November 2012 meeting: Mr Darcy and masculinity in Pride and Prejudice

Prepared by member Jenny.

Charlotte Bronte’s criticism of Jane Austen in which she stated: “the passions were unknown to her” was entirely reversed during a discussion of member Sarah Ailwood’s analysis of Pride & Prejudice by JASACT members at their November meeting. Sarah’s analysis was part of her doctoral thesis entitled What a Man Ought to Be.

The powerful sexual desire experienced first by Darcy and later by Elizabeth is expressed by Austen using many innovative narrative techniques. Ailwood believes that the male (or erotic) gaze, focalisation or the one who sees, and scopophilia, gaining sexual pleasure from looking, were the keys to understanding the passion. Elizabeth, however, is constrained by female propriety and can only gaze unreservedly at Darcy’s portrait and his magnificent house and property – handsome, lofty and fine.

One member recollected that Richard Jenkyns in A Fine Brush of Ivory had described Pride & Prejudice as erotic. Darcy “is the hero in whom sexual desire is most overt and overpowering … The Sexual charge is stronger in Pride & Prejudice than any of the other novels … (P.86)”, he wrote.

Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth entirely against his will and upbringing. Ailwood notes that in their first meeting, he waits until he gets her attention and then insults her: “not pretty enough to tempt me”. However,  very soon afterwards, he notices “the beautiful expression in her dark eyes”!

Darcy’s characterisation is developed partly through comparison with the other male figures in the book, but focalisation is used to probe his interiority – the truth as he sees it.

English: Image at the beginning of Chapter 34....

Darcy proposing to Elizabeth, Ch. 34, from George Allen edition, 1894. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His first proposal to Elizabeth was full of anger and frustration – so much so that one critic called it “verbal rape”. His sexual passion left him feeling humiliated and he was amazed by her refusal. Elizabeth, too, is equally angry and humiliated. But Darcy comes to realise the truth of what she tells him.

One person told the group, however, that she believed Elizabeth to be quite revolutionary in her response to Darcy, answering him back and refusing him. She wondered what contemporary critics had made of such a dangerous writer preaching insubordination.

While the patriarchal and economic structures of the time had a profound effect on both male and female behaviour, Darcy eventually chose romantic individualism over social order in deciding to marry Elizabeth.

Pride & Prejudice is deeply concerned with dramatizing the importance of men changing to please the women they love. Elizabeth wanted a man with an emotional life in which she could share. Members of the group suggested that women yearn to be able to change a man and this may partly account for the popularity of Pride & Prejudice through time.

However, just as Elizabeth was unable to do anything to express her growing love and desire for Darcy due to female modesty and propriety, our own time’s current cultural psyche has still not resolved how a women can express desire. “A positive formulation of female desire itself does not yet exist in our cultural psyche” according to Judith Mitchell, quoted by Ailwood. Indeed, we noted that current “conduct” books (such as Amanda Hooten’s Finding Mr Darcy) are still musing upon the problem.

The excellent quiz focussed on male characterisation in Pride & Prejudice: Who (said what) and When (did they say it)? The meeting concluded with the usual “guess the quote” activitiy.

Special thanks to Sarah for sharing her thesis chapter with us.

Business:

  1. The main theme for next year will be emotions in Jane Austen’s writing, with anger being first up for discussion at the January meeting. Members are asked to think about how Austen uses and presents anger in any of her novels, and to come ready to discuss one or more examples.
  2. The JASA annual conference will be held in Canberra on July 26-28 focussing on Pride & Prejudice.
  3. Our combined Jane Austen birthday celebration and Christmas lunch  will be held on December 15. Invitations providing details will be emailed to members.
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