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