The following is an essay I recently wrote for Modernity class, in which I discuss the misrepresentation of class and character in Joe Wright’s 2005 film adaption of Pride and Prejudice. Also of note – I turned the movie off shortly after this particular scene.
Shortly after Mr. Bingley’s arrival at Netherfield, he attends the community ball, along with his sister Caroline and his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy. At this fateful event, he meets and falls in love with Jane Bennett, while her sister has a rather different experience with Darcy. This is the first appearance of both these male characters, and as such, their introduction establishes their characters and sets up everything that is to come. Naturally, their opening scene is what sets the tone for the rest of the book, and, in some part at least, makes it clear to the reader what the goal and direction of the story will be. Joe Wright’s 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice is beautifully shot and skillfully executed, but examination of this critical ball scene leads to vitally different results. From the very beginning of the scene, not only are the characters from the novel represented inaccurately, but the misreading or disregard of the original text leads to a scene that sets up a plot which is completely different, both in tone, direction, and conflict.
In the film, the the ball is a lively, wild affair. The country people might look overly drab, but they are enthusiastically dancing together. Elizabeth and Charlotte are sitting to the side, giggling and obviously enjoying themselves. Jokingly, Elizabeth tells Jane that every man in the room is in love with her. Jane responds and Elizabeth expresses her disdain for most of the male sex: “They are all humorless poppycocks, in my limited experience!” she declares. Jane then quips, “One of these days one will catch your eye and you’ll have to watch your tongue!” On the surface level, this might appear to simply be a way of showing Elizabeth as a witty girl who tends to have strong opinions about others. But the effect of this brief conversation is greater and less excusable. The characterization is entirely wrong. In the novel, Elizabeth is never so vocal in her opinions of people, preferring to quietly laugh at their ridiculousness in secret. Furthermore, she is never so broad in her mockery. She laughs at specific individuals and their eccentricities, not entire groups. The character who is most likely to generalize is, in contrast, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In her statements regarding such various subjects as piano playing, governesses, and those of the working class, she shows a disregard for particulars, and is perfectly willing to make assumptions, coming across as rude and ignorant in the process(Chapter XXIX, pages 112-113). This is the picture we are encouraged to draw of Lady Catherine, who is Elizabeth’s main adversary and completely unlike her, not of Elizabeth herself.
Furthermore, this little tête à tête establishes Lizzy not merely as intelligent and strong-willed, but rather as petulant and predisposed to be biased against all men, not just proud and obnoxious ones. Already, this sets up the story of Darcy & Elizabeth to be one not of two people overcoming their biases and character flaws, but of the handsome prince taming the fiery feminist. The latter is one that is much more conducive to most Hollywood plots, but it is certainly not the one that Austen wrote.
Moving forward in the film scene, we reach the arrival of the Netherfield party. This is an event of great pomp and significance. Darcy, Bingley, and Caroline enter together, in a row. As they cross the threshold, the dancers abruptly stop and the music pauses. They draw back, because apparently the place where they are dancing is now hallowed ground. The looks on their faces are ones of awe and shock. There is a shot of Elizabeth and Jane craning their heads to get a look at the prestigious arrivals. There are hushed whispers that rise in the tense air. Mr. Lucas overcomes his star-struck silence to bow and reverently address Bingley: “How good of you to come.” This is establishing his very presence at the ball as an act of most generous condescension. As they make their way into the room, the men and women continue to draw back in reverence. As they pass, every knee bows and every skirt curtsies.
This is rather ridiculous. The Bennet and the Bingleys are on a similar social footing – both are of the gentleman landowner class, both own property and have servants. While Mr. Bennet does not have as much money as Bingley, there is no real class divide between the two families. There is absolutely no reason for the entire crowd at the ball to bow and part in the men’s path. Having the music abruptly stop so that everyone can pay their respects and obeisance to the arriving individuals only adds to the absurdity of the scene. Bingley is not an emperor or a Pope, and neither is Darcy. They are merely slightly more wealthy than the others at the ball. In the book, we are given no indication that such a scene ever played out. The social class dynamics have been completely misrepresented. In the corresponding chapter, we read of Bingley mingling happily with all present at the ball, and while naturally he and Darcy are held in some admiration because of their novelty and high salaries, they are not worshipped (Chapter III, page 6). Literal awe and reverence is hardly an appropriate attitude to have towards any human being, much less one of the same social class as oneself.
