24 February, 2011

Tony Tanner on Pride and Prejudice

So, after reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time since I was very young (and practically drooling over Austen's perfect sentence structure the entire time), I read Tony Tanner's classic introduction, less because I wanted to than because it was assigned in class. Am I glad it was assigned! It's kind of fantastic, and I don't say that lightly. Especially after having done Junior poet, and most of the annotations part of Senior novel, I have a keen appreciation for good criticism; a truly depressing percentage of what somehow gets published is painfully inferior. Tanner's essay, in striking contrast to this norm, is intelligent, well-balanced, up front about his presuppositions, etc.

He opens the essay musing on the question of how Pride and Prejudice may be considered a novel relevant to Austen's early nineteenth century British society, despite the fact that it keeps well aloof from any discussion of the Napoleonic wars or various forms of contemporary social unrest within the burgeoning empire. As he observes, the central event can be reduced to “a man changes his manners and a young lady changes her mind” (368-9). Yet within a stable society, guided in nearly all its affairs by a strict set of traditions, the tension between these traditional forms and individual expression renders such alterations deeply effective: Tanner describes a tendency within such society to script the lives of others, and reduce knowledge of a person to knowledge of his or her role within the traditional forms. Moving first to explore these issues from the perspective of Pride and Prejudice's original title, “First Impressions,” Tanner discusses the emphasis that philosophers of Austen's time put on the distinction between “impressions” and “ideas”; the former is a complex of sensory and emotional responses to events and characters, which is then acted on by reason to form ideas. Austen is highly conscious of the problems inherent in this epistemological structure, as evidenced by the most basic elements of the narrative: the plot exists, one might go so far as to say, only because Elizabeth—and many supporting characters with her—has the misfortune of finding perceptions, or “first impressions” unreliable as a basis from which to draw true conclusions. Thus her assumption of Darcy's pride and ungentlemanly disposition leads her to give far more credence to Wickham's self-presentation than it deserves. Tanner moves on to note the essentially linguistic aspect of the misunderstandings and corrections of the novel. Acting as, and recognizing others as genuine or not comes down to a sort of discrimination between styles; the divide between social appearance and “inner” reality is least problematic where the style is at its best, that is, where it is most indicative of the truth about a person. Tanner notes the many instances wherein this is the case, the most important of which is the way in which Pemberley's tastefulness becomes a metaphor for its owner's well-ordered mind. He then observes that the novel itself moves formally from a dramatic mode of expression, in which impressions and experience are paramount, to a reflective, retrospective narrative mode that allows the reader to discriminate between “styles” of people just as Elizabeth is learning to do so. Unlike the many objects of Austen's harsher satire, who have in various ways lost the ability to relate as complete persons to their social role (Mr. Bennets solipsism and Mrs. Bennet's social superficiality are contrasted as two sides of the same coin), Elizabeth puts 'truth to self above truth to role' (390). She thus can recover from her initial judgments and fit the truth about Darcy into her initial impressions in a way that makes her re-understand both. “Love,” according to the Austenian definition, follows naturally from this re-comprehension. Both passion and romantic idealization are rejections of mature reason, and so are invalid definitions of love, for Austen; rather, it must be based upon a rational recognition that one possesses a true respect and regard for the other. Emotion, Tanner explains, must be able to be verbalized (that is, to be reasoned), or it is folly. Importantly, Tanner does not end the essay with an assertion of Austen's absolute preference for the path of formality and reason over Elizabeth's laughter (even when the latter is mistaken). While he suggests that several of Austen's later novels do display such a marked preference, Pride and Prejudice asserts above all the necessity of a union between the “wildness” that an Elizabeth Bennet is capable of displaying, and the rationality of Darcy. In ending with their marriage, Austen is above all asserting that social forms and individual energy are really only brought to their full potential when brought into harmony with one another.

No comments: