होम Feminist Studies "Pride and Prejudice": Power, Fantasy, and Subversion in Jane Austen

"Pride and Prejudice": Power, Fantasy, and Subversion in Jane Austen

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पत्रिका:
Feminist Studies
DOI:
10.2307/3177624
Date:
February, 1978
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"Pride and Prejudice": Power, Fantasy, and Subversion in Jane Austen
Author(s): Judith Lowder Newton
Source: Feminist Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Feb., 1978), pp. 27-42
Published by: Feminist Studies, Inc.
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PRIDEAND PREJUDICE:
POWER,FANTASY,AND
SUBVERSIONIN JANE AUSTEN

JUDITH LOWDERNEWTON
To read Jane Austen's letters-with their steady consciousness of
bargains, pence, and shillings-is to be aware of one small but nagging way in which she experienced the restrictions of being an unmarriedmiddle-class woman: she had little money, and she had
almost no access to more. In 1813, for example, the year Pride
and Prejudice was published, Jane Austen, her mother, and her
sister, Cassandra,were dependent for their living on three sources:
a small income of Mrs. Austen's, a small legacy of Cassandra's,and
the £ 250 provided annually by four of the Austen brothers.1 The
sum was enhanced to some degree by the money Jane earned
through writing, for in July of that year she reports that "I have
now ... written myself into £ 250-which only makes me long for
more."2 But the £140 brought by Sense and Sensibility and the
£1 10 by Pride and Prejudice did not go far, and Austen's l; etters
for that year, as for every year, are full of reference to small
economies.

To read Jane Austen's letters is also to be aware-to be reminded
-of the privilege that belonged to middle-class men. For Austen
had five brothers, and they had what she did not: access to work
that paid, access to inheritance and preference, and access to the
independence, the personal power, that belonged to being prosperous and male. In 1813, for example, all but one brother was rising
in a career. James was earning £ 1100 a year as curate. Henry was
partner in a successful banking firm, Frank was captain of a ship in
the Baltic, Charles the flag captain of another, and Edward, the
only brother without a profession, was living as a country gentleman on one of the two estates he had inherited from the family
who adopted him.
The economic difference in the lots of Austen women and Austen
men was certainly striking, and yet there is little indication in the
letters that this difference was a source of oppression or discomfort
to Jane. Her letters, for the most part, make a casual patchwork of
27

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Judith Lowder Newton

details about her own economies and her brothers' expenditures,
about her desire for money and their attainment of it, about her
dependence in traveling and their liberties with horseback, carriage,
and barouche, about the pressure she felt to marry and the freedom they assumed to marry or not to marry as they chose. Here
and there, of course, we find some humorous consciousness of
inequity, and there is more than one joke about the economic
recommendations of marriage. But, for the most part, Jane Austen's attitude toward the economic restrictions of being a woman,
and toward the resulting dependence, confinement, and pressure
to marry is, in the letters, amused, uncomplaining, without
emphasis.
It is only in Austen's fiction that we begin to feel a certain edge,
a certain critical emphasis being given to the difference between
the economic privilege of middle-class women and that of middleclass men. The first two sentences of Pride and Prejudice, for
example, make subtle and ironic point of that distinction and
suggest the weight of it in shaping male and female life: "It is a
truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession
of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little
known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first
entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds
of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful
property of some one or other of their daughters."3 Some single
men, it would appear, have independent access to money, but all
single women, or "daughters," must marry for it. Families with
daughters, therefore, think a great deal about marriage,while single
men with fortunes do not. Families with daughters may try to control men too, to seize them as "property," but it is really "daughters," the sentence implies, who are controlled, who are "fixed"
by their economic situation. Single men, in contrast, appear at
liberty-at liberty to enter a neighborhood, for example, and presumably to leave it. Single men have a distinct mobility and a
personal power that daughters do not.
The opening of Pride and Prejudice thus introduces a familiar
distinction between the economic restrictions of middle-class
women and the economic privilege of middle-class men, but it
does so with an emphasis not characteristic of the letters. It also
insinuates a causal connection between economic privilege and
personal power, a connection which the letters reflect but hardly
articulate. Austen's fiction, as is often observed, obviously did
provide outlet for critical energies she could not otherwise express.
But the effect of those energies is not what one might expect. For
while the rest of the novel sustains an awareness of the economic

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Power, Fantasy, and Subversion in Jane Austen

