Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Class Pride and Individual Perception

Another essay for the class I am taking.          

           Given all the films, television programs, fan clubs, fan fiction, academic seriousness, and post-modern playfulness, we know that Jane Austen and her fiction, particularly Pride and Prejudice, have achieved a cross-cultural relevance reserved for very few authors and works of literature.  One can speculate about the sources of the wide appeal.  On the surface, the book’s title rolls off the tongue with lovely alliteration.  The book’s characters are appealing and captivating and horrifying and silly by turns. The narrator’s wit and style implicate the reader as a complicit conspirator.  But as one reads a sampling of academic scholarship, one also appreciates that Jane Austen’s book depicts both an intimate and broad network of conflicts that allows for varied readings within the still narrow scope of the book’s concerns.
One such reading is an academic article, in the discipline of modern economics, of all places.  In 2008, The American Economic Review published the research of Tore Ellingsen and Magnus Johannesson under the title of “Pride and Prejudice: The Human Side of Incentive Theory.” Interestingly, Ellingsen and Johannesson, both of the Stockholm School of Economics, appropriate the title of Austen’s novel without ever mentioning the novel or its author in the article.  Neither author nor book even appear in the extensive list of references, which does include such luminaries as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Abraham Maslow.
            At first blush, Ellingsen and Johannesson’s article does not even concern the themes of Austen’s novel.  There are no potential husbands, no landed nobility, no gender politics, no lure of military pomp, no silly mothers, etc. etc. Their research attempts to understand complex workplace relationships between supervisors and employees and the motivations that generate greater productivity.  Does it matter, for instance, if supervisors and employees respect each other?  Though the authors do not use this language explicitly, they assert that both parties are motivated by their individual pride and by their individual prejudices about each other.  To what extent do sincere, but supercilious, supervisor incentives insult employees and harm productivity?  To what extent is the employees’ self-esteem and personal self-regard insulting to the prejudices of the supervisors, who require their own sense of superiority and recognition of their social status?
            Although I am unsure that Ellingsen and Johannesson intended such analogies, I believe that it is in the class distinctions and cultural expectations separating supervisor and employee where the authors’ casual, almost tongue in cheek appropriation of Austen’s title is most telling.  In life, as in Austen’s novel, there always seems to be one class of individuals who are “privileged,” or at least they are perceived as being privileged by others, or in some cases assume their privileged, separate from the general run of people.  In Pride and Prejudice, that class of individuals is the landed nobility, of which the Bingleys, the Darcys and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are representative.  In Ellingsen and Johannesson’s corporate milieu, the privileged are supervisors, management, the decision makers.  And while the Bennets do not exactly represent a put-upon and repressed underclass, they, like the Gardiners. Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, and Mrs. Reynolds, certainly understand the differences between them and the Darcy’s.  The Lady Catherine de Bourghs of this world make certain that everyone understands the differences.
            The concept of class divisions appears in discussions of Pride and Prejudice in various indirect ways.  Professor Elsie B. Michie approaches the subject somewhat elliptically through the writings of Adam Smith as an examination of an implied conflict between commerce and virtue, the idea that wealth and virtue seem to occupy exclusive territories.  Mitchie argues that through her wealthy female characters, “Austen addresses anxieties about the effects money has on the psyche” (6).  Two examples include the moral corruption of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who advocates marriage as corporate merger, and Miss Bingley, who accepts a woman’s societal position as commodity.   Miss Bingley professes, for instance, that a marriageable, “accomplished” woman needs,
a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages to deserve the word; and besides all this she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.  (35)
Mitchie maintains that through such characters as Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Miss Bingley, Jane Austen shows “how those who possess the rank, status, and property to which others aspire exhibit even more dramatically than their less endowed counterparts the negative effects that wealth can have on the personality” (9).  As Mitchie develops her argument with further reference to other Austen novels, she becomes a little less purely Marxian (wealthy=bad; impoverished=good).  Still one of the appealing features of Pride and Prejudice is our distaste for Darcy’s pride before we learn of Elizabeth’s prejudices.
            In these somewhat recent articles, scholars employ Austen’s work as entry points into the larger themes of both interpersonal relationships and individual morality.  These readings are not new approaches to the novel, and develop from previous Austen scholarship.  In his 1979 article, “Pride and Prejudice: The Limits of Society,” James Sherry builds his argument upon his reading of even earlier scholars.  Noting the dialectical structure of the novel, Sherry writes,
