115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Erotic Sight in Pride and Prejudice 

Jayda Coons, University of Arizona

This paper investigates how sight manipulates social categories within Pride and Prejudice to critique nineteenth-century empirical positivism. The eroticism and intersubjectivity of visual perception introduces problems of reading that Austen links to her skepticism of objective, knowable reality. Desire is inseparable from our reading of the world, and to disregard that reality potentially risks dangerous misinterpretations.


Charlotte Bronte famously critiques Jane Austen’s novels by remarking that while she adequately attends to the visible world, “what is the unseen seat of life and sentient target of death--this Miss Austen ignores.”  Bronte reiterates the charge of many of Austen’s detractors, who claim her fiction lacks sexual passion rippling beneath the surface of things, out of sight but inescapably a part of human existence. Bronte, and the others, are wrong about this aspect of Austen’s work, particularly concerning her most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice. The countless adaptations and pop culture fandoms the love between Elizabeth and Darcy has inspired alone attest to the novel’s persistent erotic power. More interestingly, however, is the irony of Bronte’s comment. Rather than neglect the invisible, this paper demonstrates how Austen exploits the slippage between visible and invisible realities toarticulate an erotic energy premised in sight that connects to Austen’s theories of reading.

Following Austen criticism by Felicia Bonaparte and Sarah Raff, as well as philosophies of sight and epistemology popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I argue that the distinctly erotic and intersubjective quality of visual perception in Pride and Prejudice reveals Austen’s skepticism of objective reality apart from human consciousness. As Mr. Darcy’s gaze follows Elizabeth around the parlor room, it intensifies, prolongs, and deepens, becoming increasingly difficult to interpret. Elizabeth misreads his gaze, setting the plot’s machinery in motion while centralizing the novel’s concern with the rift between appearances and reality. This gaze, Austen shows, is reversible and multiplicitous. The surplus of visual content works to upend traditional power hierarchies, as Elizabeth’s gaze invades and unravels the cool sense of masculine superiority Darcy performs within social spaces. Around Elizabeth, Darcy loses control over his privileged position. The language of shame, mortification, and capture often attaches to Darcy’s interiority, revealing a social power stronger than wealth. Elizabeth’s eyes represent a challenge to him that transgresses cultural propriety, unraveling economic and gendered hierarchies between them. The eroticism of their visual exchange levels Darcy,exposing an invisible social reality that puts pressure on traditional readings of the contractual and economic marriage. Desire, Austen shows, is inseparable from our reading of the world, and to disregard that reality potentially opens a space for dangerous misinterpretation.