Pride and Prejudice, Feminisms, and Textual Analysis

I found Vivian Jones’ “Feminisms,” to be an interesting read alongside Belsey’s chapter on textual analysis in “Research Methods for English Studies,” particularly the references to Barthes’ “The Death of the Author (Belsey, 165).” I hadn’t been previously exposed to postfeminism, but I think Jones does a good job of articulating the various political platforms around feminism during Jane Austen’s time and she is able to support her conclusion that Austen’s works illuminate more postfeminist than feminist ideals. But the Belsey chapter had me questioning whether these are in fact Austen’s ideals.

For her argument, Jones touches on textual analysis, but largely uses biography and discourse as her methods of research. She is making an argument for what kind of a feminist Austen is, so these are both vital methodologies for her. She does, however, lean on textual analysis when presenting her understanding of the connections that others have made to a more feminist (Wollstonecraftian) ideology. Jones references Elizabeth Bennett’s refusal of Mr. Collins’ proposal and her use of the words “elegant female” and “rational creature.” This is the exact terminology Wollstonecraft uses in her Vindication of the Rights of Women (Jones, 359).” Jones goes on to say that Elizabeth’s use of Wollstonecraftian rhetoric and then going on to marry Darcy is evidence of an awareness of feminism but ultimately reasons that equality has been achieved (Jones, 364). This, for me, is a reasonable argument for Elizabeth Bennett serving a postfeminist heroine. However, I’m not entirely sold on it’s supporting Austen as a postfeminist.

Belsey summarizes Barthes as criticizing researches for relying too heavily on the author’s intentions and therefore excluding all possible interpretations (Belsey, 165). It would appear that Jones is exactly the researcher that Barthes references. Jones argues that because Austen is not “overtly polemical”, this is indicative of her being postfeminist (Jones, 363). But I question this. While Barthes’ criticism comes more than 100 years after Austen, his critique stems from the prevalence of relying on the intentions of the Author. My question is: what if Austen did not want to write overtly polemical novels because she didn’t want her personal politics to influence her readers’ interpretations of the text? In that context, the use of Wollstonecraftian rhetoric could be more indicative of Austen’s views aligning more with Wollstonecraft’s. It is Mr. Collins that first introduces this rhetoric by referring to Elizabeth’s refusal as an attempt to increase his “love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females (Austen, 78).” And Elizabeth expands on this language by leveraging Wollstonecraft’s rhetoric to emphasize the seriousness of her refusal, urging Mr. Collins not to see her as “an elegant female” but as a “rational creature (Austen, 79).” Relying on textual analysis, I’d question what it means that Mr. Collins uses the words “elegant female” first. Relying only on Elizabeth’s response might serve to exemplify Elizabeth’s awareness of the rhetoric; however, wouldn’t Mr. Collins’ references to the behaviors “usual to young ladies,” “the true delicacy of the female character,” and “elegant females” indicate the existence of still an inequality or at least justification for Wollstonecraft’s arguments?

I don’t necessarily disagree with Jones; but, it’s interesting to read her argument, which entirely incorporates the author’s motivations into the analysis, in juxtaposition to the references to Barthes in Belsey’s essay.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016. Print.

Belsey, Catherine. “Textual Analysis as a Research Method.” Griffin, Gabriele. Research Methods for English Studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. 160-178. Print.

Jones, Vivian. “Feminisms.” Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Donald Gray and Mary A. Favret. Fourth Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016. 357-367. Print.

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