Monday, August 6, 2012

Misunderstanding Mr Darcy

"And your defect is to hate everybody."
"And yours," he replied with a smile, "is willfully to misunderstand them." 
 I was toying with the idea of doing a feature week on The Most Misunderstood Literary Characters of All Time recently when I realised that most of these (like Romeo and Juliet, and Kate and Petruchio) were Shakespeare characters, and it would be more fun just to focus on Shakespeare for a while. But there's one literary character so thoroughly misunderstood that I must talk about him for a moment. This is, of course, Jane Austen's Mr Darcy.

I had been acquainted with Jane a long time before I ever became acquainted with the Janeites, and it was consequently a surprise to me to meet people who thought that Mr Darcy was wonderful. Indeed I am reliably informed that this is actually a problem among people who should know better--that there are dozens of nice young ladies out there who, in deciding to lose their heads, decided to lose those heads over a purely imaginary person, declaring that they are "waiting for my Mr Darcy."

Really? Waiting for a man to stare at you coldly and then, within your hearing, declare that you are "tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me"? Waiting for someone who'll take it upon himself to separate your sister and the man she loves because he doesn't think she's good enough? Waiting for someone to declare that he loves you despite "his sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation"? Very romantic.

It is my firm conviction that not only is Mr Darcy one of the least attractive and praiseworthy of Austen's heroes, but also that she intended him to be entirely unattractive and unsuitable for at least the first half of the book. While Elizabeth Bennet does eventually come to a better understanding of his character, the truth is that his behaviour, for most of the book, does little to contradict her low opinion of him. There are, of course, hints that he is more sensible and perhaps even kinder than he looks on the surface, but his improper pride prevents him from showing it. While the novel acknowledges the importance of a proper pride, Mr Darcy's to begin with is uncivil, unmannerly, and arrogant. This must be dealt with before the happy ending: it is only near the end of the book, when Elizabeth meets him during her visit to Pemberley and finds him civil and courteous to her nouveau riche merchant-class relations that she begins to love him. At the end of the book, he confesses that he has been selfish: "By you, I was properly humbled. [...] You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased."

Could anything be clearer? In Mr Darcy, Jane Austen intended to create someone who, despite good qualities, was initially unworthy of a worthwhile woman's attention (not to mention that of Elizabeth, who was also in need of some humbling). That Mr Darcy identified and repaired his faults means that the happy ending can then proceed, but it doesn't mean that he is, or can be, or should be, held up as some masculine ideal. Quite the contrary. Austen never was guilty of a masculine ideal (if she was, he would be something more like Mr Knightley or Edmund Bertram). GK Chesterton said of her:
No woman later has captured the complete common sense of Jane Austen. She could keep her head, while all the after women went about looking for their brains. She could describe a man coolly; which neither George Eliot nor Charlotte Bronte could do. 
She remains unique; and it would be a shame if she was henceforth remembered as the inventor of The Most Romantic Man in the World.


Christina Baehr said...

I just read P&P to my husband (will be blogging on that soon!). I've always thought that Mr. Darcy wouldn't be the easiest husband in the world, but I think Elizabeth is up to the job. ;) One of the things that stood out to me in this novel is the different criteria the characters have for assessing potential spouses. I think that Austen is very practical (and not particularly romantic) in the way she outlines her expectations of the Darcys' marital happiness. More on all this later...

Lady Bibliophile said...

Amen, Suzannah! ;) It's the truth, and you covered thoroughly something I could only devote one sentence to a while back. I find it terribly sad that Jane Austen is blamed for turning girls' heads, but in reality she created a cast of realistic and fallible men. Some of them are more virtuous than others, but all have their faults, and I think her books are a good example of realistic relationships.

After all, she did base her books on the conversations of other adults, or so I am told.

Suzannah said...

Oh! I can hardly wait for your P&P thoughts.

I think Leithart has some good things to say on the different criteria for choosing a spouse in the novel--it's such a very clear theme in the story that you can't afford to marry either solely for love or solely for pragmatic considerations.

Suzannah said...

If there's one thing I've learned, it's that girls are fully capable of turning their own heads, over anyone. While Austen may have had shortcomings as an author, I appreciate that she was writing novels from a woman's point of view (ie giving relationships a lot of emphasis) without allowing that to twist her perspective on men.

Hannah Shannon said...

