The Early Renaissance and Romantic Literary Traditions in Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice is a novel that applies to many literary audiences of many centuries. This novel, in many ways, is a social commentary about manners. The emotion “pride” is one of the largest themes in this nineteenth-century novel. Austen uses pride in this novel to demonstrate how this emotion can cloud people’s judgement into not seeing the truth. Main characters Elizabeth and Darcy both display pride throughout the novel that delays their true love for each other. In terms of the novel’s reception, Austen’s responses from both Romantic Period audiences and critics were phenomenal. Yet, could these ideas in the novel apply to audiences of the Early Renaissance Period? Most likely. This period was distinguishable for its reinvention in the realms of philosophy, religion, and education. Also known as the “early modern period,” this time period’s texts aimed at getting readers to understand what it was like to achieve and maintain social and educational power. While Romantic period audiences were challenged, yet captivated by the pride that once plagued and possessed both Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, this novel’s theme of pride being a negative human emotion could be relatable with with Early Renaissance audiences as well.
While Pride and Prejudice is a story that was originally published during the Romance period, the story is in fact not an actual representation of Romantic literature. For the scope of this essay, it is imperative to study the publication period of this novel since it helped launch Pride and Prejudice to fame. This story was published in the year 1813 during the Romantic Period that stemmed from 1785 – 1832 (Lynch & Stillinger). Her novel is a conglomeration of numerous fiction-genre conventions that all involve pride. In some respects, Austen’s realist novel contains elements of a comedy, bildungsroman, or romance story. Lucy Sheehan states that, “The realist novel, defined by its putatively objective narrator, psychologically developed characters, and minute description of the realities of domestic life […] would come to dominate the literary scene in England throughout the rest of the nineteenth century.” (Sheehan) thus making the claim that this novel has significant historical significance for its time period. The presence of pride in the story helped to establish these famous characters throughout Romantic society and serve its purpose. Everett Zimmerman claims that, “the title is a reference to Darcy’s pride, which causes him to reject Elizabeth and her family,” (Zimmerman 64) and this helps to make the connection that pride is a motif in the novel. Romantic audiences are then reminded that pride is a bad, quality to possess since it distanced some of the story’s main characters. Ultimately the Romantic period housed this novel that illustrated prideful people in a concerning light. Inspecting the instances of pride in the story’s plot can help to demonstrate the theme of pride concurrently within Romantic and Early Renaissance audiences. Darcy and Elizabeth are the two main characters that exhibit the most pride in the novel. The depictions of their pride demonstrate to audiences how pride can deceit people and also make them act in ways that they should not be. Keith Oatley declares that pride is a big foundation of this story since, “Both are caught up in their own pride, and from their ‘first impressions’ both are caught up in prejudice about the other” and these two emotions result in the story’s title (Oatley). Austen’s definition of pride conveys a deep satisfaction towards one’s achievements. Darcy exhibits pride towards his wealth and social rank that makes him look down on people he is not familiar with. Meanwhile, Elizabeth takes so much pride in analyzing/judging others that she is unable to reevaluate her initial opinions towards Darcy. Mary provides an effective commentary and acknowledges the presence of pride in the story and society when she states: “Pride…is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary.” (Austen 58). Mary’s speech is a significant part of the novel because it reveals how human’s emotions of pride are somewhat inevitable, but common. Austen wants audiences to understand that nobody is ever free of pride, yet she infers that if someone can be raised with the correct manners, then prideful actions will be few in number. Austen’s negative depictions of pride ultimately act as a symbol for human’s faults in Romantic and Early Renaissance societies.
The period in which Pride and Prejudice was written was known for its reformation of social mobility and technical industries. In the Romantic period, many social systems depended on the success of the Enlightenment period. Many of the works in this time period include characters that climb upwards in terms of social mobility (White). Elizabeth is a perfect example because her marriage to Darcy helps to re-establish the Bennet last name to the people of her community. The Early Renaissance period does have some similarities with the Romantic period. For one, the two periods value social mobility as a key component of society. Both periods value the bettering of one’s self as the course of a story progresses. To better understand the qualities that compose of the Early Renaissance period, one must now further examine the information of that time period that dates back all the way to the fourteenth-century to further prove the notion that pride would be considered a bad quality to possess.
