Despite having one of the worst endings in the history of books, Pride & Prejudice remains one of my all-time favorite novels. (I’m not exaggerating my feelings towards that ending: when I first read it in college, I threw my paperback copy across the Robertson Student Center out of my distaste for the “let’s wrap up everything in a tidy little box” epilogue. It hit a wall and startled a table of wee baby freshmen.) Its prose is both lucid and absorbing, and its dialogue is sharp, witty, and immensely entertaining. (Jane Austen herself thought of that as a shortcoming, calling it “too light and bright and sparkling.”) Perhaps the most remarkable factor, though, is how insightful the story is with respect to courtship, and how applicable those insights are to our present dating landscape.
Whether she did it consciously or not, Austen’s “pursuer” male characters are set at archetypal poles. Think of a sphere or a globe. (Or look at the image below.) You have North, South, East, and West. If we think of it this way, Darcy is North and Bingley is South, Wickham is West while Collins is East.
Darcy and Bingley are at opposite ends of the “romantic” spectrum. Darcy is reserved and analytical: he is concerned with rightness and does not pursue Elizabeth until his emotional attachment overwhelms all of his other objections. On the other hand, Bingley bounds after Jane like a cheetah chasing a gazelle. He is impetuous and bold and relies on other people to point out potential objections.
Wickham and Collins fit on the “pragmatic” spectrum. Collins has no tangible emotional attachment to any of women he pursues. The moment he is turned down, his attention goes instantly to the next potential mate on his list. Furthermore, he isn’t even pursuing marriage out of a desire for companionship, but rather because, as a clergyman, he is expected to have a family. In contrast, Wickham pursues relationships as an attempt to gain access to money. All his attention is on Elizabeth until he finds a woman who has a larger dowry and then he immediately moves on. There is some emotion in his pursuits but it is overruled by practical considerations.
It is clear that Austen endorses romantic pursuit rather than pragmatic pursuit. Darcy and Bingley are the male heroes of the story, whereas Wickham is the villain and Collins is the cringe-inducing comic relief. Even Mr. Bennett, Elizabeth’s father, seems to have married for practical reasons and his marriage is portrayed as uneven and joyless.
All men, even modern men, fit somewhere along this spectrum. Likewise, all women have a type preference. (And although many women say they want a Darcy, they seem to gravitate more to the Southwestern Bingley-Wickham types the most.) If we ignore the character and personality that Austen ascribes to each pole – and view them apart from the moral judgments that Austen wants us to make – it’s easier to break down. Let me elaborate.
One cannot find themselves simultaneously North and South nor East and West. You are constantly a combination of North or South and East or West.
So, men, are you the type to patiently let your attachment grow as you get a sense of your compatibility, or do you pursue first and ask questions later? Women, are you more the sort to be patient as a man examines his feelings, or do you like it more when he is upfront and direct from the get go? Men, are you more likely to filter and sort and go after the “best” woman available to you? Or do you find yourself happy with whomever accepts you? Women, would you feel more comfortable with someone who picked you as “best,” even if it means you could find yourself rejected when something “better” comes along? Or do you prefer the security of knowing that he is content – or even thrilled – to be with you at all?
There is no right answer to any of those questions. If you’ve read the book, it’s difficult to divorce yourself from the feelings you have towards each character. If you can, though, take an honest look and see where you fall on the spectrum. Maybe it will be illuminating for you, maybe not. Either way, it will probably be interesting. And if you haven’t read the book, get on it.