Monday, October 7, 2013

Pride & Prejudice, Chapters 1-6, Discussion Post

Ok, so what did you all think??

I can't wait to read your comments and observations!
[Remember, if you are unable to get your comments to post, please just email them to me through the contact form at the bottom of the blog and I will post them for you. Also, you should be able to reply to each other's comments. If you have trouble doing that, let me know.]

In the first six chapters, Austen introduces us to most of the principle characters of the book and  initiates the principle conflict between two major characters: Elizabeth and Darcy.

The Characters
We are introduced to three families--or groups of people that are nearly family--whose status, actions, and interactions with one another will be the catalysts for much of the plot development in the story.

The Bennets

  • Land-owning country gentleman's family. Before the Bingleys arrive, they are the wealthiest family in the small social circle of rural Meryton.
  • We find out later his income is 2000 pounds a year.

The Bingleys/Darcys (They are not all blood-related, but in terms of how they act and are initially presented, they are essentially one family).

  • They are the wealthiest, by far. Bingley makes 4000 pounds a year, Darcy 10,000 a year.
  • Bingley's family only arrived at "fashionable" status a generation or two ago since his father acquired the family wealth through trade.
  • Darcy's family, as will be revealed later, has been very wealthy for many generations, and through his mother's side he is related to an Earl, the second highest title in England.
  • They are originally from northern England. Meryton is in Hertfordshire, in southern England.

The Lucases

  • Sir William Lucas is a Knight, so they are the only titled family in the Meryton area. He has the lowest title of the English social classes, granted by the King for general public service. This title is not transferable -- Sir William's oldest son will not be the next "Sir William." 
  • No particular wealth or land is attached to this honor, but it motivates Sir William to step up the social ladder by buying a country estate. 
  • It appears that they are less well off financially than the Bennets.

For more info, see this interesting chart about the distribution of social classes in 1814 England.

While there is some major individual change and growth for some characters, Austen writes a story that is also about a society and community. The individual growth takes place in (and because of) the social space.

The Conflict
Both Elizabeth and Darcy form negative first impressions about each other the evening that they first meet, which sets up the central conflict of the novel. Soon after they meet, Mr. Darcy revises his opinion of her but Elizabeth doesn't know this. So for the first half of the novel, we have two very clever people who think they know & understand the other person's character and opinions, completely in the dark about each other.

I think what especially strikes me reading this time around, is how much their community (and as a result, the plot) revolves around gossip and eavesdropping! The event which instigates all of the action is itself a piece of gossip:
"My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
"But it is," returned she; "for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it."

And I love all of the build-up to the first dance:
Lady Lucas quieted her fears a little by starting the idea of his being gone to London only to get a large party for the ball; and a report soon followed, that Mr. Bingley was to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him to the assembly. The girls grieved over such a number of ladies, but were comforted the day before the ball by hearing that instead of twelve he had brought only six with him from London -- his five sisters and a cousin. And when the party entered the assembly room it consisted of only five altogether -- Mr. Bingley, his two sisters, the husband of the eldest, and another young man.

Even when all of the characters are in the same room with each other, gossip is flowing:
but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report, which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.

Of course, we get a little bit of insight into exactly how all of this information gets passed around at a dance. Clearly, "overhearing" was quite common.
Elizabeth Bennet had been obliged, by the scarcity of gentlemen, to sit down for two dances; and during part of that time Mr. Darcy had been standing near enough for her to overhear a conversation between him and Mr. Bingley, who came from the dance for a few minutes, to press his friend to join it.

(For a very a fascinating look at what it actually was like to be at a Regency dance, see this BBC documentary, where they have recreated the Netherfield Ball. You can really see how all of this gossip and eavesdropping happened. I highly recommend it.)

