I imagine I am somewhat putting my reputation on the line by making my reading of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice common and public knowledge; after all, it is not every day that one finds a military man consenting to reading such novels. However, I safely presume that those readers who know me personally will already by sufficiently acquainted with the oddities and inconsistencies of my character to take no great offense at my present behavior while the opinion of the more general and disinterested reader can have but very little effect on my overall happiness, since my writing in this forum is largely for my own pleasure and conversation with the aforementioned friends, and thus can be generally dispensed with.
When it comes to reading, I am at times quite the literature snob–not because I think very highly of my own tastes or abilities to understand good literature, but simply because, in light of the vast array of books and writing (to which, I am told, there is no end) I simply must be selective in those that I bring before my eyes, considering that time is a valuable, because limited, commodity. Unfortunately for my own pride, however, I must admit that my literary tastes could hardly account for my not reading Austen’s novel so much as my rather silly prejudice towards the book due to a lasting impression taken from the cover of the first copy I encountered. I distinctly remember the outlandish and silly looking woman on the front cover of the bright red paperback, extravagantly dressed in muslin, white lace, and a hat the size of Texas–adorned with nearly as many flowers as that great state can boast in springtime. “Sentimental nonsense,” I muttered to myself, and would have nothing to do with the story, despite the claims of some friends to the contrary. Last month, however, a few friends pressed me so hard on this issue, and had the audacity to appeal to my literary snobbery as argument for their suit, that I ultimately capitulated and borrowed a copy of their book–a book which had the good sense to be dressed in a plain cover with nothing but the simultaneously pretentious and homely seal of “the Classics Club” adorning its front. It took me less than a week to finish the novel once I got started and I found it to be a very edifying exurcision, and now that I have sufficiently boasted of both my virtues and vices and invited you to laugh at them with me, I will turn to an examination of one aspect of the novel that I found intriguing.
I found it remarkable (and ultimately, quite effective) that Miss Austen invites her readers to participate in the very behavior which she is at work to moralize against–vanity and prejudice. The book begins with a most fascinating and improbable set of characters vying for the reader’s amusement, condemnation, and scorn. The foolishness of Mrs. Bennett is unparalleled, the vapidity and vulgarity of the younger Bennetts despicable, and the reader is promised that his first chuckles will soon become belly-laughs thanks to the witty and aloof Mr. Bennett, and the prospect of a troop of comical prigishness and intolerable foppishness in Mr. Darcy, the Bingleys and Mr. Collins. It would take a very determined and somber reader indeed to avoid the smallest smile of self-satisfaction in being presented with such a troupe of personalities, all of whom beg the reader to triumphantly compare his character with their own.
More than a small smile was found on my face after the first few chapters–I admit that I greatly delighted in gasping and gawking at the logs, nay even the entire lumber store, which I found to be stuck in the eyes of each new person who stepped across the page. However, by the end of the novel, I was completely disgusted with myself for having entertained the very ideas that brought about such great shame, disgrace, and censure within the plot.
I was struck by Austen’s choice of beginning with the seemingly inconsequential behavior of being amused by others’ failings to broach the broad subject of vanity and selfishness. At first glance, it seems that enjoyment of the foibles and failings of others is a slight thing. Elizabeth says, “Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” Her father jovially asks, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” Indeed. It is often a very convenient thing to be surrounded by those who are less than virtuous; they allow us to avoid the difficult task of introspection and honesty that must always lead to either repentance or denial. However, as Austen’s novel progresses, it becomes painfully obvious that merely laughing at one’s friends is to neither love them or hate them, and selfishly using others for one’s own entertainment can have disastrous consequences. Such behavior can perhaps be passed off as light-hearted and harmless, smoothed with sweet words and quick wit, and the true danger of self-love is covered over with society fashions and civil manners.
The diversion of picking motes of dust out of the eyes of one’s brothers might be quite harmless and forgiveable if it were not for the portrait of love found in the character of God and most forcefully presented in the person of Jesus. If all the world is my toy and a stage on which every character moves simply to delight and entertain my Self, then there is perhaps even a nobleness in using people for one’s own pleasure. However, the Christian notion of love destroys this very cavalier and flippant attitude by proclaiming that all the Law and Prophets are summed up in this, “You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is very little room here for the comfortable disregard which is so easy to show towards those around us. It is not sufficient that we merely like them, or tolerate them, or graciously condescend to them even when we do not find them particularly entertaining; no, we are told that we must love them.
This love, discovered in the very nature of God, and in the obedience of Jesus to His Father, leaves no room for the selfish unconcern for others that is exemplified in merely being amused by their sins. The ability to laugh at vice comes at the cost of acknowledging one of two very unflattering corollaries. In order to laugh at vice, one must either 1) have such little concern for the person in question that no consequence of their folly is sufficient to inspire compassion or love that would actively seek to divert their impending doom and bring them back on the path of virtue or, 2) have such little sense of the wickedness and sin involved in even the smallest vice that righteous anger and disgust are simply never given an occasion to arise. It is easy to laugh because it requires no action or movement of love. It is easy to laugh because it also requires no real understanding of virtue and vice, leaving one happily free of inspecting his own heart to discover how much evil is to be found there, and from the following changes that must ensue upon that discovery.
Little vices and little sins are little only because we choose to believe them to be so. In reality, the smallest vice is simply one manifestation of the same wicked hear that has yet to learn what love is. Austen remarkably and forcefully brings this point home by involving her readers in some small wickedness themselves and then goes on to show very vividly how the fruits of even such a small vice are larger and more weighty than any may like to admit.