[Marxism] Pride & Prejudice
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 29 08:32:02 MST 2006
Shortly after dropping out of the Trotskyist movement in 1978, I embarked
on a systematic reading project of the worlds greatest novels. Since I had
made the decision to begin writing fiction myself, I wanted to learn the
craft from the masters. Additionally, I wanted a change of pace from the
hard-core Marxist literature I had been reading for 11 years. (Within two
years, however, I had returned to radical politics, largely under the
impetus of the Central American revolution.)
I soon discovered that some of these masterpieces left me cold, including
those written by Henry James, Joseph Conrad and especially Jane Austen.
Although I would never deny that they were great writers, their words did
not resonate with me. After reading 50 or so pages of Pride and
Prejudice, I found myself wondering what all the hype was about. I was
left cold by an endless round of country balls, dinner parties and arch
dialogue that always sounded self-conscious and somewhat artificial.
To illustrate: Elizabeth Bennett, the major character who is based on Jane
Austen herself, is in one of her frequent 'cutting' exercises with
Fitzwilliam DArcy--reminiscent of an old Katherine Hepburn and Spencer
Tracy movie. Like Hepburn and Tracy, these two spend most of their time
hating each other until they finally discover that they really are in love.
(I myself had a different take on the matter. In my experience, people
generally start off in love and then discover that they really hate each
other, especially after being married for a few years--excluding me of
"I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it
himself without disguise."
"No"' -- said Darcy, "I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough,
but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for.
-- It is I believe too little yielding -- certainly too little for the
convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others
so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself. My feelings are not
puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be
called resentful. -- My good opinion once lost is lost for ever."
"That is a failing indeed!" -- cried Elizabeth. "Implacable resentment is a
shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well. -- I really
cannot laugh at it; you are safe from me."
It is to the credit of the 2005 production of "Pride & Prejudice" that it
has converted a skeptic like me to the cause of Jane Austen despite such
unnatural dialogue. It of obvious to me now that such dialogue is exactly
what makes Austen special, especially after you get a good sense of who the
characters are. Admittedly, like single malted scotch, it is an acquired
taste. Although one cannot say for sure that the film is faithful to the
novel, it at least has the merit of making me want to take another stab at
this classic. With its sumptuous cinematography and first-rate acting, this
is a film that can stand on its own. Considering the fact that this is
director Joe Wright's first film, this is quite an achievement.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, who is probably the best-known radical film reviewer in
the USA as well as a classmate of mine from Bard College, didn't find the
movie faithful to the novel at all:
"Carnage is inevitable when breaking down a big novel, but the new film
sends Austen's tale through a terrible mauling. Characters are brutally
sanded down, softened, or rounded out in the most boring ways to forgive
them their foibles and resolve their conflicts. There are fewer secrets,
smaller revelations, less suspense. The best example is the almost total
effacement of weak, wicked Mr. Wickham, the object of Lizzie's early
misguided affections. In the book Wickham is the catalyst for the ways in
which Darcy is misunderstood, then redeemed, and through whom Lizzie learns
to temper her brash opinions."
I suppose that Jonathan is correct but since I haven't read Austen's novel,
I didn't feel the same outrage over what appears in his eyes as a moustache
drawn on the Mona Lisa.
Jane Austen's world is that of the agrarian bourgeoisie. Although some
Marxists regard them as prototypical capitalists, it is difficult to find
them doing anything productive in her novels, least of all "improving"
their land. They are far too busy doing a gavotte or hunting foxes to
actually figure out ways to increase crop yield.