Overhearing can have its advantages as well. This conversation just makes me laugh:
[Mrs. Bennet to Charlotte]
"Oh! you mean Jane, I suppose, because he danced with her twice. To be sure that did seem as if he admired her -- indeed I rather believe he did -- I heard something about it -- but I hardly know what -- something about Mr. Robinson."
"Perhaps you mean what I overheard between him and Mr. Robinson: did not I mention it to you? Mr. Robinson's asking him how he liked our Meryton assemblies, and whether he did not think there were a great many pretty women in the room, and which he thought the prettiest? and his answering immediately to the last question -- 'Oh! the eldest Miss Bennet, beyond a doubt; there cannot be two opinions on that point.'"

The central conflict of the novel initiates with the most famous "overhearing" of all, as Charlotte pointedly remarks:
"My overhearings were more to the purpose than yours, Eliza," said Charlotte. "Mr. Darcy is not so well worth listening to as his friend, is he?--Poor Eliza!--to be only thought just tolerable."

What a fishbowl! In a small rural village, with only a handful of landed gentry (who only associate with each other), everything they do and say is watched, overheard and reported on.  What a way to live! I think my life is much more private than 19th century England. However, this does make me think of our uber-connected world, with our Twitter, Facebook, etc. I wonder if we are leaving an age of relative privacy and  entering one that is much more open and hyper-social, perhaps more like rural 19th century England than we realize? What do you think?

Some Discussion Questions

Please consider these (and the question in the discussion above) as just suggestions and/or jumping off points. Feel free to comment on just one or two or these, all of them, none of them or to make up your own :)

1. What did you like or not like, or what really jumped out at you in the first six chapters?

2. Austen paints a portrait of the personalities of a range of characters.  Who is your favorite? Why? What strikes you as interesting, funny or relevant about that character? Which character strikes you as the most intriguing? Why?

3. What do you think of the Bennet family dynamics? Does anything about them strike you as modern? What strikes you as very old-fashioned and of the 19th century? 

4. Jane and Elizabeth have two very different viewpoints and methods for judging/evaluating others. Do you think one has a better perspective than the other? Why or why not? Do you feel that you identify with one or the other of them?

5. What do you think of the friendship between Bingley and Darcy? Do you think this is a realistic friendship or merely a needed plot device. Have you seen (or been a part of?) a similar kind of friendship?
Between him and Darcy there was a very steady friendship, in spite of a great opposition of character. Bingley was endeared to Darcy by the easiness, openness, and ductility of his temper, though no disposition could offer a greater contrast to his own, and though with his own he never appeared dissatisfied. On the strength of Darcy's regard Bingley had the firmest reliance, and of his judgment the highest opinion. In understanding, Darcy was the superior. Bingley was by no means deficient, but Darcy was clever. He was at the same time haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well-bred, were not inviting. In that respect his friend had greatly the advantage. Bingley was sure of being liked wherever he appeared, Darcy was continually giving offence.

6. What do you make of Mr. Darcy's methods for getting to know Elizabeth? Weird? Normal? Savvy?
"He began to wish to know more of her, and as a step towards conversing with her himself, attended to her conversation with others."

7. Is there anything you didn't understand? What are your questions? 

8. Any favorite lines or quotes? I've got a few, but I'll wait to hear what yours are. :)


  1. This is Jessica Baker:
    I am always entranced by Mr. and Mrs. Bennet's relationship. They serve as the biggest contrast to Lizzy and Darcy. Their relationship is everything Lizzy is NOT looking for. At the same time they are hilarious. The fact that Mrs Bennet has not been able to figure her husband out even slightly is almost farcical. I love the bit where Mr Bennet tells her that Bingley may like her best and she takes it as a compliment on her beauty.

    My second favorite relationship is between Lizzy and Charlotte. I can't help but love Charlotte's utterly practical yet satirical opinions. Charlotte's speech about happiness in marriage being entirely a matter of chance is so desperately true for the average relationship of her time or perhaps even ours. I like how it sets Lizzy up to be looking for something better and more true.

    One thing about Darcy that really struck me this time around was his ability to acknowledge his changing opinions and feelings regarding Lizzy. He is opinionated and definite in his censure but as soon as he begins to shift he acts openly upon his new feelings with no attempt to save face or pretend it is not happening.

    I always experience a great deal of pity for Mary. Austen abuses her terribly as a character and uses her to espouse questions of morality and ethics. I don't think any actress in movies have ever played her quite true. Mary always wants to be more then she and is constantly trying to fit herself into one mold or another such as the intelligent one, the pious one, the talented one, etc but never the pretty one.

    Austen strongly opens with the theme of pride and poses the questions, "Is pride ever appropriate?". I like Mary defining the difference between pride and vanity as how we see ourselves versus how we want others to see us. My husband always accuses me of liking fictional male characters that share his personality traits. He is probably correct and with Darcy it is his ability to perceive himself truly with all his strengths and weaknesses. I feel Darcy despite knowing his own faults still lets them trip him up, which unfortunately occurs all too often in real life. My favorite quote in the first 6 chapters is Lizzy acknowledging, "I could easily forgive his pride if he had not mortified mine."

    1. Mrs. Bennet is really such an interesting character--I agree, I think it is hilarious that she has not been able to figure out her husband, although I think it's interesting that at the end of chapter 3 she says to him that "I wish you had been there, my dear, to have given him one of your set downs". She knows that her husband gives lots of "set downs" but is often unable to figure out when it's actually happening to her. A relationship like this would definitely be a powerful negative example & motivation for Elizabeth.

      And yes, Darcy's immediate acknowledgment of his misjudgement and how he immediately "acts openly upon his new feelings with no attempt to save face" is something that has just recently struck me about Darcy too. He is really all about being honest about what he feels, even if it means socially offending someone. When he first went to the dance, he didn't like it there and was clearly acting like he didn't want to be there, which of course, offended everybody else. Someone commenting on the Lizzie Bennet Diaries adaptation, suggested that perhaps Darcy has (or could have had) a slight case of Aspergers or even Autism. He is very intelligent, but he also seems to miss some social clues and seems to have no qualms about saying whatever he thinks, whether that is something positive or negative -- see chapter 4 "In understanding Darcy was the superior. Bingley was by no means deficient, but Darcy was clever....his manners, though well bred, were not inviting.....Bingley was sure of being liked wherever he appeared, Darcy was continually giving offence." Of course, I think that his very high position in society, (wealthy, high class, respected), might also contribute to his feeling like he doesn't need to go to any lengths to try to please people that he doesn't care about. This kind of attitude, of course, is what you point out Jessica, as one of the important initial questions..."is pride ever appropriate"? I think that at this point, Darcy does think that there may be an appropriate place for pride....but perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself, so maybe I should stop there. :)

      I agree too, poor Mary. Though I think, too, that Austen paints her as not very agreeable or pleasant, not so much because she is not as pretty as her sisters, but because she is so proud of her accomplishments (which in the end, is just repeating the moral maxims that she has read about in a book). And oh, the irony, then, of her being the one to give the definition of pride and vanity! I think that sometimes I'm afraid that I have a little bit of Mary in me. :-/

      And I love Lizzy's quote as well---it shows that she, too, has some self-knowledge to start with. And perhaps that is the difference between her and Mary. Lizzy can recognize that her pride was wounded, where as Mary cannot (or at least does not) acknowledge that sometimes she is proud.

      And Jessica, your husband's comment makes me laugh! But when I think about, I think I can see a little bit of Mr. Darcy in him too. ;)

    2. oh, and another thing about Mr. Darcy's honesty-- not only is he willing to admit it to himself, he is perfectly fine with telling Caroline as well. I love that line...."I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow." It's so honest! Because that is exactly what he was thinking at that moment. I think a more socially aware person would not have said that to Caroline?? And of course, here I cannot help but think of movie Caroline's face when he says this. I think the actress captures perfectly in her face what the character must be feeling.

  2. Lovely synopsis, Lynnelle. Thanks for the extra references, too. I'm looking forward to watching the BBC documentary!

    You'll have to forgive my bumblings here. This is my first time ever reading Jane Austen if you can believe it. (What rock have I been under?) Since I've never actually interacted with the text, I was struck with the difficulty of interpreting her tone. I wasn't expecting that! It struck me reading these first several chapters that she alternates between tongue-in-cheek, even snarky, prose and really poingnant statements.