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins treats his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh with some measure of the ridiculous respect that the Darbyshire residents pay to Bingley and Darcy in this scene of the film. But his obsession and adoration is portrayed to be ridiculous and unmannerly, and is a source of great amusement for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Collins does not understand how the world works. His view of class and distinction is preposterous, based entirely on an esteem for family prestige and material wealth; his behavior towards the pompous old lady is of silly and unsuitable devotion. By projecting his attitude towards the upper class onto the entire community, the film is presenting a status quo of society that is making an blatant and unnecessary divide between the rich and the slightly rich. One the one side, this destroys the delicious eccentricity of Collins himself. But furthermore, if there is such a divide between Bingley and Darcy and the Bennets, then the two men become unattainable, by all rights and traditions, just out of reach of the poor and lowly girls. This is an obstacle which has been entirely fabricated by the filmmakers, and has no genuine place in the original story. While Darcy believes the Bennets to be below himself and Bingley, and thus seeks to dissuade his friend from marrying Jane, this is due to their unrefined and embarrassing behavior rather than their financial capabilities. Once again, Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the only one who really thinks that there is a distinction of rank between the families. Near the end of the book, he confronts Elizabeth, claiming that she is unworthy to marry her nephew and be a blot on the family name. In answer to this, Elizabeth does not respond “But I love him!” She does love him, but this is not her defense. (Chapter LVI, page 239) “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter, so far we are equal,” she coolly replies, reminding the other that they are of the same class.
A story in which the poor girl breaks custom and tradition all for the sake of love and manages to marry the rich prince and live happily ever after is hardly a new one. But it is simply not the one that Pride and Prejudice is supposed to tell. Austen embraces social structure, proper behavior and class distinctions. She mocks those who are overly fixated on wealth and status, and who thus do not understand the reality of the social stratum, but she does not seek to dissolve the bonds of society. We are never led to believe that class and social status are of no consequence.
Through Elizabeth, Austen tends to mock not the way the world works or how society is structured, but rather the ludicrousness of those who are themselves out of touch with the truth of how things are. Elizabeth never seeks to challenge social bonds or conventions. The couple that does this is Wickham and Lydia, and their escapades are inarguably portrayed as shameful and shocking, not admirable. Lydia, in fact, is portrayed as Lizzy’s polar opposite: she is frivolous and air-headed while Elizabeth is sensible and intelligent, and she elopes with Wickham after Lizzy has seen through his charming façade. Her confrontation with her father regarding Lydia’s behavior emphasizes their contrary characters. In the film, this contrast is weakened. By changing the love story of Darcy and Elizabeth to be one of free-spirited social rebellion rather than one of overcoming personal flaws and prejudices, the filmmakers are making the conflict external rather than internal. They are absolving the protagonists of their pride and their prejudice, and the story that is the result is sadly mistitled.
Darcy and Bingley’s entrance in the film and the reaction of the community is rendered all the more out of place when Mr. Darcy’s behavior in the book is examined. He swiftly gains the resentment of everyone by his aloof behavior and prideful manner. His condescension and apparent perceived superiority is seen as a horrible and abhorrent character flaw on his part, not as a natural reaction based on a system that is in itself flawed. When everyone else already acts as though he is genuinely above them, the obnoxiousness of his behavior is completely negated and rendered inconsequential. But Austen’s Darcy has established his own place in the social circle, as the sullen man with his nose in the air who thinks himself better than everyone. The fact that he acts superior is a fault within himself – the fault does not lie in the fact that he was born a rich man. In the book, he and Elizabeth are kept apart not by the constrains of an archaic and unjust social system – far from it. Rather, the obstacle initially preventing their love is internal, in the shape of their own foolish assumptions.
But how does Wright’s Elizabeth react to the general response to Darcy and Bingley’s arrival? Elizabeth leans over to Charlotte and asks sarcastically, “So which one of these painted peacocks is our Mr. Bingley?” Apparently the only way the film can attempt to show wit and intelligence is through scorn and sarcasm. Of course, this comment succeeds in establishing that Elizabeth is not overawed by wealth and status. This in itself is not at odds with the book; Elizabeth does not bow to Lady Catherine deBourgh’s ridiculous show of pomp and condescension, apparently indicating disrespect. However, this is meant to show her as less silly than Mr. Collins. Priding herself as a good judge of character rather than outward appearance, she is at odds with with the ridiculous man who sees lace and frills and elegant place settings as the highest of goods and feels the need to kiss the feet of his benefactress as if she were some empress or grey-wigged goddess. The Elizabeth in this film is merely rebellious and oddly able to see through the social obligations that govern every single other individual around her.