Of course, Jane Austen was never really interested in how such people
actually generated wealth. She was far more interested in what they did in
their leisure hours, especially as it related to the question of social
conduct. "Mansfield Park" is a novel about a young woman who relies on the
support of her uncle--an absentee plantation owner in Antigua. In this case
the discrepancy between the getting and spending of wealth is so extreme
that Edward Said is forced to address it in "Culture and Imperialism":
"According to Austen we are to conclude that no matter how isolated and
insulated the English place (e.g., Mansfield Park), it requires overseas
sustenance. Sir Thomas's property in the Caribbean would have had to be a
sugar plantation maintained by slave labor (not abolished until the 1830s):
these are not dead historical facts but, as Austen certainly knew, evident
historical realities. Before the Anglo-French competition the major
distinguishing characteristic of Western empires (Roman, Spanish, and
Portuguese) was that the earlier empires were bent on loot, as Conrad puts
it, on the transport of treasure from the colonies to Europe, with very
little attention to development, organization, or system within the
colonies themselves; Britain and, to a lesser degree, France both wanted to
make their empires long-term, profitable, ongoing concerns, and they
competed in this enterprise, nowhere more so than in the colonies of the
Caribbean, where the transport of slaves, the functioning of large sugar
plantations, and the development of sugar markets, which raised the issues
of protectionism, monopolies and price--all these were more or less
constantly, competitively at issue."
"Pride and Prejudice" is an early work that ostensibly would avoid such
moral dilemmas. At worst, someone watching the film might feel revulsion
over the ostentation it celebrates. D'Arcy lives in a house that looks as
large as the British Museum. Although the average movie-goer, having bought
in to some degree to the value system of PBS's "Masterpiece Theater," might
look forward to such a visual spectacle in the same way that Woody Allen
fans swoon over the penthouses ubiquitous to his films, somebody like me or
the late Edward Said might regard them as a waste of treasure.
Once you get past the aristocratic trappings of Jane Austen's world, you
find yourself in a very familiar world, namely that of the anxious
middle-class family. The Bennetts have 5 unmarried daughters including
Elizabeth. The plot revolves around the need described in the very first
sentence of the novel: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a
single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
As man pursues woman and woman pursues man in this film, it is never far
removed from an underlying pecuniary drive. Almost every character except
Elizabeth and D'Arcy is preoccupied with the income of their potential
mate. This is a world which is never far removed from Engels's observation
in "Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State": "Monogamy arose
from the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of a single
individual man-and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of
that man and of no other."
In "Pride and Prejudice," the character who demonstrates this tendency in
its purest form is the Reverend William Collins who shows up at the Bennett
household one day with the intention of marrying one of the daughters,
which one seems relatively unimportant to him. His real aim is to add a
female body to his household so as to satisfy expectations of how a
minister should fit into society at large. He puts it this way: "My reasons
for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman
in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his
parish. Secondly, that I am convinced it will add very greatly to my
happiness; and thirdly -- which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier,
that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady
whom I have the honour of calling patroness."
When his preferred Bennett daughter is not available, he turns his
attentions to Elizabeth who is the proudest and most independent of the
lot. When she turns down Collins's proposal (he is played flawlessly by Tom
Hollander, a gifted comic actor), he dismisses this as
coquettery--whereupon the feisty Elizabeth sets him straight:
"I am not now to learn," replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the
hand, "that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the
man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their
favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third
time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said,
and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long."
"Upon my word, Sir," cried Elizabeth, "your hope is rather an extraordinary
one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young
ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their
happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly
serious in my refusal. -- You could not make me happy, and I am convinced
that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so, -- Nay, were
your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in
every respect ill qualified for the situation."
Elizabeth's steadfast refusal to become an accoutrement to a bourgeois
household has rightfully been identified as a kind of proto-feminism.
Although this perception might be assumed to be associated with recent MLA
conferences, it actually dates back at least to 1938. That year Mona Wilson
wrote in "Jane Austen and Some of Her Contemporaries":
I wanted to express my conviction that her name should be linked with
that of the great Vindicator of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft,
and that the 'vis comica' of the one has been as powerful an agency as the
'saeva indignatio' of the other.
"Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft were bent on the destruction of the
mik-white lamb, that bleats for a man's protection,' and the evolution of
the rational woman."
("Pride & Prejudice" is now available online and at most video stores. The
novel is available in hypertext at:
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