2012 JASNA Essay Contest Second Place Winner High School Division
Manipulation: an Effective Vice in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion
Throughout her novels, Jane Austen upholds the firm belief that manipulation does not reveal a weakness of its object’s feelings. However, it does serve to reveal a lack of confidence and independence in its object, and a certain immaturity and selfishness in its perpetrator, and thus, becomes an effective tool for showcasing character development. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen employs manipulation to throw into stark contrast the difference that separates Elizabeth and Darcy from the characters that surround them, thereby highlighting the couple’s similarities; in Persuasion, Anne’s evolving response to the manipulation that characterizes her society becomes the outline of her evolution as a character.
Pride and Prejudice itself begins with the manipulation of power; although Mrs. Bennet’s meddling is comical and rather counterproductive, its specific effect on the cast of the novel varies with the character. Mr. Bennet responds with a pride that echoes that of his daughter Elizabeth; unwilling to become partner to his wife’s machinations and yet motivated by an interest in his daughters’ future, he jointly teases his wife and acquiesces to her request. The two older sisters are skeptical, yet tolerant, of their mother’s behavior, the middle sister apathetic, and the two youngest eager accomplices. However, Mrs. Bennet’s ability to carry out her manipulation lies in her power over her family, and her attempts to secure privileged marriages for her daughters only embarrass Elizabeth and repel suitors; Mr. Darcy appeals to “the total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by [Mrs. Bennet] … and [Elizabeth’s] three younger sisters”(Austen 204) as secondary reasons for his disapproval of a possible engagement between Jane and Mr. Bingley.
One of the most significant manipulations in the novel is that of Mr. Bingley by his two sisters and Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley’s regard for their opinion above his own is apparent from the story’s beginning, when only after his sisters’ approval of Jane’s character does Mr. Bingly feel “authorized … to think of her as he chose” (Austen 15), despite his overwhelming delight in her company. Later, Colonel Fitzwilliam reveals that Mr. Darcy had convinced Mr. Bingley not to propose to Jane, believing him to have “saved a friend from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage” (Austen 191). Mr. Darcy later explains to Elizabeth that although his disapproval of the Bennets as a connection was part of his reason, his primary concern was for his friend’s feelings, as he believed “[Jane’s] heart was not likely to be easily touched” (Austen 204). It is important to note, however, that Mr. Darcy is the only character to raise such concerns—albeit perhaps because his views of marriage are quite different than those of the easily impressed and occasionally desperate Meryton—and most characters are quite certain of Jane’s affection for Mr. Bingley. Because of his humility and respect for Mr. Darcy, however, Mr. Bingley once again places a friend’s opinion higher than his, and Darcy and the sisters are able to use their power over Bingley to sway him from his own intentions. This case not only becomes pivotal to the novel’s plot, but also echoes of Austen’s frequent lesson—one must be strong in his own opinions, not easily swayed by others.
A more comic and sexual manipulation is seen in Miss Bingley’s frequent attempts to dissuade Mr. Darcy’s attention from Elizabeth and direct it towards herself. When Elizabeth visits Netherfield, a jealous Miss Bingley immediately seeks company in her ridicule of the second Bennet sister, insulting her manner and appearance, and appealing to Mr. Darcy for his opinion; instead, he repeats his admiration of Elizabeth’s eyes. Later, while Mr. Darcy is writing, she repeatedly compliments him and futilely attempts to engage him in conversation; she again attempts to tease Darcy into joining in her spite for Elizabeth by speaking sarcastically of a marriage between Darcy and Elizabeth. When most of the company is engaged, Miss Bingley grabs desperately for attention, feigning a love for reading and walking around the room in order to bring Darcy’s attention to her figure. When she asks Elizabeth to join her in walking, she finally “[succeeds] in the real object in her civility,” as Mr. Darcy looks up (Austen 56); but to her dismay, he then quite bluntly expresses that he can see through Miss Bingley’s manipulation. This scene makes two things clear: first, that Mr. Darcy rather proudly both recognizes and resists such wiles as Miss Bingley’s, and second, that when Elizabeth is concerned, his resistance is softened and his curiosity awakened. Finally, Mr. Darcy responds to one of Miss Bingley’s insults of Elizabeth by saying that she is “one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance,” and Miss Bingley’s manipulation gives “no one any pain but herself” (Austen 277). Mr. Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth seals his resistance to Miss Bingley’s charms, and although Miss Bingley is “very deeply mortified” by the event, she soon recovers from her jealousy and becomes a somewhat agreeable element in the life of the happy couple (Austen 398). On a surface level, Mr. Darcy’s continued resistance to Miss Bingley’s charms highlights both his lack of interest in women of her nature and a certain pride he takes in being able to see through the machinations of others. But when juxtaposed with his curiosity toward Elizabeth, it reveals the true depth and novelty of his affections; of all the women Darcy has met, Elizabeth Bennet can make him forget his pride.
