Posted by: George | June 14, 2012

Reading Books Backwards 1: Pride and Prejudice

Lately, I’ve been rereading books that I read as a young man. At this point of my life, for some reason, it makes more sense to read them backwards. Maybe I am afraid I will not have the time (or motivation) to finish rereading these classics. Or, maybe, I just want to get to the good parts.

By reading backwards, I don’t mean starting with the last word, then reading the next to last word, then the next to the next to last word. That would be silly. Instead, I start with the last chapter, read it beginning to end, then move to the next to last chapter, etc. So, I start with how the characters end up, then I move backwards to figure out how they got there, which is basically what I’ve been doing with my real (non-reading) life. Afterall, we meet people when they are half-formed. As we come to know them better, we start to understand the tapestry of their peculiarities.

I am pretty sure I was in my mid-twenties when I first read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It was around July after my second year in graduate school. I had just taken Joseph Katz’ American Realism class. During one class, when the discussion was lagging a bit, Katz asked who had read all of Austen’s novels. Not many students raised their hands, and Katz, who reread all of Austen once a year, expressed astonishment. I was adequately shamed to make Austen my summer project.

So, around 1974, I bought the Norton Critical Edition of Pride and Prejudice for $1.95. I still own the paperback, the pages of which are now yellowed and dog-eared, far too similar to myself. It is this well aged copy that I recently reread backwards.

Read frontwards, Pride and Prejudice is a love story. In fact, it might be viewed as the model for modern love stories. In Romantic Love in the Western Word, Denis de Rougemont says that Tristan und Isolde is the model for all love stories in western literature.

Well, yea, sort of. The lovers are obsessed with each other, and social forces keep them apart. The impediments to consummating their love generate the passion. This is basically the pattern of romantic love. At the same time, certain elements in Tristan und Isolde don’t quite play for modern readers. They fall in love because they drink a magic potion; the force that keeps the lovers apart is mainly Marc, Tristan’s uncle, who just happens to also be the king. So, the story is about Tristan wanting to make a cuckold out of his uncle and betray his king because a magic potion forces him to love a woman he could resist quite well without magic. Even more odd, the narrator of the tale is a monk, not in the original oral versions but certainly by the time it was written down, and the monk is chanting “Go Tristan” as the young man is about to commit adultery. It might be that Tristan and Isolde was, for monks, a kind of medieval porn.

Pride and Prejudice is a much better modern love story because the force that keeps the lovers apart is their own misconceptions (no silly magic here). They initially detest each other, fall in love despite their best intentions, and then get married. Read frontwards, it is a fairytale. It has a harder edge than most fairytales, largely due to Elizabeth’s acerbic wit, but it is still basically a fairytale. The story pretty much ends with the double marriage of Jane to Bingley and Elizabeth to Darcy.

Some readers of Austen might already be ready to argue with me. It is not, they might say, a simple fairytale, especially if you are a strong reader. Maybe so. But I would argue that the happy ending, which hits a climax in Chapter XVIII, the next to the last chapter, carries most readers through Chapter XIX, the last chapter, with misty eyes. In Chapter XVIII, the good people seem rewarded (we have not one, but two, happy unions), and the bad or simply annoying people (Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins, Wickham, etc.) seem undone or out of the way. Happy readers gloss over Chapter XIX, which is seemingly a rather standard final chapter for an eighteen-century novel, one that sums up the lives of major characters after the narrative proper is already complete.

Reading backwards, however, Pride and Prejudice is about the failure of love to extricate us from our families. In Chapter XIX, we learn that marrying her two elder daughters off to rich men, the driving force of the entire novel, has done nothing to make Mrs.  Bennet “a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life.” Mr. Bennet, who seemed so charming at the beginning of the novel and so fleckless at the end, delights “in going to Pemberley, especially when he was least expected.” Mr. Bingley and Jane move to escape, unsuccessfully, the Bennet family.

All of the bad and annoying people have proven themselves incapable of improvement (no self-help books in the eighteen-century), and they will not go away. Mr. Collins seems to always be in the background. Lady Catherine returns to Pemberley, “in spite of that pollution which its woods had received” (the pollution is Elizabeth, who now must be her hostess). While Wickham is not invited to Pemberley, Lydia (his wife, Elizabeth’s sister) often visits, and Darcy has to continue to support the Wickhams. It isn’t much of a honeymoon for either Jane or Elizabeth.

When we retreat one chapter back, to Chapter XVIII, we learn that the newly married Elizabeth is “ever anxious to keep [Darcy] to herself” and “shield him” from “society so little pleasing” to them. Because we are reading the novel backwards, we can see more clearly that this will not work out—at all.

When we read forward, we might convince ourselves that Elizabeth has received everything she wanted and deserved. Read backwards, the novel is damn depressing. No matter how lucky we are in life, we cannot escape the people who make us miserable. Sadly, these people are too often members of our family.

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Responses

  1. As i started reading this blog, front to back, I was awed by depth of comprehension You have for Your subject. It’s like reading Richard Feynman, listening to Andre Segovia, watching Tiger Woods. I know what I am seeing but the how is over my head. Then there in the last paragraph is the hook. Suddenly the intellectual journey becomes emotional and the world of scholarly becomes a kids kitchen. This I will read and reread front to back and back to front. there is a lot here to digest.

    Like

    • Thanks Skip. I am pleased you are enjoying it.

      Like


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