[E]ven beyond this initial agreement about the dialectical thrust of the novel, there has been a remarkable consensus about the terms which ought to be used to describe its antitheses.  Again and again in discussions of Pride and Prejudice we come upon some variation of the terms “individual” and “society. (609) 
In this dialectic, Elizabeth and Darcy become representative of these two terms.  “Elizabeth, then, reveals the energy, the impulsiveness, the respect for personal merit which characterizes individualism, while Darcy, with his sense of propriety and his noble family connections, stands for ‘society’ or established social codes” (611). 
Writing during the early developments of American post-structural literary criticism, Sherry lightly and genially begins to show how these terms are a bit unstable.  He redirects our understanding of the term “society” from its connotations of restrictive social conventions toward a broader and more convivial concept, closer to “sociability” than to “snobbery.”  In such a rereading, Elizabeth becomes emblematic of sociability, a person happily participating in world of gossip and loose conversation, and Darcy reveals himself to be the staunch individual, willing to protect others’ personal sovereignty while he resists the pull of social impropriety.
Jane Austen
In an article predating Sherry’s by a dozen years, Kenneth L. Moler also emphasizes the changes in the characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, but without the faint hints of post-structuralism.  Firmly rooted in the historical development of the English novel, Moler examines Pride and Prejudice within the context of its literary predecessors, notably Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney.  According to Moler, Austen begins her novel as a burlesque of eighteenth century novels featuring perfect “Patrician Heroes” and fawning heroines.  Then in the later third of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy and Elizabeth return to their generic roles.  At the same time, Moler situates his own discussion in the critical tradition of viewing Pride and Prejudice as a novel built upon the conflict between art and nature. 
The differences, and tensions, between art and nature are important distinctions as European and British cultures transitioned from Enlightenment to Romantic sensibilities.  In the novels of Richardson and others in the eighteenth century, art, artifice, manners, and propriety become values greatly cherished and honored.  They form the basis, for instance, of the character of what Moler calls “The Patrician Hero.”  Character flaws essentially reveal themselves in others as traits growing from nature, passions, and individuality.  Moler writes,
Pride and Prejudice is a story about two complex sensitive and often blindly wrong-headed “intricate characters” and their progress toward a better understanding of one another, the world, and themselves.  This drama of self-knowledge is played out in the context of a symbolism based on the antithesis between “art” and “nature,” in the comprehensive eighteenth-century sense of those terms.  (507)
Moler’s use of the terms “art” and “nature” might appear to be quite different from those of “society” and “individual” that Sherry and Mitchie have employed, and even further unrelated to “incentive theory.”  However, I would argue that all of these scholars are mining the deep and complicated structure of conflict that Austen has created.  Moler, himself, alludes to these connections as he foregrounds his argument with scholarship from the nineteen thirties and forties.  He writes, “It is generally agreed that Pride and Prejudice deals with a variant of the ‘art-nature’ theme . . . . Elizabeth Bennet’s forceful and engaging individualism is pitted against Darcy’s not indefensible respect for social order and class pride” (591).
I would add that much of the richness of the conflicts developed in Pride and Prejudice involves the tensions between perception and reality.  Who is viewed as an individual and for what reasons?  How is one’s individuality appealing or off-putting?  Who is viewed as representative of society?  Are social rules constructive or destructive to an individual’s moral development?  These conflicts certainly exist within the novel, and they exist, through Austen’s skills, at various times in different ways in the reader.  And even though these questions arise, historically, in a moment of transition between Enlightenment and Romantic values, they are still important today, as Ellingsen and Johannesson show.  “Our main contribution,” they write, “is to show that an incentive that in isolation would have a positive effect on an agent’s behavior has a negative effect on the behavior of some agent types because of what the incentive tells the agent about the principle” (991).  One merely has to remember Darcy’s objections to Mrs. Bennet or to Elizabeth’s reaction to Darcy’s proposal to perceive how appropriate Ellingson and Johannesson’s observations are, also, to the novel.  Austen’s perceptions of human conflict and motivation is one of her great contributions, and a large source for the continuing appeal of Pride and Prejudice.

Works Cited
Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Vivien Jones.  London:  Penguin.  1996.
Ellingsen, Tore and Magnus Johannesson.  “Pride and Prejudice: The Human Side
             of Incentive Theory.” The American Economic Review.  98:3. (June 2008). 
Michie, Elsie B.  “Austen’s Powers:  Engaging with Adam Smith in Debates
about Wealth and Virtue.  NOVEL:  A Forum on Fiction. 34:1
(Autumn 2000).  5-27.
Moler, Kenneth L.  “Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen’s ‘Patrician Hero.’”
            Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900.  7:3 (Summer 1967).  491-508.
Sherry, James.  “Pride and Prejudice:  The Limits of Society.”  Studies in English

             Literature, 1500-1900.  19:4 (Autumn 1979).  609-622.

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