When one considers that Mr. Darcy consistently rejects—or at least fails to respond to—the attentions of women, Elizabeth’s reaction to Wickham becomes even more interesting. She is easily charmed by his amiable manner and false pathos, and while her situation is not completely equatable to Darcy’s, a comparison suggests that Darcy is more inclined to pride, and Elizabeth to prejudice. Wickham succeeds in manipulating her opinion of himself, Mr. Darcy, and Georgiana, in part because of Elizabeth’s early bias, but also through his own charms. In fact, he succeeds in manipulating everyone around him, the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. When Elizabeth discovers the truth of his nature, however, she does not question it; immediately she begins to understand how obvious his true character should have been, criticizing herself for being easily duped—“blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” (Austen 215). And when he elopes with Lydia, she further realizes the danger of letting Wickham keep the trust of the rest of Meryton. By the end of the novel, however, she has grown out of her prejudice, and through her growth Austen has warned the reader how easily the prejudiced fall prey to manipulation. Near the end of the novel, when Lydia entreats Elizabeth to acquire for Wickham a high-income position at court, a wiser Elizabeth immediately and firmly refuses; however, with the tempered love and responsibility of a sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and Darcy do assist them economically.
One of the most dramatic parts in the novel is when Lady Catherine de Bourgh arrives at the Bennets’ house, intent on preventing a marriage between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine’s imperious manner intimidates everyone in the house, and they are more than happy to flatter her and comply with her demands—most of all Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth, although polite, makes no effort to ingratiate Lady Catherine, and when faced with the true nature of Lady Catherine’s visit, makes no effort to soothe her complaints; she asserts that her object is to complete her own happiness “without reference to … any person so wholly unconnected with [her]” (Austen 369). Elizabeth’s defiance of manipulation also makes her, by extension, defiant of social expectations as in deference to class hierarchy, and while it may seem that Elizabeth rebels against class and wealth themselves, she only rebels against the manipulation thereof. By resisting Lady Catherine’s demands, Elizabeth does not consciously rearrange the social order; she simply places her values as an individual above the whims and wealth of an authority figure. This realization, rather than making the rebellion seem any smaller, only gives it substance.
The most important manipulation in Persuasion occurs a full seven years before the events of the story, yet its occurrence shapes the entire plot and conflict of the novel. Anne has acquiesced to Lady Russell’s well-meaning advice, and as a result lost her chance to marry Captain Wentworth. Because of this, Captain Wentworth—and to a certain extent, the reader—sees Anne as weak-willed and rather flimsy in character. Throughout the novel, Anne grows in her displays of strength. While in the first weeks of her renewed acquaintance with Captain Wentworth, she seems weak and timid, Louisa’s accident highlights Anne’s true nature. While men and women alike panic over Louisa’s fall, Anne takes control of the situation and ensures that they quickly call a surgeon for Louisa. Captain Wentworth’s awe at the sense and steadiness Anne shows renews his love for her and the reader’s faith in their relationship. Anne’s independence grows through the novel until its final test, when Wentworth proposes to her again. Anne, having learned from her past mistake, resolves not to be deterred from marriage by Lady Russell, but approaches her with the knowledge that Lady Russell must learn to accept her decision. In the end, firmness of character does not hurt Anne’s relationship with her friend at all, and her growth as a person has only enabled her to trust her own perception, and regain the power that her friend and family had over her.
Near the beginning of the novel, before Anne experiences this growth as a character, she lets Mary manipulate her—using what small power she has—despite perfect knowledge that Mary is well. While it is wise for Anne to humor her sister, her constant attention in spite of everyone else’s impatience causes Mary to appoint Anne as her caretaker. Through her marriage to Captain Wentworth at the end of the story, however, Anne manages to gain some independence from Mary’s immature and needy behavior.
In both novels, Austen addresses the manipulation of wealth and sex. However, perhaps the most insightful criticism she offers is on the manipulation of power. The power that enables a character to embarrass her family, or coax a friend out of a happy marriage, or even seek attention has nothing to do with sex or money, and everything to do with the emotional power only friends and family have over an individual. But Austen’s criticism of this mode of manipulation is just as harsh as her criticism of the other two, perhaps because she realizes that emotional manipulation can be the most difficult to see. Therefore, Austen presents the best form of resistance to manipulation as not rebellion, but a steadiness and independence of character that is truly timeless.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Introduction by William Dean Howells. United States of America: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918. Google Books. Web.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Introduction by William Dean Howells. United States of America: Forgotten Books, 2008. Google Books. Web.