Elizabeth, in the book, is high-spirited and passionate, and is said to have a “lively and playful disposition”, but she is not frivolous. She is one who sits at the sidelines, quietly suppressing laughter at everyone, but with enough subtlety to conceal her amusement. The Elizabeth who juts her chin out and loudly refers to her new acquaintances as “painted peacocks” is a very different girl. This is one who actively and blatantly mocks what she sees around her. The effect of this comment is that we are led to believe that Elizabeth’s prejudice is against the very fact that these men are rich and have a high status. Elizabeth in the book, rather like Darcy, has set herself up to be better than everyone around her. She prides herself on being separate, on seeing through people. But her place is one that she has chosen for herself, not one that has been thrust upon her as the sole transcender of her times, the only girl who has the courage to see through old-fashioned traditions and such silly concepts as class and respect. In the book, she is content to look on and be mildly amused. She is witty, not a loudmouthed smart-aleck. Her cinematic counterpart’s comment about painted peacocks makes it seem as though she resents their wealth – Elizabeth in the book never mocks people for having money, but instead their attitudes toward it. Likewise, in the narrative, Darcy is praised for his good treatment of his servants, not faulted for having any in the first place.
Another facet of the scene that has been significantly altered is Darcy’s first offense – his insult to Elizabeth. In the book, Bingley and Darcy are conversing “close enough for Elizabeth to overhear”. When Bingley asks why his friend hasn’t danced at all, and Darcy declares that Jane is the only handsome girl in the room, Bingley replies by enthusiastically suggesting Elizabeth as another beautiful specimen of female agreeability. But Darcy actually looks over and catches Elizabeth’s eye before pronouncing her “tolerable enough” but not nearly pretty enough to tempt him (Chapter III, page 7). He is completely unabashed at stating such a rude opinion right in front of the girl he is slighting. This establishes him firmly as someone who is “thoroughly disagreeable” and altogether to be despised.
In the film, however, the edge of this bitter comment is completely dulled. Elizabeth and Charlotte are not sitting and waiting to dance within earshot and sight of the gentleman, but instead are hidden, concealed beneath some sort of bench. They thus are able to eavesdrop on the conversation of the two men, and overhear the comment, completely unbeknownst to Darcy. In Austen’s novel, the horror of Darcy’s grievance is that he is so full of himself as to say this to Elizabeth’s very face. When in the film, her presence a secret, his offense is minimized and the effect is rather different.. Rather than being shocked at Darcy’s obnoxiousness and amused at his sour disposition, we as an audience are led to sympathize with him – it is rather adorable, we think, that he’s so eager to deny her beauty so as to conceal his attraction from his friend. Once again, Darcy is misrepresented. It is also worth noting that we have not been shown his disinclination to participate in the party. Rather than treating everyone around him with contempt, he is rather treated with god-like reverence by everyone, along with the two Bingleys. Other than a slightly morose expression on his face, the arrogant and socially aloof man that Austen wrote about has hitherto never been shown to us. Thus, Bingley’s goodnatured accusation towards his friend does not even make much sense.
Since Darcy has done nothing to show himself abominable, and the only things worth despising have been the social customs themselves, naturally, Wright’s Elizabeth reacts in a very different manner than her literary alter-ego. When she hears Darcy’s slight to her, rather than annoyance at him amusement at his utterly disagreeable disposition, she appears much more disgruntled. She sticks her chin out, eyes flashing, in a typical Keira Knightley mannerism. “I would not dance with him anyway, for all of Darbyshire!” she declares melodramatically, making it appear that she is rather bitter that this handsome (if grumpy) stranger seems so dismissive of her feminine wiles. Worse still, all this does not serve to adequately set up the future story: if Darcy does not initially appear self-centered and abhorrently prideful, then the entire plot ceases to work. The title of the entire film ceases to be relevant. Elizabeth’s entire interactions with him, culminating in her eventual rejection of his proposal, do not make any sense if the man himself is not sufficiently abominable and conceited in both her eyes and ours.
These shortcomings in the way this very brief scene plays out indicate an utter misunderstanding or willful disregard of Austen’s original text on the part of the director and writer. They distort and muddle the attitudes toward social structure and class that are held by both Lizzy and the general public. The goal of the story is also shifted – rather than being about overcoming internal flaws and misperceptions of others, it becomes yet another tale of transcending customs and breaking social codes because “love conquers all”.