Communal Judgment, Communal Argument

Communal Judgment, Communal Argument March 27, 2007

William Deresiewicz of Columbia wrote a 1997 article in an issue of English Literary History that illuminates the issues in Pride and Prejudice very nicely. He starts at the beginning: Unlike other novels, Austen opens Pride and Prejudice not with the name and circumstances of the heroine, but with an aphorism.

Northanger Abbey begins with Catherine Morland’s family background: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard — and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings — and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on — lived to have six children more — to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself.”

Sense and Sensibility with the fortunes and misfortunes of the Dashwoods: “The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance.”

Pride and Prejudice doesn’t introduce the family, the circumstances of the family, or the heroine. This has three effects. First, it is the first example of a kind of aphorizing and moralizing that Austen is going to question throughout the book. Austen makes this explicit, aphoristic moralizing an object of parody in Mary Bennet. This kind of deductive, aphoristic morality is simple, and makes moral judgment relatively easy. There’s no discernment necessary, no exegesis of manners. But it is fundamentally blinding, as we’ll see. More radically, she almost immediately undermines the supposed universality of the aphorism. It is not a universal truth at all. The opinion expressed is not really “universal,” but is among the fixed views in the “neighborhood” among the “surrounding families.” The community believes that the every young man with good fortune must be in want of a wife, but Austen reduces this to just a fixed opinion of a fairly small circle of neighbors. She deconstructs the universal claim into a very particular claim. The third effect of this opening is that the community is introduced before the heroine. Elizabeth is mentioned in the first chapter, but she doesn’t really take on prominence until later. For several chapters, we don’t know who is going to be the heroine. Deresiewicz says, “Elizabeth cannot appear until well into this initial story because it is that story – the story of how a community thinks, talks, exerts influence – that produces her plot, that produces her.”

Austen has fooled us into thinking that Elizabeth, because she is lively and opinionated, is forming her own opinions about people and events. But her opinions are determined by the common habits of thought among her circle. Austen underscores this by recording a number of communal opinions and judgments in the opening chapters, largely having to do with Darcy: “He was discovered to be proud,” “His character was decided,” “Everybody says that.” Once formed, the opinions get transmitted by reports, by gossip: “a report soon follows” and “the report which was in general circulation.” As a result of this, Austen can say that “the gentlemen pronounced” and “the ladies declared.” Austen presents us with a fictional sociology of knowledge, tracing the formation of collective opinion, in short, of prejudices.

Elizabeth follows these opinions to the letter. Deresiewicz traces the development of Elizabeth’s opinions about Darcy. During the ball scene, “His manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased.” Before the end of the evening, “His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world.” The next morning, Mrs. Bennet is expressing this opinion, “every body says that he is ate up with pride.” From this, Elizabeth forms her opinion, which doesn’t come immediately from his insult to her, as we’ve already noted: “Elizabeth’s resentment arises in the course of that next morning’s conversation, when she finds that her friends take the incident as a more serious affront than she was at first inclined to do. In short, while Elizabeth herself sends the story of Darcy’s snub out into the community, she gets her opinion and feeling about it handed back to her.” By the time she talks with Wickham, she has arrived at her mother’s opinion: “He is not at all liked in Hertfordshire. Every body is disgusted with his pride.”

Similarly, her opinion of Wickham depends on accepting the judgments of “every body.” He is widely regarded as amiable and winning, and Elizabeth accepts this prejudice as her own opinion. With Wickham especially, accepting the opinion of the community blinds her to his faults, and his improprieties. She later realizes this, but at the time she is so fully shaped by communal opinion that she can’t see what Wickham really is. After she reads Darcy’s letter, she’s struck by the fact that “she could remember no more substantial good about him than the general approbation of the neighborhood.”

