The Good, The Bad, and The Funny: Proposals in Jane Austen (Part 3)

Image at the beginning of Chapter 34. Darcy pr...
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Today, the worst proposal in Jane Austen.

By that I mean not that it’s bad writing, but that Austen made them intentionally disastrous. A proposal Austen wrote to put the blemishes of our would-be-lovers under a fluorescent lightbulb. And therefore, instigate character change.

And the winner, by the landslide, is Mr. Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

Darcy: “In vain have I 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.”

Again, the brilliance of Austen is in the setup. Lizzie never sees it coming, nor do the readers, unless they are particularly astute (I wasn’t). I have a good friend who says the first time she watched the movie she sprang off the sofa on the line above and shouted, “WHAT?!!!” among some other choice words. Some of the movies give hints of Darcy’s regard too early on. I think all first-time readers of P&P should stand up and shout their incredulity at Darcy when they reach this scene.

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.

This is good general advice for life. You don’t start any proposal of any kind, asking for donations, nominating someone for office, etc, by enumerating all the arguments against the idea.

But there is a larger lesson for the Christian reader. Lizzie and the reader are both astonished by this declaration of love because there is nothing to back it up. Oh, there are hints here and there that Darcy is inclined toward our heroine, but they are few and far between: a dance, a conversation over a piano-forte. Yet even Lizzie’s most positive encounters with Darcy are at best, ambiguous. Darcy does not yet comprehend that love is not merely a feeling. It must be borne out in words and more importantly, actions.

Lizzie turns Darcy down like a thermostat in a heat wave. It’s the best favor she could have done him, because it challenges Darcy to look at himself. Later in the book he does demonstrate love for Lizzie in words by being kind to the Lizzie’s aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. Most notably, he demonstrates love in action by finding the perfidious Wickham and enabling (insisting) he marry Lizzie’s sister Lydia to save both Lydia and the Bennet family from scandal. And he does this in secret, the ultimate show of love freely given, without expectation of return.

If I were to pick the one reason Darcy fails so abysmally in this proposal scene, I would quote the famous passage in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. “Love is not proud.” And as the title of the book is Pride and Prejudice, I think I have good evidence for saying so. But my personal challenge from this painful proposal is this: like Darcy, do I show my love for others in word and action, or do I just think I do?

Although Darcy is hurt and mad as all-get-out after this blundered proposal, he does in the end admit the good it did him. Which shows a trait I’d like to develop: to be grateful for correction. After our happy union of lovers, Darcy admits, “I have been a selfish being all my life in practice, if not in principle.”

Here in one sentence is the summary of the Christian struggle.

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