For Love or Money

I’m reading Pride and Prejudice for the upteenth time. I found my copy from college, which means there are plenty of comments from my 21-year-old self, and damn are they stupid comments! I keep my books from college because I want to observe how my understanding changes over the years. When I was 21, I didn’t understand much about satire or humor or the stubborn short-sightedness of people. I didn’t understand the brilliance of Jane Austen. I hope this means I have developed a sense of humor.

pride_and_prejudice_ch_19I was inspired to write this post because #feminism. Mr. Collins refuses to understand Elizabeth when she declines his marriage proposal.

“You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these:– It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy of your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of De Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into farther consideration that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”

Volume I, Chapter 19.

I identify with Elizabeth’s typically feminine frustration of not being heard by a man when she is expressing herself very clearly!

Collins assumes that Elizabeth will accept him because he is a good match according to external standards: he will inherit her father’s property, already has a good home, and was born into the proper social class. Because the Bennets aren’t wealthy, Elizabeth must marry a man who can support her (or end up like Fanny Price’s mother in Mansfield Park). Elizabeth, having witnessed her parents’ unhappy marriage, is determined to marry a man she can love and respect.

Of course, Darcy made the same mistake as Collins during his first proposal to Elizabeth. He assumes that she will accept him because he is an excellent match according to external standards. Elizabeth refuses him because, at that point, he hadn’t shown her that he honored her as a person. I wonder if this novel is part of a shift in thought about whether marriage should be for property or for love.

Elizabeth replies to Collins, “I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere.” And then, she references Mary Wollestonecraft, “Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.” Elizabeth wants her future husband to see her as an individual/capable/lovable woman, not a cog in the machine of a gentleman’s life. (Collins easily switches his affections to Charlotte after minimal encouragement– he was merely looking for a puzzle piece to complete the image of his life. Of course, his constant listing of the price of items belonging to Catherine De Bourgh show that he has no concept of true value.)

I was flipping through my copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and most of my notes reference Pride and Prejudice. I must have been older and smarter when I read that book. Vindication was published in 1792, when Austen was 17-years-old. Her first draft of First Impressions, which would become Pride and Prejudice, was written in 1796.

Wollestonecraft argues that educating women and allowing them to take an equal place in society will make families healthier:

Make women rational creatures and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives and mothers – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.

— from the chapter “On Natural Education”

Wollestonecraft’s argument is that free women will make better wives and mothers because they will act from internal motivation instead of external requirements.

When Elizabeth realizes that she loves Darcy, she recognizes that his character complements her own and that their differences would encourage growth in each other. A marriage based on love instead of property, requires two fully-formed individuals.

His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.

Volume III, Chapter 8

And then, my favorite line:

But no such happy marriage could now teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was.

I love that line because it shows that Elizabeth is still prideful and egotistical and it’s just delicious. I’m noticing this time how often the characters misrepresent themselves. It’s obvious with Mrs. Bennet, saying she’s ill when she’s really frustrated. But, for example, after Wickham and Lydia elope, the whole town of Meryton claims they never trusted Wickham, when a few months before they loved him and believed all the lies he told about Darcy. As a younger reader, I looked for the moral of the story, and the moral of this story is to be like Elizabeth, don’t be like Mrs. Bennet. But it’s not that simple. Even in carefully-crafted fiction, it’s not so easy to understand what traits lead to a happy ending.

Reason versus Emotion

From The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt:

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years.  There’s a direct line running from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg.  I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude throughout this book as the rationalist delusion.  I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it.  Morality binds and blinds.  The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality, and at some point somebody comes along to knock the idol off its pedestal.  That was Hume’s project, with his philosophically sacrilegious claim that reason was nothing but the servant of the passions

Fascinating paradox that a “cult of reason” can’t “think clearly” about reason, but it’s something I’ve begun to realize as true.  As a freshman in college, I was enchanted by Plato and completely bought into the separation of reason from the “animal passions.”  Then I worked as a dog trainer and read the books of Dr. Patricia McConnell, who has written about emotions in dogs.  I can’t find the exact source, but it’s similar to what Haidt describes:

I also read Descartes’ Error, by the Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.  Damasio had noticed an unusual pattern of symptoms in patients who had suffered brain damage to a specific part of the brain… Their emotionality dropped nearly to zero.  They could look at the most joyous or gruesome photographs and feel nothing.  They retained full knowledge of what was right and wrong, and they showed no deficits in IQ… Yet when it came to making decisions in their personal lives and at work, they made foolish decisions or no decisions at all… Damasio’s interpretation was that gut feelings and bodily reactions were necessary to think rationally.

When I learned that people who suffered damage to the emotion center of their brain were no longer able to decide whether to put shoes or pants on first, it was like a light bulb went off in my brain.  When I make decisions, like how to make a monthly budget, I’m no longer tortured by the goal of creating the most rational budget, but I allow my gut feelings to color my decisions.  Then I can get on with my life and generally be a less anxious person.  It means that I don’t have to find the “right” answer… I can go with the answer that feels right.  I think it has made me a happier person.