A key component of this communal mind is the fact that contradictions are not acceptable, or are marginalized, and the community guards its collective opinions. Deresiewicz points to the post-ball analysis as the place where communal opinions are formed. The ladies have an “absolute” need to get together, because it’s there that the communal habits of mind are formed. And these communal opinions are reinforced by what he calls the “density” of social life: “the sense of a saturated social environment, an environment in which no space exists that is not social: a sense that at every point towards which a character might turn she will encounter someone she recognizes and with whom she shares all the requisite codes of communication; that her every utterance will be met with substantial interest, as immediately touching upon the concerns of the person to whom it is address; and most importantly, that her every action will bear consequences for people to whom she feels, and feels she ought to feel, significant responsibility.” This means that every opinion expressed is wrapped up in the communal response, and is immediately muffled within the blanket of society. Part of this social situation is the multiplicity of contacts between the members of the community. There is never a single threat of connection, but a web of connections. This means that people have a lot of contact with each other, and means that ladies and gentlemen have a lot to talk about. In a sense, this density and webbiness of social life lends itself to greater freedom for Austen’s women: They can get to know men, and pass judgment on their character, intelligence, education. Austen’s ladies also have a choice of husbands, and can befriend someone (like Colonel Fitzwilliam) who never becomes a prospect for marriage. Austen makes courtship a process of friendship in
a way that no earlier novels had done. As Deresiewicz puts it, “Affect (Austen’s preferred word) rises on the wings of what I have been somewhat clumsily calling cognition.”

In this sense, Elizabeth is very much like her mother, unwilling at least at first to countenance contradiction, to allow antithesis into the closed circle of communication. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are an interesting case in this respect. They don’t converse to mutual satisfaction, but they also don’t really argue. They are talking past each other too much to have an actual argument. This is especially evident in her communications with Wickham, in which they express identical feelings and opinions about everything. Elizabeth agrees vigorously with Wickham with “Indeed!” and “Good heavens!” and “this is quite shocking!” Wickham for his part is very agreeable: “Yes,” and “probably not” and “it IS wonderful.” The conversation goes on, Austen tells us, with much “mutual satisfaction.” Of course, because there are no contrary opinions expressed. They are simple echoes of one another, just as each unthinking member of the community becomes an echo for the community opinion as a whole. This makes judgment impossible. Contradiction is necessary to break through this blindness. Elizabeth needs a man to argue with her.

And she gets one. Deresiewicz notes that Elizabeth’s conversations with Darcy are “arguments,” and points out that Darcy sometimes adopts the forensic language of the courtroom, speaking of “allowing the case . . . to stand” and challenges Elizabeth to offer “one argument in favor” of her viewpoint and plan. (Bingley doesn’t like the way they talk; it’s too close to a dispute.) Elizabeth and Darcy do not converse to their “mutual satisfaction.” They are frustrated by each other, they argue with each other, there is a clash and antithesis. The most important contradiction of Elizabeth’s opinions comes through Darcy’s letter. This is the first real moment of introspection and self-scrutiny for Elizabeth, the first time she’s really alone, detached from the dense social network that normally surrounds her. And the letter is a fixed communication, which means Elizabeth is not going to be capable of defusing its force with wit, ridicule, laughter. There is no reinforcing community around to “contain” the effect of the letter. The letter breaks her free from communal opinion, the prejudice she has developed concerning Darcy and Wickham. She looks back and suddenly realizes that her opinions have been the product of unfounded prejudice, and she makes new observations, particularly about her relationship with Wickham. She can come to right judgments about that because the blinding effect of communal prejudices have been broken through: “a new life, Elizabeth’s new life, forms within her only after she has opened her minds to Darcy’s antithetical voice.” She has not been able to see others or herself rightly. She comes to see herself rightly, without prejudice or pride, only through Darcy’s eyes.

And this also makes for the possibility of a new sort of community, a communal argument, but a communal argument that is surrounded and infused with affection and love, a community founded on argument that is not dispute, an argument without rancor. This is one of the most endearing things about Elizabeth and Darcy: they are lively after they have gotten together. There is still argument, but the fact that the antithetical voice has been incorporated into their relationship makes it the model for a different sort of community.

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