    Sorry to not be providing specific examples from the text here. I'm just sharing my overall impression, the emotional takeaway I had after reading. I found myself pausing every page or two at a paragraph that would just seem more sincere, an oddity since I was almost constantly giggling at the ridiculous dialogs and scenarios she devises. Her style is complex in a different way than I had expected.

    I thought I would struggle with antiquated vocabulary, but it seems that will not be all that's stretched! I'm sure it will be a few weeks before I get a sense for the rhythm and tone of her writing. But I'm already enjoying the dirty work of interpreting that tone for myself rather than relying on film or CD.

    1. I love your comment about how Austen "alternates between tongue-in-cheek, even snarky, prose and really poingnant statements." That is so true!

    2. I really love your comment about her tone, too, Michelle! You said it perfectly. :) And I'm glad you've pointed out the difficulty of her syntax as well as tone. I think that was true for me the first time or two that I read it, but it's been so long that I had forgotten what it was like. I think in the end you will "get a sense for the rhythm and tone of her writing" (at least I hope so!).

  3. Thanks for this great post, Lynnelle! I enjoyed reading it!

    So one thing I was struck by was how much my reading of this novel is affected by the movie versions! :-) Is that true for anyone else? So what surprised me somewhat in this reading of Ch. 1-6 is how little Lydia and Kitty are described. I get a good sense of Jane, Lizzy, and even Mary (and yes, to Jessica's comments about poor Mary! I do feel a bit bad for her at times!).

    I think the reader is disposed to like Mr. Darcy in these early chapters, even though Lizzy and indeed all of Meryton is opposed to him. I love the inside look we get of Darcy, especially in Chapter 6, where his first impressions of Elizabeth are revised. I like what Jessica said about how willing Darcy is to change his opinion of her. I like how Darcy finds his revised opinions to be "mortifying" to himself as he is "forced to acknowledge" Elizabeth's good attributes. :-)

    I think what strikes me about the family dynamics in these early chapters that seems more "old-fashioned" is how the family unit rises and falls together. So there's no sense of each character making his or her own way in the world. Mrs. Bennet is concerned about getting all her girls married ("If I can but see one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield," said Mrs. Bennet to her husband, "and all the others equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for"). They seem to mostly attend functions and visit each other as a unit (excepting Mr. Bennet at times!). The Bingley family also acts as a unit in regards to their fortune and efforts to raise their status. Mr. Bingley is influenced even early on by his sisters' approval of Jane (end of Ch. 4). So this whole falling-in-love business is very much a family affair. And since their financial health is so closely tied to their marriage prospects, this makes sense.

    I do love that conversation in the beginning of Ch. 4 between Jane and Elizabeth about evaluating others. I think I side more with Lizzy here. I think people like Jane are indeed rare in the world.

    I like how Mr. Darcy approaches getting to know Elizabeth. I think the quiet way in which he observes her, though, does not serve him well later on since she knows nothing of his change in regard. But that makes the novel fun! :-)

    One of my favorite quotes is from Lizzy in Ch. 4 when Lizzy and Jane are discussing Bingley: "He is also handsome, which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can. His character is thereby complete."

    1. Yes, Andrea, my readings are very much affected by the movies as well! Sometimes I even remember a line and then try to find in the book, but then discover it's not actually from the book, but from the movie. :) I love too, the inside look at what Darcy is feeling in Chapter 6. I think this might be one of the very few times in all of her novels that Austen gives us an inside look into what a male character is thinking. It does create great dramatic irony and I really enjoy that about this story.

      I really like your observation about "how the family unit rises and falls together." That really is true! And so much of the story is affected by this. We tend to think of falling in love as an individual thing, but it really wasn't for them (well, in some ways it is, but in some ways it isn't). I hadn't ever really thought about Bingley being influenced by his sisters' outward approval of Jane, but I think that is spot on.

      I love Elizabeth's comment in Ch. 4 as well---it really shows she is her father's daughter.