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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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 QuestionsPlease 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. :)