29

inequality of women and men, it does not sustain a felt awareness
of the causal connection between money and power. Indeed, for
all its reference to money and money matters, Pride and Prejudice
is devoted not to establishing but to denying the force of economics in human life. In the reading of the novel the real force of economics simply melts away.4
Despite the first two sentences of Pride and Prejudice, despite
the implication that access to money in some way determines personal power, the difference between men's economic privilege and
that of women is not something we are invited to experience as a
cause of power and powerlessness in the novel. Men, with all their
money and privilege, are not permitted to seem powerful in Pride
and Prejudice, but rather bungling and absurd;and women, for
all their impotence, are not seen as victims of economic restriction.
What the novel finally defines as power has little to do with money, and the most authentically powerful figure in the novel is an
unmarried middle-class woman without a fortune-a woman, we
may note, who bears striking resemblance to Jane Austen.
Now, readers of Pride and Prejudice have not generally posed
questions about the powerlessness and power of women and men.
They have not posed these questions, I suspect, for all the usual
historical and cultural reasons, but they have also failed to pose
them because the author of Pride and Prejudice does not invite us
to see what she is doing, because she is, in fact, hiding out. Subverting the force of economic privilege and inverting traditional
power relations are not activities many women undertake without
misgivings and a desire for cover. And indirection, deviousness,
evasion, are traditionally feminine covers, means of disguising
aggression against things as they are. Much of the multiple irony,
the lack of commitment, the irresponsibility which readers of Pride
and Prejudice have marked again and again in its style5 may be
attributed, I suggest, to the traditional uneasiness with which
Austen, as a woman, expresses discomposure about, and subtly
subverts, the traditional lots, the traditional powerlessness and
power of women and men.
In Pride and Prejudice, as in Austen's letters, the major difference in the lots of women and men is that men-all men of the
upper- and middle-classes- have an independent access to money
that women do not. It is the unremarked privilege of men in the
novel to have work that pays, to rise through preference and education, and to inherit. Women, in contrast, have no access at all to
work that pays and are educated for nothing but display. Although
women and men both inherit, women inherit a lump sum, a kind
of dowry, while men inherit livings. The entail, then, which so

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Judith Lowder Newton

obviously benefits Mr. Collins and so obviously restricts the Bennet
daughters, is really the epitome of an economic privilege that is
granted men in general and of an economic restriction that is imposed on women: for most women, lacking men's access to work
and inheritance, economic survivalmeans marriage.
As in the letters, then, the economic difference in the lots of
women and men is hard to ignore, but once again there is no overt
indication that Austen protested this division of privilege. Indeed,
where the economic inequity of women's lot seems most unfair,
Austen deflects criticism. Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine, for
example, are the only persons in the novel allowed to object to
the entail and neither is permitted to engage our sympathies.
But if, by deflecting criticism, Austen appears to accept, indeed
to apologize for, the unequal division of money and privilege, she
also appears to limit, subtly, and from the outset, what that inequity can mean. Although the Austen of the letters seems well aware
of the status and sense of power involved in earning or preserving
money, she omits from the novel almost any reference to, and all
observation of, activity which has an economic reward. We may
hear that men work, but we never see them at their labors, and if
the enforced idleness of upper- and middle-class women seems
oppressive in this novel, it is not out of contrast with the more
productive activities of males.
It is principally in their personal rather than in their working
lives that men appear at first to have more autonomy than women,
more power to make decisions, to go, and to do as they please.
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, for example, men in general have
a mobility that women, even women with money, do not, and that
mobility must suggest a greater general autonomy. From the first
sentence on, men are linked with entering and leaving, women with
being "fixed," and it is not surprisingthat it is women in the novel
who are dull or bored, who feel that the country is "bare of news,"
who suffer when it rains, who repine at "the dullness of everything,"
who feel "forlorn" (pp. 25, 84, 223, 311).
The patterns of movement in the novel do suggest a dramatic
difference in the autonomy of women and men but they are only
background, like the fact that men work, and the patterns are neither emphasized nor overthrown. It is in relation to the marriage
choice that men's potential autonomy is brought most into conscious focus, and it is in relation to the marriagechoice that men's
power is most emphatically subverted. Men, as the first two sentences suggest, do not need to marry. They may "want" or desire
wives as it turns out, but they do not need to want them as women
must want husbands. Men in Pride and Prejudice, therefore, are

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Power, Fantasy, and Subversion in Jane Austen