The (Early) Renaissance has been coined a time of “rebirth”. This resurgence of classical ideas began in Italy around the fourteenth century and spread across to northern Europe by the middle seventeenth century, which is around the same time that the Romance spirit was born. Two major topics of this time period included the philosophy of humanism and the protestant reformation. People of this time emulated the famous ancient philosophers, similar to how the Romantics appreciated the Enlightenment. Katherine Cleland stated that this Early Modern period strived to, “better mankind through one’s actions” (Cleland). This time period also had innovations in technology that led them to understand the human body, solar system, and printing press better. The Portestant Reformation led to humans valuing the ideas of human pleasure and the belief that humans are inherently good (Cleland). Knowing this, it justifies the claim made previously that pride is negative human emotion because good people would not possess pride. Some of the reputable texts that came from the Early Renaissance include The Prince, The Courtier, and Utopia. What all of these works have in common with each other is the idea of how a person can contribute to society and create the best version of them self. Professor Cleland also stated that this time period’s works were, “intellectual exercises” that made audiences think long and hard (Cleland). This literary purpose in this time frame is similar to how the Romantics made literature include intellect and perception to get audiences to use their voice of reason. Having a voice of reason can be helpful when analyzing and understanding the pride of Pride and Prejudice. All in all, the time of the Early Renaissance was a time where humans wanted to put their cognitive skills to the test. This new-found knowledge that Early Renaissance men attained would be applied to further literary periods leading up to the Romantic period. Audiences of the Early Renaissance valued logic and reasoning when writing and reading texts. Therefore, these values could apply to the reading of Jane Austen’s famous novel. For instance, when Darcy prides himself in being a distinguishable man of fine taste when he says, “A woman must have 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.” (Austen 76). Darcy wanted his ideal woman to be educated in all aspects of life. He wants his wife to possess an Early Renaissance quality called, “sprezzatura” which originates from Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier. Sprezzatura is the act of making hard things look easy (“Castiglione on Sprezzatura”). While Early Renaissance audiences would have praised Austen for using this term of Castiglione’s, they would have criticized Austen for Darcy’s obsession of non-spiritual love. Sarah Emsely agrees with Darcy’s obnoxious behavior when she claims, “Darcy’s manners, on the other hand, convince many that he was guilty of pride, conceit, and even perhaps cantankerousness” (Emsely). In humanist philosophy (during the Renaissance) men would have aspired for spiritual love. Leading up to his marriage proposal and his change in demeanor, the excessive confidence that Darcy displayed in the story would have also been criticized by Early Modern audiences because they felt excessive confidence was associated with Machiavelli’s The Prince and that was a controversial text. For Elizabeth, she and her sister Jane are favored by Mr. Bennet because they are already intelligent people (Knapp). From the beginning of the story, Elizabeth understands that she is capable of judging people from her first impression. However, her pride impairs her judgement when she befriends Wickham and develops her nasty opinions of Darcy based on what he told her. After Darcy’s proposal, in which Elizabeth attacks his pride, she starts to realize that she accused him of this crime she also committed. Once Elizabeth starts to re-read Darcy’s letter more and more, she has a change of heart and a revelation of character. Elizabeth finally starts to understand the light of her ways as she exclaims: “How despicably I have acted! I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! […] Till this moment I never knew myself.” (Austen 226-227). Elizabeth would have been viewed as a woman who uses herself as a “vessel of admiration” due to her Neoplatonism-like actions. By submitting into love, Early Renaissance audiences would have admired her because they felt submissiveness made a woman more beautiful (Cleland). As she starts to flourish her mind with the truth (of Darcy and Wickham), she would have become like the people of Thomas More’s Utopia. The characters of More’s famous text were viewed as individuals who flourished because they expanded their minds because of human interaction. Early Renaissance audiences would have congratulated Elizabeth’s new-found knowledge and her marriage to Darcy because it would have helped her achieve social mobility. These audiences would have condemned the pride in the characters. However, they would have agreed with Austen’s message to audiences that pride can be a deceiving/harrowing entity of one’s moral compass as seen in Darcy and Elizabeth’s journey. All in all, the way that Austen writes pride as an enemy in the story proves that human nature is susceptible to contracting negative emotions that can harbor in one’s mind.
In conclusion, the Romantic audiences would have read Pride and Prejudice as a novel about the negative impacts that Pride can have on a person. This novel’s discussion about the social commentary of manners and theme of pride has earned much prestige and praise in the literary community. While the Romantic audiences were fortunate enough to have had this novel be published during their timeframe, it is a shame that Early Renaissance audiences could not have read Austen’s novel containing messages about the negativity of pride. These Early Renaissance audiences would have admired the thought and effort that went into Pride and Prejudice’s moral messages regarding human nature. This human nature of pride depicted in Jane Austen’s work would follow audiences for generations and literary periods to come. If there should be any person that has the slightest ounce of pride, it should be Jane Austen for writing and crafting a novel that contains a great discussion of the negative effects that bad manners can bring.
Austen, Jane, and Robert P. Irvine. Pride and Prejudice. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2002. Print. “Castiglione on Sprezzatura.” Castiglione on Sprezzatura. University of Washington, n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2016. Cleland, Katherine. “August 23rd, 25th, 30th Lecture.” British Literary History. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg. 23, 25, 30 Aug. 2016. Lecture. Emsley, Sarah. “Practising the virtues of amiability and civility in pride and prejudice. (Conference Papers).” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal 22 (2000): 187+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 31 Oct. 2016. Knapp, Shoshana. “October 20th, 2016 Lecture.” British Literary History. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg. 20 Oct. 2016. Lecture. Lynch, and Stillinger. “The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors (Ninth Edition) (Vol. Volume 2).” Ninth Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 31 Oct. 2016. Oatley, Keith. “Imagination, inference, intimacy: The psychology of Pride and Prejudice.” Review of General Psychology. Web. 1 Nov. 2016. Sheehan, Lucy. “Historical Context for Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.” Columbia College. Department of English & Comparative Literature, Web. 01 Nov. 2016. White, Craig. “Terms & Themes.” Terms / Themes: Romanticism. University of Houston Clear Lake, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. Zimmerman, Everett. “Pride and Prejudice in Pride and Prejudice.” JSTOR. University of California Press, June 1968. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.
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