Question: With reference to Chapter 7 of Pride and Prejudice, write a critical commentary on Austen’s presentation of character values here and elsewhere in the novel.
Austen presents character values as ambiguous to characters who subscribe to societal conventions, by asserting that the welfare of others can be compromised or even sacrificed in the name of pragmatic gain. Mrs Bennet’s matter-of-fact instruction that ‘No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night’ makes light of the detrimental health consequences Jane could endure just to enjoy the hospitality of the Bingleys and further her acquaintance with Mr Bingley. By imposing her own pragmatic motives onto her daughter, Austen exposes the fallibility of Mrs Bennet’s values and poor moral compass. In addition, through free indirect discourse, Austen criticises her behaviour of ‘attending [Jane] to the door with many cheerful prognostics of a bad day’. The contrast between the unfortunate circumstances that could befall Jane and Mrs Bennet’s delight in advancing her own agenda serve to create irony within the readers’ expectations of Mrs Bennet’s motherly concern for Jane, eliciting distaste from the readers regarding the seemingly immoral intentions that undergird her actions. Hence, Austen portrays character values as tenuous and less prioritised than pragmatic gain in the eyes of traditional characters.
On the other hand, Austen presents character values as of utmost importance to characters with strong moral grounding – even if upholding these beliefs would defy social norms. In diametrical opposition to Mrs Bennet, Elizabeth insists that she ‘shall be very fit to see Jane – which is all I want’. The absolute term ‘all’ conveys her conviction and immense concern for her sister, while also signifying her heightened sense of empathy that drives her to act upon her moral calling. Her resolve drives her to act upon her moral calling. Her resolve is also depicted in how she ‘cross[es] field after field at a quick pace, jump[s] over stiles and spring[s] over puddles with impatient activity’. The increasing intensity of the verbs displays her constant commitment to upholding her familial values in spite of her likely increasing fatigue throughout the long and arduous journey. Through this, Austen portrays Elizabeth as the epitome of actions underscored by a stable moral foundation, encouraging admiration from readers. Later in the novel, Elizabeth also asserts to Lady Catherine that she ‘will make no promise of the kind’ and that she ‘was not to be intimidated into anything so wholly unreasonable’. The firm absolute terms reinforce her strong moral inclinations and opposition to the unethical cerement of Darcy into marriage. Thus, Austen presents character values as superseding other concerns, even if upholding these values opposes social conventions.
Lastly, Austen presents character values as being the measurement by which a character’s moral worth can be evaluated.
Rachel Eng (19-O1)