Thank you for explaining this, Suzannah. I regret to say I have not yet managed to get past the first few chapters in P&P, but I can't fail to hear things, and this certainly clears some of those up!

Suzannah said...

Oh yes, there are many misunderstandings out there. I do hope you manage to finish P&P one day; it is a wonderful book.

TJC said...

Even though I wouldn't consider Mr. Darcy as the perfect man I think your reading of his character as possibly a little harsh. Now, Mr. Darcy was supposed to be proud in a bad way and to some extent he was. But most of the defect that Elizabeth sees in his character early on were (in my opinion) based on shyness and bad attempts to cover it. After all different people have different ways of dealing with people and situations which they are not comfortable with. The people at Meryton were not the sort of people with which Mr. Darcy was comfortable in associating with and as a result he covered his discomfort by being rude (a defect of course but not as bad as the kind of pride that Mr. Darcy was thought to possess).

All of the people who knew him well like him. This would seem to negate selfishness esp. considering his treatment of his tenants and servants who seem to be full of his praises.

As to Darcy separating Jane and Bingley, if I was in Mr. Darcy's shoes I may have been tempted to do the same thing. All of Darcy's arguements against the marriage are quite correct. Marrying into the Bennet family would result in quite a few issues, namely having wives who would have some sort of responsibility over a pack of wild younger sisters, a mother in law to die for (literally) and a father in law who is selfish and irresponsible. Coupling that with Mr. Bingley's habit of mooning over other young ladies in the past which would lead Darcy to think that his affections weren't really attached and Jane's reserved manner I would have certainly advised Mr. Bingley against the match though maybe not to the extent that Mr. Darcy did.

As far as him having a class arrogance, well yes he did but only so far as what we would call sterotyping. Most of the landed gentry in that day were rather snobish against the merchant class but even though Darcy was prejudiced against them at the start he did not allow it to stop him from valuing the Gardiner's society once he had met them. After all we can even be guilty of this in church circles ie. stereotyping people based on Pentecostal or Calvanistic persuasions. So even though it was wrong: "Let he who has no sin etc."

Anyway, those were my impressions from reading the book. I think that apart from Mr. Knightley, I liked Mr. Darcy better than any of Austen's other heroes. The one in Sense and Sensibility is soppy and lets his feelings get in the way of principles. Captain Wentworth bears grudges (though I do like him) and Bertraim is a silly blockhead (in my opinion at least but then I found Mansfield Park my least favourite of all of the Austen novels).

Suzannah said...

I'm re-reading Mansfield Park after several years of not having done so, so I'll get a second, better look at Edmund Bertram ;). Meanwhile, you might find this post interesting, over at Christina's blog:

The thing about Jane Austen is that both her male characters as well as her female characters are flawed, but understandable. You can completely understand why Mr Darcy would act in such a manner.

This is rare. For example, many romantic plots depend on two perfectly nice and suitable people misunderstanding each other to the point where they fail to realise how well suited they are for each other. Jane Austen's books normally depend on people who are unsuitable, through faults of their own, overcoming those faults to become suitable. In the former situation, the faults are imaginary; in Austen books, they are real, and they have to be dealt with.

So I acknowledge your points :). Consider my post more directed at silly girls who have turned Mr Darcy into some kind of paragon :).

NOBODY said...

I would like to remind you that Elizabeth did some damage to the character of Mr. Darcy by not only listening sympathetically to Mr. Wickham's slanders of him and his sister, and no doubting him once; but also by repeating them. I was never in love with Darcy, after all, he is a paper character. But, as all characters in Jane Austen (humanly) have bad qualities, I always took him for what he was: proud, as men of his rank tended to be at that time Miss Austen concocted her stories. No doubt excessively strict in his assessment of others, he was also highly critical and strict with himself when confessing his flaws to Elizabeth. He, as he put in a letter to her, had good examples as a child, but chose to interpret them through the eye of the "superior man." Not many man would look at himself with such candid eye as Mr. Darcy did. When he declared himself to Elizabeth, he was no doubt brutal. Yet, for the societal standards of the time, everything he said was perfectly correct. On another lighter topic, I once read (or heard?) that a biographer of Jane Austen believes Mr. Bennett to be her alter-ego in P&P. After remembering her letters that I read--the few that reached us, that is--I must agree with this assessment. Now, there is an intriguing thought for you to perhaps investigate?


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