Pride and Prejudice Part 1: Crash Course Literature #411

Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
Literature and it is a truth universally acknowledged that a video series about world literature
must be in want of a Jane Austen episode. /
So here it is. Today, we’ll be discussing Pride and Prejudice,
Austen’s Regency-era novel of life, liberty and bonnets. The book was first published in 1813, it’s
a social satire about a family with five daughters and quite a lot of economic anxiety. And the novel’s characters and themes have
remained relevant for centuries now–which is why there are SO. MANY. adaptations of it, from the Keira Knightly
movie to an Emmy winning web series co-created by my brother. /
Today, we’ll talk about the social and historical context in which the book was written, the
style that Jane Austen helped invent, and the dilemmas the major characters face. And in the next episode, we’ll look more
closely at the politics of the book and its attitudes toward money, class and gender. But for now: It’s bonnets all the way down. INTRO
So we don’t know that much about Jane Austen’s life because after her death her sister burned
most of her letters. Just a friendly note, by the way, to any future
literary executors out there, maybe don’t burn so much stuff? Even if you’re told to. Wait, unless your MY literary executor. Then burn everything. But, here’s what we do know: Jane Austen
was born in 1775 to an Anglican clergyman and his wife; Jane was the second youngest
of eight children. And her father farmed and took in students
to makes ends meet. Jane was mostly taught at home and sometimes
she wasn’t taught at all, although she and her sister did go to a year or two of boarding
school. When she was eleven, Jane started writing
plays and novels, mostly social satires and parodies of “novels of sensibility,” a
literary genre in which women like, cry and sigh and faint a lot. Many of these early works were in the style
of the epistolary novel, which is a story composed of letters, and we see echoes of
that form in Pride and Prejudice. We also see some echoes of Pride and Prejudice
in Austen’s life. She never married, but she did receive at
least one proposal that she accepted for a few hours. And after her father’s death in 1805, her
financial position and the positions of her mother and her sister became increasingly
insecure. By 1816, four of her books had been published. And she was working on a new novel, called
Sanditon, when she died in 1817, at the age of just 41. /
Two more of her works, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, were published after her death. They’re all good–but to me at least Pride
and Prejudice is the most perfect of them–there’s a precision to it. Like Gatsby or Sula, Pride and Prejudice is
a novel in which every single word feels genuinely essential. So what happens in Pride and Prejudice? well, let’s go to the Thoughtbubble:
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet live in rural England with their five daughters: pretty Jane, lively
Elizabeth, horrible Mary, airhead Kitty, and boy obsessed Lydia. When Mr. Bennet dies the estate will go to
a male cousin, so the daughters have to find rich husbands. Or else. / Or else live in poverty or become governesses,
and if you’ve read Jane Eyre, you know how great that gig is. Mr. Bingley, an eligible bachelor, arrives
on the scene, and he and Jane fall in love. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley’s best
friend, definitely don’t. Elizabeth gets a proposal of marriage from
Mr. Collins, the cousin who’s going to inherit the estate. And marrying him would save her sisters from
poverty, but Mr. Collins is awful and Elizabeth declines. So her best friend, Charlotte, ends up snagging
him. Meanwhile, Elizabeth starts to fall for Wickham,
a soldier in the militia. He hates Mr. Darcy, too. / Suddenly Mr. Bingley moves away and Jane
is heartbroken. Elizabeth goes to visit Charlotte and is introduced
to Lady Catherine, Mr. Darcy’s ultra-snob aunt. She sees Mr. Darcy there and he also proposes
marriage but in a very insulting way. She insults him right back. /
much for love at first sight. Some months later Elizabeth is on a trip with
her aunt and uncle. They visit Mr. Darcy’s lavish estate and
Elizabeth softens toward him. Then she gets word that Lydia has run off
with Wickham. /
Mr. Darcy saves Lydia’s reputation by brokering a marriage. Then it’s happy endings all around:
Lydia gets married; Jane and Mr. Bingley get married, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy get married,
Kitty learns to be a little bit less of an airhead and Mary is presumably still horrible. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So let’s talk life and letters in Regency
England. By the way, Regency England refers to a period
from about 1800-1820 when King George III became mentally ill and unfit to rule. In England, this was a time of political uncertainty
and a lot of economic volatility. There was a rising middle class, a burgeoning
consumer culture, and a move from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. And that meant less overall poverty, but it
also meant a lot of social instability. And It was also a time when people in England
were beginning to talk about the rights of women. Like, Mary Wollstonecraft published “Vindication
of the Rights of Women” seven years after Austen was born, though it’s important to
remember that at this place and time women didn’t really have many rights–they couldn’t
vote, and in Pride and Prejudice, the whole plot begins because all of Bennet’s five
children are daughters, This means that legally, Bennet’s estate
has to go to a male cousin. But there was a growing belief that hey, maybe
women should have rights. Abroad, the American Revolution and the French
Revolution had recently unsettled established social and political orders. Everywhere there were increasing discussions
about rights and responsibilities, liberties and duties. You can even hear this in the famous first
sentence of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single
man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” It has an echo of the American Declaration
of Independence: “We find these truths to be self-evident…” But the comic deflation in the second half
of the sentence is pure Austen. Some people are initially put off by Pride
and Prejudice because they view it as a sort of literaryfied romance novel. And, it is a book primarily interested in
human relationships, especially romantic ones–but I’d challenge the idea that such novels
can’t be great. /
