"Till This Moment, I Never Knew Myself": Developing Consciousness and Character in "Pride and Prejudice" and "The Portrait of a Lady"

By Elaine Toia.

Published by The International Journal of Literary Humanities

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Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: May 7, 2014 $US5.00

This paper proposes Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" (1949) as a possible frame for discussion of the psychological and emotional lives of women in "Pride and Prejudice" (1813) by Jane Austen and "The Portrait of a Lady" (1908) by Henry James. According to Beauvoir, a woman lives life torn between her desire for autonomy and her need to establish her socially sanctioned relationship to the world through marriage and motherhood. Elizabeth Bennet and Isabel Archer engage in this struggle as they attempt to forge individual identity in a society that mandates a woman's status as "other". As both subject and object in their respective marriage plots, Elizabeth and Isabel are formed by what Beauvoir calls "the young girl's education", which substitutes vain notions for real world experience. Each heroine drifts and errs until new knowledge reveals her false position, or what Lacan would term her "lack of being". The subsequent transformative struggle for life as free subject is different for each woman. Because Isabel suffers enormously, she, ultimately, can stake the greater claim to agency and self-directed behavior. Both Austen and James, however, as they seek to define consciousness, are equally preoccupied with the timeless conflict which, according to Beauvoir, defines the true "lived experience" of woman.

Keywords: Jane Austen, Henry James, Consciousness

The International Journal of Literary Humanities, Volume 11, Issue 3, May 2014, pp.49-58. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: May 7, 2014 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 436.418KB)).

Dr. Elaine Toia

Professor of English, Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, SUNY Rockland Community College, Suffern, New York, USA