“An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face.”
–Was Charlotte Bronté’s criticism of Jane Austen’s writing. The thing is, it was a very accurate observation, interpreted in an inaccurate manner. The face was never meant to be extraordinary. It was precisely the commonness of the face that she painted that made Austen’s art so uncommon – because she did not need grand heroes or extraordinary incidents to spin exceptional tales.
The people she spoke of, the events she described were so profoundly ordinary that her reader had but to Photoshop his or her own face unto the painted bodies of Austen’s characters to make the story their own. The extraordinariness of these characters was in the nuance and care with which they were described, the intrinsic way in which the author understood their every thought and motivation, better than most of us can ever hope to understand ourselves.
The titular character of Emma is the archetypical well-intentioned extremist – but her extremism lay not in some extraordinary deed of fundamentalist terrorism or Government atrocity, but rather in the rather innocent attempt of trying to set her friend up with the man she thinks is best for her. However, her profound and unshakeable faith in the rightness of her own beliefs about the lives of others is no less dogmatic – and therefore eventually harmful – than that of any extremist of the more mundane variety. Her utter conviction that her choice of a husband would be the right one for Harriet was no less adamant (or destructive) than Stalin’s belief in the universal applicability of hardline communism for every nation under his command. Both believed, in their own ways, that they could make decisions for the lives of others, because the ‘others’ were clearly too naive to be allowed to make decisions for themselves.
Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice is a universal – if exaggerated – depiction of that part of every one of us that instinctively bows down to authority, while simultaneously looking down on those who are weaker than us. We all have – to a greater or lesser degree – this visceral respect and admiration for the powerful – a tendency to think that might makes right; that a person who is rich and powerful must by default also be good. Conversely, we also tend to think that those who are weak or unfortunate are so because of some innate fault within themselves – and that they could easily reverse their fate if only they tried hard enough. Subconsciously we use this as an excuse to release ourselves from all responsibility of helping those less fortunate, because if their misfortune is their own fault, why should we be burdened with the duty of helping them overcome it?
This two-pronged attitude is epitomised nowhere so well as the Eastern pantheons that clearly state that those who suffer, suffer for their own sins in a previous life – which has the natural consequence of exonerating the happier lot (the non-sinners) from any obligation to help their brethren.
This societal hypocrisy is beautifully captured in the character of Mr. Collins, who views the Bennet girls with the benevolent contempt of a superior being looking down on something of inferior value; while at the same time falling over himself to please Mrs. Catherine de Bourgh, who happens to be a lady of higher birth.
To him, the worth of a human being is decided by the circumstances of their birth (or marriage, as the case may be). This is very accurately portrayed in his change of attitude towards Elizabeth Bennet upon her marriage to Mr. Darcy, following which he proceeds to treat her with the same ridiculous servility that he had previously reserved for the de Bourgh women. The change in Elizabeth’s financial and societal circumstances suddenly transform her from an inferior being to someone to be idolized and worshipped in the eyes of the materialistic Mr. Collins.
Two and a half centuries later, half the globe away, Mr. Collins could easily be an accurate representation of half the prosperous population of this country who languish happily at the feet of corrupt but powerful netas. To them the worth of honesty and integrity is overshadowed by the shine of the red light atop a white ambassador – just as the vast gardens of Lady Catherine dazzled Mr. Collins into willing submission.
The story of Wickham and Lydia is a story oft-repeated in the newspapers of 21st century India – a story that repeats itself everyday in a million Facebook chats all over the world. It is the story of a young, inexperienced mind beguiled and enticed by a scheming seducer, only to be betrayed and exploited in the future. Austen’s writings prove that while times change and the world changes – people don’t. Humans have remained essentially the same throughout history. The same passions and emotions, motives and intentions drive us today as did our ancestors a hundred years ago. Millions of Romeos and Juliets live and die every day, and thousands of Lydia’s are fooled into destroying their lives and futures by a zillion scheming Wickham’s.
Jane Austen’s profound understanding of human nature through trivial humour is rivalled only by Shakespears’ comprehension of it through grand tragedy.
The Profundity of Trivial Things.
“We are what we seem to be when nobody’s watching.”
The basics of one’s true nature is not revealed by grand acts of heroism or villainy. It is revealed by the little acts of everyday generosity or pettiness that we commit when we think that nobody is watching us – that nobody would ever know what we have done. Grand acts of heroism could be undertaken for desire of the accompanying fame and glory associated with them. But feeding a stray dog in a secluded alley where no one would ever see you speaks of true character. It is through the trivial things in life that the profundities of the universe are revealed, to those who care to watch and understand. It is an unsubtle mind that requires grandiosity for comprehension.