Thursday, July 7, 2016
The most intelligent character in world literature? Maybe Elizabeth Bennet
(Re)reading Pride and Prejudice, amazing and distressing how much I (and others?) forget about books we're read probably 2 or 3 times already, but of course that means I always have a lifetime or re-reading ahead of me, and even books we've forgotten have not, in a sense, forgotten us: They have helped form our consciousness and our knowledge of the world, in the same way that lived experience (so much of that forgotten as well, thankfully) has formed us. My main impression on return to P&P is that Elizabeth Bennet is probably the most intelligent character in world literature - intelligent with a social IQ of 300+ - which is to say that Austen is the most intelligent writer of all, and not in a show off, Joycean way (or like so many other smart-guy contemporary novelists who strew their fiction with Aristotelian terminology and show off through their characters their knowledge of literary and aesthetic esoterica - that's someone trying to prove he (or she) is smart, a different matter entirely and, socially, a form of doltishness. She is smart through her characters, not the other way around. Part of the pleasure in reading P&P is wondering just what Elizabeth will say: when older sister, Jane, who can only see the good in things and cannot bear even to contemplate that there may be evil people in the world, tries to make excuses to explain her beloved Bingley's bad behavior and indifference, it's a pleasure to read Elizabeth refuting her on every point. And one of the highlights of course is E's refusal of the insufferable Collins's marriage proposal, so polite, and such a put-down! Of course all the minor characters are beautifully sketched, especially the taciturn and much put-upon Mr. Bingley. Is there a problem w/ P&P? Yes, of course, it's sorrowful today to look upon a society with such talented and intelligent women with so few opportunities in their life other than "marrying well," at the cultural isolation of the well-to-do home county people of the 18th century - honestly, do any of them ever do a day's work? - and of course the implicit assumption, even with the almost too smart for her own good Elizabeth, that money makes the world go round: my memory is that she doesn't truly fall for Darcy until she recognizes that he's a man of wealth.