31

conscious of having power to choose and they are fond of dwelling
on it, of impressing it upon women. Mr. Collins, for example,
assumes that there is nothing so central to his proposal as a
rehearsalof his "reasons" for marrying and for choosing a Bennet
in particular, nothing quite so central as the information that there
were "many amiable young women" from whom he might have
made his selection (pp. 101, 102). Darcy is scarcely less agreeably
aware of his power to choose, and from his first appearance in the
novel acts the role of high-class connoisseur, finding Elizabeth "tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me" (p. 9). Like Mr.
Collins, moreover, Darcy remains preoccupied with the privilege of
choice in the very act of proposing, for his first words are not "I
love you" but "in vain have I struggled" (p. 178). Fitzwilliam,
Wickham, and Bingley, the other single men in the novel, betray a
similar consciousness. Although Fitzwilliam maintains that "younger sons cannot marry where they like," Elizabeth protests that they
often choose to like and to propose to, "women of fortune"
(p. 173). And Wickham, ever confident in his power to choose,
first chooses Georgiana Darcy, and then in succession, Elizabeth
Bennet, Mary King, and Lydia Bennet. Even Bingley, who is persuaded not to choose Jane, is still a conscious chooser at first, alive
to arguments against her family and ready to oppose them.
Male privilege, then, and access to money in particular, makes
men feel autonomous. It also makes them feel empowered to control others, especially women to whom they make advances. For
as givers of economic benefit to women, men expect their advances
to be received and even sought for. Mr. Collins dwells warmly upon the "advantagesthat are in [his] power to offer" Elizabeth and
tactfully reminds her that she is bound to accept him, for "It is by
no means certain that another offer of marriagemay ever be made
you" (p. 104). Darcy is also pleasantly aware of his power to bestow value, whether it is his desirable attention or his desirable fortune and station. At the first ball, for example, he will not dance
with Elizabeth because he is in "no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men" (p. 9). His
proposal, moreover, like Mr. Collins' is "not more eloquent on the
subject of tenderness than of pride" and betrays his confidence in
having his own way.
With the exception of Bingley, who is seen as an anomaly, and
of Mr. Gardener, who scarcely exists, virtually every man in the
novel reacts in the same fashion to his economic privilege and social
status as a male. All enjoy a mobility that women do not have. All
relish an autonomy that women do not feel. All aspire to a mastery that women cannot grasp. And yet, in spite of their mobility,

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Judith Lowder Newton

their sense of autonomy, their desire to master and to control, we
do not feel that men are powerful in this novel. Their sense of
power and their real pomposity are at base, a setup, a preparation
for poetic justice, a license to enjoy the spectacle of men witlessly
betraying their legacy of power, of men demonstrating impressive
capacities for turning potential control into ineffective action and
submission to the power of others.
It is significant, I think, that the only proposals of marriagerecorded in the novel are unsuccessful, and that both suitors are so
immersed in their sense of power that they blindly offend the
woman whose affections they mean to attach and in the process
provoke what must be two of the most vigorous rejections in all of
literature. It is also significant that Sir Lucas and Mr. Collins, the
only two men in the novel who have risen through preferenceanother benefit of male privilege-enjoy little more than an inflated
sense of power and succeed mainly in annoying those whom they
propose to influence.
Our sense of male control is also undercut by the comic readiness
with which some men submit to the influence of others. Mr.
Collins and Sir Lucas manifest such slavish admiration of those
who have raised them or of those who stand above them in rank
that their own imagined influence is constantly and ironically juxtaposed with images of self-abasement. Collins, moreover, qualifies
his potential autonomy by submitting virtually every life decision
to the "particularadvice and recommendation" of Lady Catherine,
and Bingley surrendersJane because he depends on Darcy's opinion
more strongly than on his own (p. 101).
Men are also prone to misusing their autonomy by making bad
investments. It is Mr. Bennet's own "imprudence" that must account for his unhappy domestic life and Wickham'sfailure of resolution that yokes him to Lydia, a woman without fortune (p. 222).
Thus access to money, and male privilege in general, do grant men
the potential for control of their lives and for control over women,
but the men in Pride and Prejudice are essentially set up-to surrender, to misuse, to fail to realize the power that is their cultural
legacy.
In obvious contrast to men, women in their economic dependence have far less potential to do as they like. Most women in the
novel must marry and since access to money both shapes and is
shaped by traditional attitudes toward women and their proper
destiny, even women with money feel pressured to get a man.
(The rich Miss Bingley pursues Darcy as does Lady Catherine on
behalf of the wealthy Anne.) Women, for the most part, do not
dwell on their power to choose, do not debate about getting a hus-

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Power, Fantasy, and Subversion in Jane Austen

