Friday, June 3, 2016

Jane Austen: Predator and Prey

Don't know why, but upon re-reading P and P for the x? time, I suddenly saw a new title for the novel: Predator and Prey.  The first sentence is what started me thinking:

 It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

The second paragraph is even more specific actually:
"However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his
first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds
of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."

The phrase "the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters" started me thinking: "rightful property" or prey?  This focus on one of the most famous openings in English literature caused me to see the book in a slightly different way, which resulted in a new title:  Predator and Prey.  Who are the predators and who are the prey.  This resulted in a new perspective as I then began to look at each of the characters to see which role they played.  Some even play both. 

I also paid a bit more attention to Caroline, the unmarried Bingley sister, this time.  Once she senses Darcy's interest in Liz, the claws come out.  Caroline's senses are sharp and sensitive, very necessary for a predator to know when a suspected competitor invades her territory.  However, this different view of the novel also had a surprising effect in that I now viewed Caroline in a much more sympathetic light.  More about that later.

Following is a cast of the main characters and a brief statement regarding my take on their roles in the novel.  Feel free to disagree.

Mr. Bennet: prey-- He was caught and trapped when young by a pretty face.

Mrs. Bennet:  predator--she caught Mr. Bennet and is now on the hunt for her daughters.

Jane:  prey,  not really on the hunt for a husband, potential predator.

Elizabeth: prey,  not really on the hunt for a husband, but could be a potential predator.

Lydia:  predator,  attracted by red coats of officers

Wickham:  predator, searching for a rich woman to marry

Col. FitzWilliam:  predator, see Wickham

Darcy:  prey

Bingley: prey, target of local mothers

Miss Caroline Bingley: predator, on the prowl for Darcy

Georgiana:  prey, with Wickham as a past predator

Mr. Collins:  predator and prey, looking for a wife, becomes Charlotte's target.  Or, as we used to say back in the Dark Ages, "He chased her until she caught him."

Some brief observations:

Lizzie is hard on Charlotte but excuses Wickham and FitzWilliam

Older sons are prey while younger sons are predators, who are forced into those roles because of the culture and the tradition of primogeniture--oldest sons inherit everything in order to keep the family estate intact. Therefore the oldest son is a great catch (prey) , while the younger sons are forced to find an occupation (military or the church) or marry a woman with a large dowry who can support them (predator).  The oldest son can also be a predator if familial pressures causes him to search for a wife who has wealth and perhaps a title, which would be ideal.  Either or both could enhance the family's position in society.

Some critics and readers have dismissed Austen's works as light-hearted romances with the same theme: a young woman out to get a husband, and in spite of the usual obstacles, manages to get her man and live happily ever after.
This may be true on a surface level, but underneath there is a very serious struggle taking place.

The right marriage is not just a road to everlasting bliss but a means of survival for many of Austen's heroines, and heroes also, as it was true for many in the 17th through the 19th centuries.  Many, especially in the middle class, would be doomed to a life of penury or maybe worse, a life dependent upon the good will and generosity of relatives and friends.  Limited as they were by the strictures of their society (as we also are today--even if we don't see it), jobs were unavailable or unthinkable for many.  Marriage to a suitably wealthy individual was the only solution.

And that poses the problem--making a choice, if one were lucky enough to have choices.  Who to choose to spend a lifetime with?  P. D. James, one of my favorite mystery writers in an interview said that Jane Austen was her favorite author, and that, if Austen were writing today, she would be writing mysteries.

Consider--what is the task of the detective in a mystery story--stripping away the public persona to get at the suspect's real character.  What is the task of the wise young woman or man in choosing a mate?  Isn't it the same?  In fact, that is the task of all of us, knowingly or not, of finding out just what are our acquaintances really like and how many would make good and trustworthy friends. 

As for that "living happily ever after" myth, Austen doesn't believe in it, and it shows at the conclusion of most of her novels.  It may be a good match, but unending  bliss is not in the cards.

Just a few thoughts about the far too few works by one of my all-time favorite authors.


  1. shock! i never considered that premise before! the iron hand underneath the velvet glove, the prehistoric snarls and swipes of the feral females... the eternal struggle for the survival of the fittest... one may wonder if darwin read austen before his trip on the beagle. great thought provoking post!! tx...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      chuckle. . .

      Snarls and Swipes of Feral Females? Nice alliteration there.

      nature red in tooth and claw?

      Thanks for stopping by and the kind words. I wonder now if I will be able to read her other works without categorizing the characters.

  2. Superb post and analysis Fred.

    I will search for the sources later but I remember reading several articles relating to sociology and linguistics that pointed out how much of the language revolving around romance and seduction mirrored hunting and warfare.

