Loving Ms. Austen: Microaggression in Pride and Prejudice
Cultural diversity is an essential theme in storytelling. As readers, we are exposed to numerous storylines and character developments set in diverse class, race, ethnic and religious contexts. Even when the society appears to be monocultural, like 19th century England, evidence of cultural differences is glaring in the way class-based identity frames societal engagements.
Take Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, for instance.
The story revolves around two characters, Mr. Darcy and Ms. Elizabeth Bennet, who are both English, yet experience conflict of prejudice and misunderstanding due to class differences. Darcy is a member of the aristocracy, and Elizabeth is a member of the middle class.
19th Century England: Society, Social Classes, & Culture hierarchy
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When Elizabeth first meets Darcy at a Hertfordshire ball, her opinion of him is much like the others. He is handsome and much-admired based on his appearance and how he carried himself, initially. However, this opinion soon changes as his behaviours and attitudes towards the people of Hertfordshire become more apparent.
As Jane Austen writes in the novel,
“Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien…he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud; … a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy…”
When Mr Bingley, his close friend, encourages him to dance, his comments illustrate the prejudicial attitudes he held towards the people of Hertfordshire who are of a lower class:
“I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, … At such an assembly as this would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.”
And when Bingley asks him to consider dancing with Elizabeth Bennet, his reaction and response illustrate the poor opinion he holds of Elizabeth based on her appearance and lack of beauty:
“Which do you mean?” and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. …”
Given his standing in the English society, Darcy is oblivious of the hurt his actions and behaviours have on Elizabeth or the people of Hertfordshire. His behaviour toward the middle class illustrates the micro-aggressive attitude he accepts as his birthright.
Microaggression is defined as everyday actions and behaviours done in an understated manner against a marginalised group.
What Is a Microaggression? Everyday Insults With Harmful Effects
A microaggression is a subtle behavior - verbal or non-verbal, conscious or unconscious - directed at a member of a…
The perpetrator of the microaggression, like Darcy in this story, may not even be aware of his actions and their effect on others.
The irony is Jane Austen makes Darcy eventually develop feelings for Elizabeth. So, what kind of a heroine does Austen make of Elizabeth? One who does not tolerate such superiority, even if it comes from an aristocrat. We see this in the scene when Darcy proposes marriage to Elizabeth.
As we see in Chapter 34, Darcy informs Elizabeth that:
“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
So why did he ‘struggle’ and ‘repress’ his admiration and love for Elizabeth? As the narrator writes in Chapter 34,
“His sense of her inferiority — of its being a degradation — of the family obstacles which had always opposed …to recommend [the marriage]”
Darcy continues to maintain his micro-aggressive tendencies despite being attracted to Elizabeth. His perception of her that he refuses to change at this point is mainly rooted in the way he views his class superiority and her inferiority of family and birth.
Elizabeth, however, does not recognise his sense of superiority. She maintains her opinion of him, not as someone from a higher class who she must show respect, but rather as someone with poor manners toward people below his rank.
She, in turn, counters the micro-aggressive behaviour by rejecting him in a manner that shows her sense of shrewdness. She positions herself in a way that reveals his favourable opinion of her does not move her.
“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot — I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgement of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.”
Where the higher class has the final say in any class-related engagement, Elizabeth’s choice to reject Darcy at this point in the narrative also shows her rejection of the superiority that society places on individuals like Darcy.
Of course, no spoiler alerts here. We know how the Darcy-Elizabeth story enfolds.