Nobody ever argues that picaresque novels, or bildungsromans, are merely genre novels–even
though they are also genres. But the word “romance” is too often and
too quickly dismissed. By the way, Austen has this completely unearned
reputation for being genteel and conservative. The reality is that her work is very funny
and mean and super smart about human behavior. /
You can hear that in the letters that survive, like when she writes to her sister, “I do
not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great
deal.” Also, this may be a novel about relationships,
but relationships are important. Most of us aren’t going to get to decide
the fate of a city-state or die in pursuit of a great white whale but many of us are
going to have to decide whom to marry. / But also while this book involves lower-case
r romance, it is very aggressively not capital-r Romantic, in the Byron Wordsworth Shelley
sense that feelings are so overwhelming that they supersede logic. I mean, Wordsworth can write a hillside for
thirty-seven stanzas, but if you read Austen closely, you’ll find that there’s a striking
absence of physical description. We don’t know what the dresses look like. We don’t know what the people look like. When there is a physical description, like
the description of Mr. Darcy’s estate or Elizabeth’s petticoat, it means that something
crucially important is happening. And even then these descriptions are very
brief. If we’re being honest, there isn’t even
all that much in here about bonnets. In fact, Austen is suspicious of overwhelming
emotion. Remember how I mentioned the novel of sensibility
and Austen’s early satires? She’s skeptical of feeling too much, of
getting so carried away by emotion that it prevents you from thinking clearly. This is exemplified by Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s
relationship. They don’t fall in love at first sight. Actually, it’s the opposite: hate at first
sight. At a ball, she overhears him telling his friend
that her sister is the only hot girl in the room and that Elizabeth is merely “tolerable.” Given that Elizabeth and Darcy are end up
together, this is a novel that’s suspicious of romantic love, especially romantic love
based on instant physical attraction and when characters do get carried away by
their emotions, they’re either fooling themselves, like Mr. Collins, or doing something really
wrong, like Lydia. Pride and Prejudice: Not a capital-r Romance. Yes, it has a wish-fulfilling ending, but
it’s a sly, and ironic and clear-eyed exploration of the individual vs. the collective, happiness
vs. security and how and why people form romantic relationships. /
It’s about love, but rather than presuming that love is only a feeling, Pride and Prejudice
explores how thinking and feeling and need and responsibility intersect to form the experience
that we call love. /
One might even say that it’s a novel about love that deconstructs love. Austen joked that the scope of her works was
narrow, equating her writing with a two-inch piece of ivory “on which I work with so
fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” She also critiqued of Pride and Prejudice,
writing to a friend, “The work is rather too light & bright & sparkling; it wants shade.”
/ and yeah, OK, the novel is fun. But reading should be fun sometimes. I mean, we already read To the Lighthouse. And in terms of the prose-style itself, Austen
actually was pioneering a new style here called free indirect discourse. It means that even though the narration is
in the third person, the narrative voice takes on the thoughts and feelings of characters. /
I mean, After unexpectedly meeting Darcy at his estate, the third-person narration captures
Elizabeth’s embarrassment: “Her coming there was the most unfortunate,
the most ill-judged thing in the world! How strange must it appear to him! In what a disgraceful light might it not strike
so vain a man! It might seem as if she had purposely thrown
herself in his way again!” This narrative approach reflects emotion without
stating it–showing instead of telling, as the saying goes–and makes us feel not as
if we can sympathize with Elizabeth, but instead as if we ARE Elizabeth,
/ which to me is one of the most profound and
important things a novel can do: Great books offer you a way out of yourself, and into
others’ lives. Next time we’ll look more closely at some
of the themes, but for now, let’s briefly explore the dilemma facing Elizabeth Bennet
and her sisters. Because her parents have been bad with money,
she knows she has to marry well or face poverty. Or become a governess. And as we know from Jane Eyre, that’s a
terrible option. When Mr. Collins proposes, that’s a fantastic
solution. Except for one thing: She can’t respect
him. Mr. Collins is pompous and foolish and the
very things that make Elizabeth terrific—like her lively mind and her fresh wit—make him
nervous. She tells him, “ You could not make me happy,
and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so.” But the idea that happiness should be privileged
over security is pretty radical. /
Elizabeth is deciding that her personal individual happiness should outweigh the economic problems
of her family. She is taking a huge risk when she rejects
him. /
As Mr. Collins tells her, she’s poor so she probably won’t get another proposal. He might not have made her happy, but he would
have made her and any unmarried sisters financially secure. And then, Elizabeth takes the same risk or
a greater one when she rejects Mr. Darcy’s insulting first proposal. She can’t make herself marry a man she doesn’t
like. This was the same dilemma Austen herself faced
and her rejection of a suitor made things hard for herself and for her family. But she did it anyway. Now, thanks to the fairy tale ending, Elizabeth
doesn’t experience, like, catastrophic consequences as a result of her privileging happiness. /
But as 19th century English readers would have been very well aware, she could have. And so, the novel helped them, and also helps
us, explore when we should put our own needs first, and when the happiness and security
of others is more important. /
Is doing what is best for you always the right thing to do? Or are there moments when you must sacrifice
your happiness for the good of your family or your social order? We’ll continue our discussion next time
when we’ll also examine whether the politics of the book are radical or conservative. And we’ll answer a vexing question: Why
does Lydia buy such an ugly bonnet? Thanks for watching. Hope it was tolerable. I’ll see you next time.

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