Monday, January 06, 2014

She read and re-read with the closest attention

In chapter 36 of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet ponders the letter she receives from Mr. Darcy after she rejected his marriage proposal. After defending his actions in ending Bingley's courtship of Elizabeth's sister Jane, Mr. Darcy's letter tells her the full story of himself and Mr. Wickham in response to remarks of Elizabeth's (which had been based on Wickham's version of the story to her). Despite her initial rejection of Darcy's claims, Elizabeth finds it impossible not to reread the letter, especially "all that related to Wickham"; she makes herself "examine the meaning of every sentence." Her re-reading shows her that, until the death of Darcy's father, "each recital confirmed the other," but the two men's stories about the late Mr. Darcy's will are so different that one of the two must be lying: "it was impossible not to feel that there was gross duplicity on one side or the other." If she first "flattered herself that her wishes did not err," her reading and re-reading "with the closest attention" is an attempt to eliminate her own prejudices from her interpretation of the letter, and she is finally "forced ... to hesitate": 

She put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality--deliberated on the probability of each statement--but with little success. On both sides it was only assertion. Again she read on; but every line proved more clearly that the affair, which she had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent as to render Mr. Darcy's conduct in it less than infamous, was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole.

With two statements that are "only assertion," Elizabeth eventually finds herself having to concede that the story she would have liked to reject—Wickham infamous, Darcy blameless—is actually quite possible. Here, then, the ideal of interpretation (of Darcy's letter, and not of the two contradictory versions of events) is a process of re-reading that aims to eliminate the interpreter's desire. The interpreter does not look for confirmation of her first reading but instead calls that reading into question, as a means of testing it. And she does so by what amounts to close reading—the closest possible reading—of every detail of Darcy's letter. At least in this passage, a close re-reading is the privileged mode of interpretation.

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