One hundred and thirty seven pages in and I was hooked.
Okay, I’ll admit that it took me a long time to get into “Pride and Prejudice.” I decided to read Jane Austen’s most famous novel for the first time over winter break this year, and at first, I hated it. I found the central conflicts trivial, the characters elitist, the drama lacking and the dialogue superfluous. Where were the deep insights into truth? The struggles of an impoverished life? I was looking for the might of Dostoevsky but instead was met with a tea party.
But then it clicked. Austen’s writing, I finally saw, offers one of the most detailed philosophies of emotion that I’ve ever read. Her beautiful exposition of a book-length conversation on committed love felt so foreign compared to the brutal, rushed, transactional and frankly piggish state of hook-up culture at Yale today. In “Pride and Prejudice,” Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy find love not through swipes and grinds, but through deep, subtle and holistic assessments of character that span across intense discussion, passionate letters and intricate thought.
Why do we seem to exist in a universe apart from Austen’s lovely world? Although we have reached a moment where we are finally denouncing animalistic behavior, we are still struggling to diagnose it. Countless columns have attempted to dissect the issues of campus sexual assault and fraternity and sorority malfeasance through a discussion of “spaces.” What constitutes a healthy “space” for interactions between men and women? What spaces will allow us to sexually flourish while still maintaining female agency? What space is “safe” enough for us to truly be equal?
What all of these arguments lack, however, is an awareness of a sad truth: Men and women will continue to be disgusting as long as our sexual ethos permits it. We will not have a safe “space” for both genders to coexist in a world that explicitly looks down on those who choose to be sexually modest.
Last year, I got into a nasty dispute with a group of other students for suggesting that hookup culture may cultivate unhealthy sexual norms on campus. I was ridiculed on social media for my claim and had to undergo an apology session with several women who shared the suite of the girl I apparently offended with my views. I was deemed an enemy of women’s personal agency and a friend to misogynistic conservatives.
As the beats drop at Toad’s, Austen rolls in her grave.
Today, students justify casual sex by either saying that they haven’t “found the right person yet” or that they “don’t have time for a relationship.” But that doesn’t mean that people are actively looking for a partner. Men don’t circle around the club to find a mate; they swim like sharks to find fish. It seems obvious to me that we should be able to uncontroversially critique this behavior, but a majority of students would instead insist on refraining from judgment.
With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, we should instead consider Austen’s fine articulation about the meaning of love — not the aftereffect of our frequent dopamine shots of pleasure hunting on the weekend, but true, committed love. She points us to a fundamental truth that Yalies, and, it seems, most people around our nation today, have apparently forgotten: Love is complicated and unavoidably requires incredible amounts of effort but is entirely worth our time. In fact, I would argue, and I’m sure Austen would agree, that it is our capacity to ruminate deeply and productively on our relations to others that makes us fully human.
Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are perhaps ideal examples of how we should engage in love. The entirety of the book is devoted to their attempts to analytically decipher each other’s character. Eventually, they discuss their thoughts, working through every point of distrust. Satisfaction is delayed with every uncertainty. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy eventually — finally — come to mutually understand each other’s mistaken initial judgements only when they have proven their worth through minute, but crucially important signs of devotion.
To truly appreciate “Pride and Prejudice,” I had to open up my heart to the idea that characters can be fully moral and still be interesting. I would urge all men and women who haven’t already to read a bit of Austen and see if it changes your mind about what behavior produces our best selves.
I apologize for my prejudice against pigs.
Leland Stange is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at email@example.com.