it” (513). No space exists that is not social in this neighborhood because there is a multiplex of relationships wherein individuals are “connected in a plurality of ways” and continually encounter each other (515). This “density” enables the community to talk on many levels-as friends, couples, etc-because these interconnected people have a reason and right to talk to one another. Furthermore, the community exerts a certain level of influence over the individuals within it because density provides the “matrix of the novel’s plot” (515). The freedom to comment breeds the freedom to meddle in others’ affairs and complicate relationships. Such is the case when the community circulates rumors of Jane and Bingley’s pending engagement, which makes Darcy perceive the Bennets as vulgar (516). One benefit of this dense communal situation is that men and women are free to converse without having to declare romantic feelings and establish friendships that can lead to romantic relationships. Therefore, the community serves as the intermediary between strangers and friends.

While the community has many faults and shortcomings, there are some redeeming aspects. As with many Jane Austen novels, Pride and Prejudice depicts an ideal community that contrasts with the reality known to the characters. According to Deresiewicz, Elizabeth’s dealings with men in Longbourn enable her to see the cognitive constraints established by the community. Her conversation with Wickham indulges her faults because she hears only facts that confirm her own judgments against Darcy’s character because “two identical positions are not likely to force each other to change” (521). The intimacy of this community makes “searching judgment possible” but “undesirable” (522). Elizabeth is only able to fully see the shortcomings in her community when Darcy, a man from outside the community, “disrupts the patterns of Elizabeth’s life” (522). He thoroughly shakes her foundations and standards for normalcy by his unrestrained opposition in a world of veritable concordance. The caustic diatribes between Darcy and Elizabeth juxtapose the smooth concordance of the Wickham/Elizabeth conversations and thus force Elizabeth to become aware of the community’s blindness and homogeneity. Her true turning point occurs when she reads Darcy’s letter and is unable to wittily turn his words against him. She is forced to evaluate her perceptions without the community’s influence, and thus begins the grueling process of extracting herself from the society in which she is so embedded (525). Moreover, the community lacks the certain flair, or “sexiness,” that Elizabeth desires and she must look beyond Longbourn to find, because “contradiction can arrive only from outside the community (526). Darcy and Elizabeth relocate to Pemberly to create a new community founded on incisive and amicable communication, rather than mere complacence. There is no real change “in the weapons used, but in their targets” because they are now “tougher on themselves than they are on each other”(528). Elizabeth never achieves total change, but rather works with Darcy to create the foundation for their own reality. They strive to create their own community: a community that is far more amiable and open to criticism.

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While I find Deresiewicz’s argument that the community is a character separate from the specific townspeople convincing and well-supported, I believe that he places too great an emphasis on the stasis of that community. It seems to me that his vision of the community is unchangeable, requiring Elizabeth and Darcy to leave (or disassociate) from the old community in order to create a way of life that is more suitable for them. Because Longbourn as an individual seems so repressive, I imagine that the Lucases, Bennets, etc. could benefit from a change of pace. Furthermore, Darcy and Elizabeth would be more effective as protagonists should they make an attempt to transform Longbourn into their vision for Pemberly. Longbourn is only in its current state because of the complacence and acquiescence of its residents; if someone harbored an alternative opinion and actually held fast to it without abandoning the community, the others may actually realize that change is possible and, in fact, preferable. Longbourn is like a small child that does not know how to play well with others: until someone with enough sense takes charge, it will grow into an adult with equal parts strength and greed. While the village is a contributing factor in raising a child, that child can one day grow and fix the inadequacies of the village, thus making it a better place.

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Community as A Character in Pride and Prejudice. (2018, April 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 28, 2023, from
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