33

band, and seldom give thought to the value of one husband over
another. Some young women, like Lydia and Kitty, are so engrossed with male regardin general, that they lose sight of their
reason for securing it, which is to marry, and make the attention
of men-any men-an end in itself. Indeed the action in almost
the entire first volume of the novel consists of very little but women talking or thinking or scheming about men.
Women in Pride and Prejudice, then, do not generally act like
choosers, and since they devote a good deal of energy to compulsive scheming and plotting, they obviously do not entertain illusions of easy control. What control women do aspire to is manipulative and indirect and is further diminished by the fact that obsession makes them ineffective and unreflecting. It is important,
moreover, to note that all young women in the novel are swept to
some degree in the same currents, enforcing our sense of a universal female condition. All the Bennet women spend a good part of
one evening conjecturing about Bingley and "determining when
they should ask him to dinner" (p. 6). All are pleased with their
own or with each others' triumphs. All are bored by the "interval
of waiting" for the gentlemen, and the prospect of the Netherfield
ball is "extremely agreeable to every female in the family" (pp. 72,
82). Our first introduction to Elizabeth, in fact, finds her trimming
a hat.
Women, like men, therefore, appear to be determined almost uniformly by a shared economic and social condition, but just as we
are not permitted to feel that men's economic privilege must result
in power we are not permitted to feel that women's lack of privilege
must result in powerlessness. The first two sentences of the novel
may emphasize the idea that women's compulsive husband hunting
has an economic base, but we are never allowed to feel that base as
a determining force in women's experience. As I have suggested,
almost every reference in the novel to economic necessity is relegated to Mrs. Bennet, a woman whose worries we are not allowed to
take seriously because they are continually undermined by their
link with the comic and the absurd: "Miss Lizzy, if you take it
into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriagein this
way, you will never get a husband at all-and I am sure I do not
know who is to maintain you when your father is dead" (pp. 108109). This is the kind of financial threat which would be taken
seriously in a novel by Charlotte Bronte, but in Pride and Prejudice,
the threat, the sting of potential poverty is undercut. There is consciousness of economics to be sure, but that consciousness is raised
and then subverted. It is a distinctly odd maneuver on the part of
an author sometimes praised for her awareness of social and eco-

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Judith Lowder Newton

nomic forces, but it serves a purpose in preparingthe reader for
Elizabeth by defining the nature of Elizabeth's world.
The Charlotte Lucas' episode is especially significant in this light,
for at a distance it might suggest that economic forces do indeed
have tragic power over "sensible, intelligent" young women (p. 15).
But once again this is not what we are actually invited to feel. We
are not allowed to dwell on the economic realities of Charlotte's
situation because the shifting ironies almost continually direct us
elsewhere: we look with irony at Mr. Collins, for example, or at
Charlotte's family, or at Charlotte herself. And though we may
feel sympathy for Charlotte when she refers to marriageas the
"only honorable provision for well-educated women of small fortune," our sense of her as economic and social victim is not sustained. The narrator,in fact, abandons us to ambivalence, and the
Charlotte Lucas' episode on the whole is left to suggest, on the one
hand, the perverting force of women's economic lot, and to prevent
us, on the other, from feeling that force as a reality in the universe
of Elizabeth Bennet.
One effect of undermining the force of economic realities is to
make most women, in their helpless fixation on men and marriage,
look perverse, or merely silly, and to lay the blame on women
themselves, not on their economic and social lot. Another effect,
however, is to suggest, rather wishfully, that there is some way out.
Men may go about acting more powerful than women; indeed their
lot in life may give them the potential for having power, but because a sense of power seems to befuddle critical vision, they are
not really powerful at all. Conversely, women may seem powerless
as men are not, but because we are finally not to feel that they are
victims of social and economic forces, they do not have to be
powerless after all. What we have here, it seems, is a novel that
recognizes the shaping influence of economics but that denies its
force. The novel, in fact, all but levels what in life we know to
have been the material base of power and powerlessness and defines
real power as something separate from the economic.
Real power in Pride and Prejudice, as is often observed, is to
have the intelligence, the wit, and the critical attitudes of Jane
Austen; and Elizabeth Bennet, as it is also sometimes observed,
is essentially an Austen fantasy, a fantasy of power. But while
some critics have noticed that Elizabeth expresses Austen's wit
and intelligence in a particularly free and exuberant manner, they
have not observed that Elizabeth does more than that. For Elizabeth's world affords her a freedom that Jane Austen's world evidently did not-it affords her scope not only to express critical
attitudes, with energy, but to put them into action. Thus Eliza-

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Power,Fantasy,and Subversionin Jane Austen

