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Jane Austen’s Broken Spine: Re-reading and Forgetting

5411945096_a4922d9f3c_mMy wife’s copy of Pride and Prejudice falls open naturally (that is, by a second nature in which its reader has thoroughly trained it) to a certain page near the middle of the book, in Chapter 35. This pivotal chapter consists almost entirely of a letter from Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet, in which he explains the motives of his actions in such a way that Elizabeth’s judgment of him is overturned–along with her judgment of herself. All along she has prided herself on her keen and unperturbed insight, on commanding a clear view of the hearts of men. The letter from Darcy is a letter of introduction, which introduces Elizabeth to two men she thought she knew. But more than that it introduces her to herself. Her reflections on the letter culminate with the astonishing exclamation, “Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

Reading Darcy, Elizabeth discovers herself. And reading Chapter 35, we in turn discover ourselves; for the typical reader of Pride and Prejudice will go along with Elizabeth’s self-understanding throughout the first half, all the while maintaining a confidence in his own ability to interpret the character. The discovery of Elizabeth’s failure to read herself is at the same time an indictment of the reader’s failure to read. This indictment is part of exactly what makes the book worth reading, and why adaptations and sentimental evaluations of it are doomed to rob it of its treasure.

But there is a puzzle wrapped up in this central passage of self-discovery (a puzzle I will leave as an open question to conclude this post). It is undeniably the crucial event of the novel, and as the broken spine of many a copy attests, it is eminently re-readable. So what could be stranger than declaring that it would better be destroyed and forgotten? But that is exactly what Mr. Darcy advises towards the end of the novel. Elizabeth consents, indicating that the letter itself is an empty document, and at another point even says that her former feelings were best forgotten. The letter of introduction has done its work, and now that Darcy and Elizabeth have by its mediation come to know themselves and each other, there remains no need for it.

Yet the letter does remain, and even constitutes the most impressive passage of an impressive book. To be sure, the letter is preserved for readers of the book rather than for Elizabeth. But if, as I claim, the letter introduces us to ourselves as much as it Elizabeth to herself, why do we still need it once we have learned the lesson? Should we stop reminding ourselves of what we were like before we read it? Is there ever a time when we stop re-reading Chapter 35 of Pride and Prejudice?

(A version of this post originally appeared on August 23, 2008)

Image credit: “This Book” by flickr user Bob AuBuchon, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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4 Responses to “Jane Austen’s Broken Spine: Re-reading and Forgetting”

  1. I love this question. It’s very paradoxical. The characters want to move on and forget their mistakes, but the reader gets delight from revisiting the moment of understanding. I have read P & P dozens of times (I usually re-read it every year and I’m 53!). Every time I get to the point where Darcy says that there is a part at the beginning of his letter that he would not want Lizzie to re-read, I go back to re-read it.
    The beauty of art is the continual deepening of understanding, including the deepening of the realization that there are things we’d rather forget about ourselves. It’s good to remember those very things in their synthesis, which is what the passage depicts. Therefore, we’d be fools to destroy it! Revisiting it is the best thing we can do for our own self-knowledge.

    Posted by Leila | April 27, 2014, 9:30 pm
    • Hello, Leila, I’m honored that you dropped by!

      Yes, it seems Darcy’s request that the letter be destroyed is an invitation to the reader to flip back to it, an artful indicator of the heart of the novel.

      Posted by grubby | April 28, 2014, 9:38 pm
  2. I have some scattered remarks. Bear with me. I am speaking up because you asked.

    First, I find your piece poignant. I don’t fully understand why, but I also don’t feel disturbed about that fact. The poignancy comes in part from the fact that you notice when a book opens to a page, as I do, and in part from the fact that you see this as second nature, as I wish I could. I haven’t seen second nature in it in general, or if I have I never believed that there was much meaning (virtue) to it, since in my experience broken books don’t fall open to especially meaningful (truthful) passages.

    Second, I might just say why I find Chapter 35 so interesting. For one thing, we the readers are put into Elizabeth’s position, where we are allowed to judge, as she does, the value of the letter and reevaluate, if we wish, the character of the man who wrote it. We also get to do this without comment from Elizabeth–or the narrator. The fact that Darcy would prefer for the letter to be destroyed makes it so much more interesting. We are learning secrets. Darcy has the ability, as much as anyone else, to lie, of course, or to make mistaken or poorly-worded reports. But we sense–or at least I do and I take Elizabeth and the narrator to confirm me on this point–that Darcy is being very honest.

    Now, what is so very interesting to me is that, in this novel of manners, Darcy and Elizabeth have been so composed, and to be composed is to put some constraint upon spontaneity, but Darcy and Elizabeth have had such interactions as they have had because they act and react not only to who the other “truly” is underneath his or her composure but also to how the other has composed himself or herself. (I put “truly” in quotation marks because I do not particularly like the cliché “who one is underneath” in this case.) Their relationship would have broken in any case, I think, but saying so shows why the metaphor of a broken thing is so apt. I do not mean just that Darcy and Elizabeth break through the others’ composed self or even their own. Those breaks, such as they are, are a consequence of the break in their relationship, after Darcy decides to try to communicate to a dissociated social acquaintance. (I don’t suppose that they are friends, although they are, so to speak, friends of friends.)

    Consequently, there are so many matters for prudential judgment on display in relation to Darcy’s letter, and for some reason each of them is terribly compelling rather than terribly boring. Who tells whom about whom, and when, and how? Likewise, how is one character to act in regard to another? We compose ourselves by conforming ourselves to universal rules whereby we treat particulars under the aspect of universals, such as man, woman, friend, sibling, gentry, peasantry, rich, poor, and so on. I would not dream of doing away with manners, that is to say, self-composure, but some ways of composing ourselves are better than others (and sometimes it is best to suspend all pretensions, if I don’t make myself misunderstood by saying that), and moreover there will be a need at times for prudence to judge what is appropriate when particulars are at too much variance from customary universals.

    I cannot quite form an opinion of my own about “remembering” and “forgetting,” but maybe this whole post comes around in the end to affirm your assertion on Facebook that the site of moral memory is a friendship. Darcy remembers a broken friendship–if his relationship to Elizabeth can be called that–and he did much to break it, but his act of making the letter is also a gesture that leads, by incidental steps, to one of the very closest relationships.

    Posted by Edward | April 27, 2014, 10:47 pm

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