2001 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner Graduate Division
“To Be Fond Of Dancing Was A Certain Step Towards Falling In Love”: The Function Of Dance In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
In Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, set in the Regency Period, dance performs several important functions. Dance patterns emulate courtship rituals, marking dance as a microcosm for courtship and marriage – two main themes of the novel. The Regency period propagated the belief that no ingredient was more essential to a courtship than dancing: “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love…” (Austen 7). Therefore, knowledge of dance – dance steps as well as dance etiquette – was a crucial necessity and was often acquired through study and awareness of conduct codes. These crucial codes were disseminated through popular courtesy/conduct books, which informed readers of correct dance steps, movements, and patterns, as well as socially acceptable etiquette.
Regency conduct codes also influenced interpretations of individual character, as social behavior was often considered the physical embodiment of character; thus, Austen’s characters typically reveal their inner selves through their manners. And, in the manner of courtesy writers who were “concerned with behavior, not only to others but as it concerns oneself” (Fritzer 4), Austen was concerned with the behavior patterns exhibited by her characters, especially upon the dance floor. In this era particularly, a person’s individual worth was manifested itself through performance on the dance floor:
As the courtesy books hint, dancing is a clue to character, negative as well as positive. Austen shows that a lack of moderation combined with too great a love of pleasure reflects questionable character. Other negative indications include poor dancing, desire to precede, or exclusion from the society of dancers. (Fritzer 41)
Therefore, Austen’s depictions of her characters’ dancing capabilities serve a definite purpose; these depictions foreshadow the final matches that dance assists in bringing about.
Some examples of negative manifestations of character include Lydia and Kitty Bennet and Mr. Collins. Lydia and Kitty exhibit an extreme irreverence and total lack of societal understanding; from their shameless soldier-chasing to Lydia’s scandalous affair with Wickham, these two exemplify social behaviors to be avoided. They reveal their weak natures on the dance floor through excessive giggling, cavorting, and tipsiness. Mr. Collins’s behavior marks him as a comic figure. During the first two dances at Netherfield, Mr. Collins reveals his character in a way contrary to his own self-perception. As Elizabeth, his partner for those dances, recalls:
… they were dances of mortification. Mr. Collins, awkward and solemn, apologising instead of attending, and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave her all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give The moment of her release from him was exstacy. (Austen 61)
It is important to note, however, that aberration from accepted societal norms did not always result in negative associations.
Ironically, Austen’s heroes and heroines, such as Elizabeth and Darcy, establish themselves as the protagonists through their blatant disregard for courtesy codes. These breakaway characters possess such a strong sense of self-worth that they realize that “the conventions of marriage are conventions, that is, principles that constitute cultural meaning rather than instructions for social action…” (Segal 330-31). And, when the reader is first introduced to Elizabeth and Darcy, their aberrant social behavior emerges quickly as the implications of the novel’s title become apparent.
As Darcy and Elizabeth deal with their initial bouts of pride and prejudice, their relationship quickly assumes a pattern of approach and rejection, evident in four separate instances involving proposals to dance. The first is at the Longs’ assembly, when Bingley attempts to persuade Darcy to dance with Elizabeth; Darcy adamantly voices his objections to Bingley’s suggestion. Darcy either does not realize, or does not care, that Elizabeth overhears his tirade, but Elizabeth cares very much. She is determined never to allow Darcy to gain the advantage or the opportunity of pointing out her weaknesses again: “… I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine” (Austen 14).
Meryton is the place of the second incident, when Sir William places Darcy in the position of asking Elizabeth to dance; but this time the once-spurned Elizabeth is determined to rebuff Darcy, to avoid giving him yet another vantage point from which to judge her:
And taking her hand, [Sir William Lucas] would have given it to Mr. Darcy, who although extremely surprised, was not unwilling to receive it, when she instantly drew back, and said with some discomposure to Sir William, ‘Indeed, Sir, I have not the least intention of dancing.—I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way in order to beg for a partner.’ (Austen 18)
Although Elizabeth is caught off guard, she accomplishes her goal. Sir William explains Darcy’s willingness to submit to a dance with Elizabeth: “… we cannot wonder at [Darcy’s] complaisance; for who would object to such a partner” (Austen 19). The humor of this statement lies in Darcy’s proud, unbending manner, contrasted with his desire to yield to Elizabeth and dance with her. Clearly, dance and marriage both involve a willingness for one to submit to the other. The irony continues in that Darcy recognizes that Elizabeth is not like the young women whom he has encountered in the past: “Her resistance had not injured her with the gentleman, and he was thinking of her with some complacency…” (Austen 19). Darcy admires Elizabeth’s disinclination to be readily complacent towards him because it matches his own disinclination towards complacency.
During the third episode, Darcy’s invitation to dance is augmented by his growing interest in Elizabeth. During Jane’s convalescence at Netherfield, Darcy takes the initiative to request the dancing of a reel with Elizabeth. Once again, Darcy is rebuffed: Elizabeth replies, “…I have therefore made up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all-and now despise me if you dare” (Austen 35). However, rather than despising Elizabeth, Darcy is more intrigued than ever: “He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger” (Austen 35). In heightening Darcy’s interest in Elizabeth, Austen also heightens the potential for a match between the two.