35

beth not only criticizes women's extreme eagerness to please men,
but puts herself at some distance from that eagerness and, in the
process, is rather direct in challenging Darcy's traditional assumptions of power as a male.
Elizabeth's world, moreover, allows her the power to change her
lot through acting upon it, in that it allows her the power to alter
Darcy's behavior. Elizabeth's world, that is, in contrast to the
world of Jane Austen, permits her something more than spiritual
victories, permits her more than that sense of autonomy that comes
with wittily observing the confinements of one's situation, with
standing apart from them in spirit and having to bend to them in
daily behavior. Elizabeth's world, in short, permits her not only
the energetic expression but the forceful use of those critical energies which Austen herself diverted into ironic novels.
That we enjoy those energies as we do, that we feel safe with
them, that generations of conventional readershave found Elizabeth charming rather than reckless, owes much to the fact that
Austen's version of Elizabeth's universe is one that mitigates the
punishing potential of her critical views and challenging behavior.
If money, for example, were really a force in the novel, we might
find Elizabeth heedless, radical, or at best naive, for insulting and
rejecting a man with £10,000 a year or for condemning her best
friend, a plain and portionless twenty-seven-year-old, because she
marrieda man who could at least support her in comfort. In similar fashion, if wealthy young men were less given to bungling the
personal power and influence that is their legacy, we might feel
uncomfortable or incredulous when Elizabeth takes on Darcy. It
is Austen's subversion of economic realities and of male power
that permits us to enjoy the rebellious exuberance and energy of
Elizabeth because it is principally this subversion which limits,
from the outset, the extent to which we feel Elizabeth is in conflict with the forces of her society.
But to allow a nineteenth-century heroine to get away with
being critical and challenging-especially about male power and
feminine submission-is still to rebel, no matter how charmingly
that heroine may be represented, no matter how safe her rebellion
is made to appear. When Austen allows Elizabeth to express critical attitudes, to act upon them without penalty, when she endows
Elizabeth with the power to alter her lot, Austen is moving against
traditional notions of feminine behavior and feminine fate. For by
any traditional standards Elizabeth's departures from convention
ought to earn her a life of spinsterhood, not a man, a carriage,and
£10,000 a year. Elizabeth's universe, moreover, is real enough, the
economic and social forces kept close enough to the surface, that

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Judith Lowder Newton

we believe in it, that we do not dismiss it as fantasy, and Elizabeth
herself is so convincing that we can't dismiss her either. For all its
charm and relative safety, Elizabeth's rebellion invites us to take it
seriously, and it is for this reason, I assume, that the rebelliousness
of Pride and Prejudice, like the rebelliousness of most women's
writing, is further qualified.
One major qualification of Elizabeth's resistance to male power,
to men's assumption of power, and to women's powerless behavior,
is that, like Austen, she accepts the basic division in women and
men's economic lots. Men, moreover, have a right to money that
women do not. Thus Wickhamis "prudent" for pursuing Mary
King, but Charlotte is mercenary for marryingCollins. Men also
have a right to greater autonomy, to greater power of choice, for
Elizabeth never challenges Darcy's right to criticize women or to
act the connoisseur. Nor is it entirely clear that she objects to
men's general assumption of control over women. Her real aim is
to resist intimidation, to deny Darcy the power of controlling her
through the expression of critical judgments: "He has a very satirical eye, and if I do not begin by being impertinent myself, I shall
soon grow afraid of him" (p. 21). Elizabeth's habitual tactic with
Darcy is thus to anticipate and to deflate him in the role of critic
and chooser but never to challenge the privilege by which he is
either one.
Elizabeth, of course, in defending herself against the power of
Darcy's negative judgments, suggests that she is also defending herself against a desire to please Darcy and to enjoy the benefit of his
positive attentions. Elizabeth's defense, that is, continually implies
an underlying vulnerability to Darcy's good opinion, and this is
another qualification of her rebellion. Elizabeth never does challenge the privilege by which Darcy bestows benefit through his regard, never entirely denies the benefit he does bestow, and is never
wholly immune to enjoying it. She merely tries to avoid responding
to his attention with that show of gratefulness and pleasure that
Darcy egotistically expects and that her own feelings indeed prompt
in her. At Netherfield, for example, when Darcy asks Elizabeth to
dance she is at first "amazed at the dignity to which she had arrived," but her overriding, defensive purpose is to deny both to herself
and to Darcy that the occasion affords her any sense of status or
pleasure (p. 86). It is evident, then, that Elizabeth's resistance to
Darcy is undermined by a lingering susceptibility to his attentions
and by a lingering desire to please. Indeed, the very energy with
which Elizabeth defends herself against both pleasing and being
pleased argues that she is not only vulnerable to Darcy's power
over her feelings but ironically and defensively controlled by it.