    Without a doubt the world that Austen described had such parallels.

    Not believing in the "happily ever after myth" is so interesting. Harold Bloom has written how Shakespeare showed that he did not believe in it in his comedies. I tend to ask myself what I think an author feels about a particular couple's future at the end of such books.

    1. Brian Joseph,

      That would be interesting to read. I vaguely remember an article that focused on the use of economic or market terms in those situations, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries.

      I think contemporary authors are less likely even to imply "ever-lasting bliss" for their happy pairs.

  3. Predator and Prey! Love it, Fred.

    1. madamevauquer,

      Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  4. I like that.
    How does it work for the other 5 novels? :D

    1. Di,


      Good question. I'm going to read _Sense and Sensibility_ next. It's been several years now, so I'm a bit vague on the characters, but I think it's not going to be so obvious as in this one. I shall have to see what happens when I start turning pages.

  5. This is why I come here, Fred. So many times you've made me see something in a totally different light. Keep up up the good work!

    1. Cheryl,

      Thanks for stopping by and the kind words.

  6. Now that is a provocative approach to Austen! I can understand that agon (conflict/struggle) dominate the novels but remain on the fence about predators and prey; there is a single-mindedness to predators and a haplessness to prey that may or may not be part of the characters' personalities, and perhaps the relationships between character are more symbiotic than the p/p schema would suggest. What do you think?

    1. R.T.,

      An intriguing question.

      I think part of the schema is cultural or societal, but I also believe that there are those who would be either a predator or prey in any environment.

      You started me thinking here--aren't all predator/prey relationships symbiotic to a considerable extent?

    2. Fred, I'm still pondering P&P and symbiosis, and I make the leap to the parasite/host concept; if I were scientific (or if I had at least a 5th grade understanding of science), I might be on more solid ground with such speculations, but I find myself leaping ahead illogically to seeing all marriages and love relationships somehow bound up in the P&P, symbiosis, and parasite/host schemes. Wouldn't Jane Austen be horrified by my irreverent approach to her lovely novels!

    3. R.T.,

      Based on my incomplete knowledge of biology, I think the parasite/host relationship is beneficial for the parasite and harmful to the host, frequently resulting in the death of the host.

      Symbiotic relationships are those that are beneficial to both parties in the relationship.

      Predator/prey relationships can turn into a parasite/host relationship after marriage wherein the parasite then spends the prey/host's money, leaving the prey/host in poverty while the predator/parasite goes in search of new prey.

      A predator/prey relationship, after marriage, can become symbiotic, depending upon the nature of the predator. I suspect that Col. FitzWilliam in _Pride and Prejudice_ is the sort of person who could make the marriage a symbiotic one.

    4. Shift gears, Fred, have you read any biographies of Jane Austen. I like the Carol Shields book, but I am intimidated by (and have not attempted) the Claire Tomlin tome. The Shields is brief but comprehensive, which is fine, delicate balance in critical biographies.

    5. i sense that prey/predator is one of those syllogistic combinations that overlie a veritable whirlpool of human instincts and emotions, boiling away in darkness and hidden below in a great dark pit...

    6. R.T.,

      No, all I've read are the short biogs that appear occasionally as part of the intros to her novels. I've never read a full-length intensive biography of her.

  7. Mudpuddle,

    I suspect that a simple predator/prey schema may fit a number of relationships, but there are also many that are far more complex and intermingled with other emotions.

  8. Hi, just discovering your blog. I've never seen it stated quite so bluntly, but I agree with your assessment of Austen's novels. The folks who think of them as lightweight chick-lit just have no idea! I've often seen them described in terms of a "marriage mart" but even that may be too soft!

  9. Marty,

    Welcome and thanks for the comment. I think the issue was much more serious back then, than it is today, for many of the participants it meant a decent life or one of poverty, especially for women and younger sons. A "marriage msrt" strikes me as being genteel and polite, whereas one can see, for example, Miss Bingley's desperation as she sees Darcy slip through her fingers.

  10. Revisiting the subject since it has been reopened.....what do think is the reason for the JA popularity in the last few decades?.....It must have something to do with contemporary culture rather than JA....what do you think?

  11. R.T.,

    Possibly a greater appreciation of what she accomplished in her novels? It's clear that her novels haven't changed, so it must be a change in contemporary culture. It's possible that those who appreciate her like her for different reasons, dependent upon the changes in culture and individual likes and dislikes.

    I haven't read any commentary by others on her popularity that is convincing, so I don't know and so far I haven't found anyone yet who does seem to know.

    Turning the question back on you--Do you have any thoughts on the issue?