Darcy’s final dance proposal takes place during the ball at Netherfield, a social function that serves as a nexus between the “dance invitation motif…[and the] relationships and issues developed in the first section of the novel” (Monaghan 69). This time, Darcy is not cajoled or accosted; neither is he taking advantage of a moment. Elizabeth is conversing with Charlotte Lucas, when Darcy takes her by surprise with an abrupt invitation to dance. She is so startled that she accepts his proposal without a second thought; whereupon he immediately walks away. In this instance, Austen uses an element of surprise to crack Elizabeth’s seemingly impervious veneer. Darcy’s decisive manuever, untainted by concerns about Elizabeth’s inferiority, leaves Elizabeth rattled; she is unsure of the appropriate response. Dancing with Darcy, Elizabeth is “amazed at the dignity to which she was arrived in being allowed to stand opposite to Mr. Darcy, and reading in her neighbours’ looks their equal amazement in beholding it” (Austen 61). The dignity of her standing with Darcy sharply contrasts with her embarrassment of dancing with Collins. Ironically, Austen first uses Darcy to reveal Elizabeth’s principal flaw, and vice versa, ultimately maneuvering Elizabeth and Darcy each into enabling the other’s catharsis. Darcy overcomes his prejudice, at least in his heart, when he asks Elizabeth to dance on his own volition. Elizabeth’s pride is broken by dancing with Collins, and she accepts Darcy’s proposal to dance without thinking, an act that, in actuality, restores her pride because Darcy embodies the “catch of the day” for their community.
From this point on in the novel, Elizabeth and Darcy have a relationship, of sorts. They have gone through trials and tribulations until, once and for all, Elizabeth overcomes her pride and Darcy overcomes his prejudice. Unfortunately for the couple, by the end of this last dance, which has been at least somewhat mutually agreeable, they part silent and uneasy over the feelings that the experience evokes. According to the narrative: “She said no more, and they went down the other dance and parted in silence; on each side dissatisfied, though not to an equal degree, for in Darcy’s breast there was a tolerable powerful feeling towards her, which soon procured her pardon, and directed all his anger against another” (Austen 64). Although there is no immediate resolution between Darcy and Elizabeth, the quasi-approach-rejection pattern that the two follow culminates in Elizabeth’s acceptance of Darcy’s advance, which allows for the possibility of a marital match.
Compared with Darcy and Elizabeth, Bingley and Jane are social participants who follow societal codes to the letter, foreshadowing their imminent pairing. David Monaghan describes Bingley and Jane’s relationship as one of approach-acceptance, which is in direct contrast to the approach-rejection pattern of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship (80). Both Jane and Bingley exhibit even, good natures, which mark them as a potential match—a situation which neither finds disagreeable.
Following their initial meeting at the Longs’ ball, Jane describes Bingley to Elizabeth: “He is just what a young man ought to be, … , sensible, good humoured, lively; and I never saw such happy manners!—so much ease, with such perfect breeding!” (Austen 10). Bingley is a little too “good humoured” and at ease; according to the social code, an overeagerness to dance is as much a fault as a disinclination to dance. Despite this covert weakness, for the most part, Bingley’s behavior is much admired at the Longs’s ball: “He was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that the ball closed so early, and talked of giving one himself at Netherfield. Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves” (Austen 8).
In the same vein of approval, Bingley remarks to his close friend Darcy that “… as to Miss Bennet, he could not conceive an angel more beautiful” (Austen 12). Bingley’s sisters proclaim their admiration of Jane, and “pronounced her to be a sweet girl, and one whom they should not object to know more of. Miss Bennet was therefore established as a sweet girl, and their brother felt authorised by such commendation to think of her as he chose” (Austen 12). Although Jane’s angelic behavior fits the “Angel of the House” stereotype, she too has a weakness overlooked by most members of society; it is no coincidence that Darcy discerns that weakness: “[Jane] he acknowledged to be pretty, but she smiled too much” (Austen 12). And, despite, or perhaps as a result of, their too-agreeable natures, Jane and Bingley are a perfect match.
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, dance underscores the theme of courtship and marriage. Only after forming initial matches on the dance floor can Elizabeth and Darcy and Jane and Bingley progress to the next stage—courtship—which may then culminate in marriage. Thus, dance fulfills its primary function in the novel, as it did in Austen’s society.
In Austen’s England, marriage was necessary and a good match was considered essential, yet occasions to meet eligible men and women were limited. Assemblies and balls provided an arena for introductions, thereby facilitating the opportunity for courtships to be pursued. The decorum of the participants at a dance determined their worth as individuals. This display of individual worth was evaluated not only by potential partners, but also by the spectators in the room, which included family and neighbors, wallflowers, and married couples. Once an individual was acknowledged a suitable dance partner by a member of the opposite sex, that identification carried over into the individual’s suitability as a marital partner. The relationships of Jane and Bingley and Elizabeth and Darcy exemplify the formula of first establishing themselves as suitable dance partners, paving the way for courtship, and triumphing in marriage.
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