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Elizabeth's qualified resistance to being controlled by one attractive male is juxtaposed, moreover, with her complete vulnerability
to the power of another, for Elizabeth succumbs to pleasing and
being flattered by Wickham even before he reveals himself as ally.
Indeed, Elizabeth's readiness to believe Wickhamis partially explained by the fact that, like all the young women in the novel,
she is ready to approve any attractive and charming man who pays
her attention, to decide absurdly that his "very countenance may
vouch for [his] being amiable" (p. 77). Elizabeth's head is full,
not only of what Wickham "had told her" about Darcy, but of
Wickhamhimself, and even after Wickhamhas thrown her over
for Mary King, or Mary King's fortune, she continues to be flattered by "a solicitude, an interest which she felt must ever attach
her to him with the most sincere regard" (p. 44).
As it turns out, of course, Elizabeth is not only not autonomous
with Darcy and Wickham, she is mistaken and wrong. She is wrong
about Darcy's intentions and she is wrong about Wickham's. She is
wrong, moreover, for the same reason that she is not self-directing.
Despite her intelligence, wit, and critical energies, she cares too
much about male regard. As she herself is aware, after reading
Darcy's letter, it is her "vanity," her vulnerability to the good
opinion of men, that has blinded her both to Darcy's character
and to Wickham's (p. 196).
If there is any force left in Elizabeth's resistance to Darcy's traditional assumptions of power, it is certainly mitigated by our continuing awareness that the rebellion itself works in the interest of
tradition. That is, Elizabeth's assertion of autonomy attracts Darcy
rather than putting him off. Elizabeth, we are assured, has a "mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her" (p. 48). Heightened
aggression on Elizabeth's part is met by heightened feeling on
Darcy's, by greater fears of "the danger of paying Elizabeth too
much attention" (p. 54). Thus we may enjoy Elizabeth's selfassertions, but we are never invited to value them in themselves,
as we are invited to value MaggieTulliver's or Jane Eyre's or Lucy
Snowe's. Elizabeth's qualified resistance to Darcy, attractive as
relief from the extreme male-centering of most women in the novel,
is valued in great measure, nevertheless, because it attracts the attention of a desirable man.
Elizabeth's rebelliousness, then, is quiet, is not intended to alarm.
It invites the conventional female reader to identify with unconventional energies, but it commits her to nothing more. It permits the
conventional male reader to admire Elizabeth's spirit while finding

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Judith Lowder Newton

comfort in the fact that she is wrong, not autonomous after all, and
that her whole resistance to male power only secures and gives
value to the love of a good man. It is as if Austen could not be
indirect or qualified enough in presenting this self-assertive heroine,
for we almost never see Elizabeth's rebel energies without feeling
the undermining force of one irony or another. It is, in fact, Austen's qualification of Elizabeth's power that accounts for most of
the complexities and ironies in the first two-thirds of the novel,
and it is these ironies, I suspect, that have permitted the most conventional readers to find Elizabeth charming, and most charming
of all when she asserts her independence of Darcy's traditional
powers as a male.
Elizabeth, then, as a power fantasy, is in some ways astoundingly
modest. The remarkablething, perhaps, is that her rebelliousness,
undercut and qualified as it is, still maintains a quality of force,
still strikes us as power. It does so in part because of its juxtaposition with Miss Bingley's ineffective machinations and Jane's wellintentioned passivity, both reminders of what it means to be traditionally feminine. But most importantly, Elizabeth's rebel energies retain a quality of force because, as I have noted, they really
act upon her world; they change Darcy, change the way he responds
to his economic and social privilege, change something basic to the
power relation between him and Elizabeth. Without intending to,
Elizabeth renders Darcy more courtly, less liable to impress upon
her the power he has to choose and to give her benefits, less liable
to assume control of her feelings.
Still, it is not Elizabeth's much qualified self-assertion or even
her unintended alteration of Darcy that establishes her as the
powerful character she is. The most profound source of what we
feel as Elizabeth's power is her ability in the last third of the novel
to turn her critical vision upon herself, upon her own unthinking
vulnerability to male approval. It is at this point in the novel that
Elizabeth establishes what we could call real autonomy. It is at
this point in the novel, moreover-the point at which Elizabeth
redirects her critical energies from Darcy to herself-that the multiple ironies which have characterized the first two-thirds of the
novel are suddenly dropped. It is a less anxiety-provoking business
for a woman to assert power against an aspect of herself, against
the enemy within, than against the traditional power relations of
her culture. And though it is necessary and vital to assert oneself
against one's own blindness, in a patriarchalsociety, it is also a
much surer and more lasting form of power than pitting oneself
against the traditional privileges of men.
Yet Elizabeth's recognition of her vulnerability to male attention

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39

does force her into painful, even humiliating recognitions. It is a
hard thing for a woman to have felt herself powerful against the
greater power of a man and to discover after all that she had been
led astray by her extreme vulnerability to his good opinion. It is
humiliating to feel apologetic toward an oppressor-for Darcy has
greater potential power than Elizabeth and he has made her feel it.
Why, one wants to know, has Austen put her through it? One
answer, perhaps, is that Elizabeth's recognition of her "vanity" is
a further undercutting of her rebellion against male power. But
Elizabeth's confessions may also be seen as a hard lesson in the
difficulties of confronting the enemy within, a hard lesson in the
fact that the most apparently powerful women may be creatures
of their culture too.
Elizabeth's honesty, of course, is also a tribute to her potential
for true self-direction, for no other character in the novel achieves
her measure of self-knowledge or potential self-rule. The selfknowledge which comes to Darcy comes to him offstage and at
the instigation of Elizabeth. Elizabeth alone is her own analyst,
and in a novel in which Austen brilliantly arrangesfor intelligence
to mitigate the force of economics and of social position, Elizabeth
emerges for the readers as the most powerful because she is the
most intelligent and self-directing character in her world.
In reading Darcy's letter, then, Elizabeth gains a measure of real
autonomy, in that she gains a measure of freedom from unthinking
desire for male regard. But what Elizabeth's freedom finally purchases is an ability to consider, to weigh, to choose which male's
regard she really values. Elizabeth's autonomy, that is, frees her
to choose Darcy, and Elizabeth's untraditional power is rewarded,
not with some different life, but with woman's traditional life,
with love and marriage.
Austen's commitment to the economic inequities of women's
and of men's lives permits her no other happy ending, but there is,
of course, a major difficulty in Elizabeth's reward. For marriagein
this novel, as in life, involves a power relation between unequals,
and that is hardly a fitting end for a fantasy of power. What we
find at the end of Pride and Prejudice, therefore, is a complicated
and not entirely successful juggling act in which all the economic
and social powers of the traditional husband/hero must be demonstrated at last but demonstrated without diminishing the powers
of the heroine. It is not until late in the novel, for example, not
until Elizabeth rejects Darcy's proposal, reads Darcy's letter, and
establishes herself as the most powerful character in the book, that
we are permitted first-hand exposure to Darcy's economic and
social significance. It is only at Pemberly, for example, that we

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Judith Lowder Newton

are made to feel the reality of Darcy's power to act upon the world:
"As a brother, landlord, a master, she considered .. . how much of

pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow" (p. 234). Darcy's
social and economic power, moreover, is juxtaposed on this visit
with the first signs that he has been altered by Elizabeth's selfassertion: "Never in her life had she seen his manners so little dignified, never had he spoken with such gentleness as in this unexpected meeting" (p. 235).
Darcy's rescue of Lydia is another demonstration of the hero's
traditional powers, the powers belonging to money, class, and male
privilege, but it is also to be construed as further demonstration
that Elizabeth has altered Darcy, that he is not only more courtly
to her but more courtly to her family, whom he is now not above
serving. Darcy's proposal, moreover, is brought on by still another
spirited assertion of Elizabeth's autonomy, her refusal to conciliate
Lady Catherine, and even the timing of the proposal scene is set by
Elizabeth. The proposal itself, finally, is followed by Darcy's
lengthy reminder that it is Elizabeth who has changed him: "You
taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first but most advantageous.
By you I was properly humbled" (p. 349).
But it "will never do" for Elizabeth to seem more controlling
than Darcy (p. 361). That is not what traditional marriages,what
"good" marriagesare all about. Darcy must protest, then, that he
would have proposed whether Elizabeth had opened the way or
not, and Elizabeth, for her part, must betray some consciousness
of, and gratefulness for, the traditional economic and social benefits. She must appreciate Pemberly not just for the taste that it
exhibits but for its economic grandeur, for the "very large" park
and for the "lofty and handsome" rooms (pp. 228, 229). She
must acknowledge that to be mistress of Pemberly might be "something" and she must experience "gratitude" to Darcy for loving
her (p. 228). And yet, Elizabeth's own power must not be diminished. She is allowed, therefore, to see more than Darcy to the last:
"she remembered that he had yet to learn to be laughed at, and it
was rather too early to begin" (p. 351). We leave her, in fact, in
the last paragraphof the novel, surrounded by Pemberly's splendor
but seeming to hold her own, astonishing Georgianawith her "lively, sportive manner" and her "open pleasantry" and persuading
Darcy against his will to make peace with Lady Catherine (p. 367).
Austen's difficulties with Elizabeth's reward, her attempt to give
her marriagebut to alter what marriagemeans, her tinkering with
heroine and hero, must account for the fact that most readers of
Pride and Prejudice find the end of the novel less satisfactory than
the beginning. On the one hand, the charge that Elizabeth, as witty

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Power, Fantasy, and Subversion in Jane Austen

41

heroine, is now too inclined to moralize and be grateful owes much
to the fact that marriagerequires her to dwindle by degrees into a
wife. On the other hand, the observation that Darcy as hero is less
convincing than as villain owes much to the requirements of Austen's
fantasy, which are that Elizabeth not dwindle too far, that she maintain her equality with, if not her ascendency over, her husband.
Darcy, therefore, although he must demonstrate all the economic
and social powers of the traditional hero-which are plenty-may
not have everything; he may not have Pemberly, £10,000 a year,
rank, looks, intelligence, flexibility, wit, and a convincing reality
as well. There is point, though unconscious point, to his stiffness
and unreality, for both function at some level to preserve the fantasy of Elizabeth's power.
The end of Pride and Prejudice, nevertheless, witnesses a decline
in Elizabeth Bennet, for in Pride and Prejudice as in much of women's fiction, the end, the reward, of woman's apprenticeship to life
is marriage,and marriagedemands resignation even as it prompts
rejoicing, initiates new life while it confirms a flickering suspicion
that the best is already over. Given the ambivalent blessing of marriage as a happy ending, it is simply a tribute to Austen's genius
that what we take from Pride and Prejudice is not a sense of Elizabeth's untimely decline but a tonic impression of her intelligence,
her wit, and her power, and it is an even greater tribute that we
believe in her power, that we do not perceive it as fantasy. For
Austen's brilliant construction of her heroine's world, her recognition and subtle subversion of economic forces, the mobile intelligence of the heroine herself, the ironies directed at that intelligence,
the complexities of Elizabeth's failure in vision and of her recovery,
complicate what is at base a wish fulfillment, give it an air of credibility which lends force to the power of the fantasy upon us; as
one of my students put it, we need more fantasies like Elizabeth.
It is not, of course, that the fantasy of Elizabeth's power leaves
us with any real hope for the majority of women-how many Elizabeths, how many Jane Austens are there? But what Pride and Prejudice does do is to give us a heroine who is at once credible, charming, and the deepest fulfillment of a woman's intelligent desire for
autonomy. And that is more than most women's fiction has been
able to accomplish. Most women in women's fiction pay a price
for autonomy-madness, for example, or death by drowning-but
Elizabeth does not. The brilliance, perhaps, and certainly the joy
of Pride and Prejudice is that it makes us believe in her.

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Judith Lowder Newton

NOTES
1F. B. Pinion,A JaneAusten Companion(London: The MacmillanPress,
Ltd., 1973), p. 15.
2JaneAustento FrankAusten,July 3, 1813, in JaneAusten'sLettersto
and Others,ed., R. W.Chapman(London: OxfordUniher SisterCassandra
versityPress,1959), p. 317.
3JaneAusten,Prideand Prejudice(New York: Holt, RinehartandWinston, Inc., 1949), p. 1. Subsequentreferencesappearin the text.
4Criticslike Daichesand Schorer,for example,emphasizeAusten'sconsciousnessof economicforces. See DavidDaiches,"JaneAusten,KarlMarx,
and the AristocraticDance,"AmericanScholar17 (1947-1948): 289. See
also MarkSchorer,"PrideUnprejudiced,"KenyonReview 18 (1956): 83, 85.
5Criticslike Mudrickand Harding,of course,havewrittenadmirablyabout
Austen'sgeneralevasivenessas criticof her culture,about her generalunwillingness to risk confrontation,but they havenot dealt with the particularrelation
of this evasionto Austen'ssituationas a woman,nor havethey noted the relation between Austen'sindirectionand the centralfocus of her criticalenergies
in this novel: the traditionalpowerrelationsbetweenwomen and men. See
MarvinMudrick,JaneAusten: Irony as Defenseand Discovery(Berkeleyand
Los Angeles: Universityof CaliforniaPress,1968). See also D. W.Harding,
"RegulatedHatred: An Aspectof the Workof Jane Austen"in Jane Austen:
A Collectionof CriticalEssays,ed., Ian Watt,TwentiethCenturyViews
(EnglewoodCliffs,N.J.: Prentice-Hall,Inc., 1963).

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