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The topic of happiness is something that I would like to compare and contrast between the two novels Pride and Prejudice and The Virgin Suicides. In this essay, I would like to discuss the similar and different ways in which the different characters interact with the notion of happiness.
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In Pride and Prejudice, happiness for a woman is only achievable through marriage. As marriage was seen as the single greatest achievement that a woman in the Pride and Prejudice society can obtain, happiness therefore relates to whether a woman is happy or unhappy with her marriage. Throughout the novel, Austen describes the various forms and types of marriages as well as the reasoning behind each of the different marriages. The marriage between Jane and Charles Bingley, as well as between Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy is seen to be a marriage of true love. However, Lydia marriage to Wickham can be reasoned as being for sensual pleasure. Lastly, the reason for the marriage between Collins and Charlotte Lucas turns out to be economical and financial.
As marriage was seen to be the greatest achievement that women in society can achieve, Pride and Prejudice showed the ultimate form of happiness through the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy. However only by eluding and overcoming numerous obstacles, challenges, and contemplation were the two finally able to find happiness in their love. The beginning of their love started with Elizabeth’s pride causing her to misjudge Darcy’s character and personality, and Darcy’s prejudice to look down upon Elizabeth’s social standing. In the end, happiness was achieved primarily through a mutual recognition of each other’s fallacy. As Elizabeth declined Darcy’s first offer of marriage, he eventually realized that “[he] have been a selfish being all [his] lifeâ€¦[and] how insufficient were all [his] pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased” (Austen, p. 573). As for Elizabeth, when she realized that she was wrong in judging Darcy’s character and personality, she was mentally disturbed because she thought highly of her ability to judge others’ characters. Once she was able to get past through her pride and accepted her misjudgement of Darcy’s character, she was then able to develop feelings towards him and eventually towards a happy marriage. In their eventual recognition of their wrong assessment of character and personality, both Darcy and Elizabeth gained the chance for true happiness.
However, it might not be the case that Elizabeth’s love for Darcy was purely emotional. On her visit to Pemberley, Elizabeth was mesmerized by his beautiful estate at Pemberley, and she later noted that was when her feelings gradually changed. “It has been coming on so gradually that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberly” (Austen, pg. 580). Therefore, the attachment of financial prospect might also be important in finding true happiness in marriage.
On the other end of the happy-marriage spectrum, Lydia was one of the unhappy character in the novel. Her marriage with Wickham turned out to be an unhappy and non-sensual marriage, opposite to what Lydia had hoped for. However, even though her fallen marriage brought shame to the Bennetts, she was unaware of her faults; she saw no problem with asking her relatives for money. Her lack of self-awareness was the obstacles that prevented her from achieving happiness; although she claimed to love Wickham, he unfortunately did not feel the same way. As Elizabeth noted, “Wickham’s affection for Lydia … not equal to Lydia’s for him” (Austen, p. 489). Thus, to achieve lasting true happiness, characters in Pride and Prejudice needed to learn to attune their inclinations while exercising good judgement and common sense.
Charlotte Lucas stands in the middle of the happy-marriage spectrum, neither being in love with Mr. Collins nor being spiteful of him. In the case of the marriage between Charlotte and Collins, Austen has shown that people can be happy too in a loveless marriage. In the novel, Charlotte and Collins never showed much affection towards one another, nor were they intimate and conversive. At first, Mr. Collins wanted to marry Elizabeth, or just any of the Bennett girls, for the prospect of inheriting the Bennetts’ property. He had no sense of self-awareness and this was made clear when Elizabeth rejected his offer of marriage. Being so confident on himself, he was so sure that Elizabeth would readily agreed to his marriage proposal that he was incapable of pondering the reason that Elizabeth rejected him for. He even went so far as to claim that “[he] know[s] it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit” (Austen, p. 171). However, Charlotte simply chose to marry someone to take care of her and to provide her with the financial stability. In the novel, she claimed that “[she] ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’ character, connections, and situation in life, [she is] convinced that [her] chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state” (Austen, pp.198-199). By knowing what she wanted in a marriage and believing that “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (Austen, p. 32), Charlotte was thus able to feel happy about her marriage to Collins.
Throughout the novel, Austen message about true happiness is that it originates not solely from financial security or passion and sensual pleasure, but rather from an honest realization of each other’s mistakes, exemplified in Elizabeth and Darcy’s eventual recognition and understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknessess.
In The Virgin Suicides, the community’s obsession with happiness was first highlighted by Mrs. Karafilis, stating her confusion that she “could never understand … why everyone pretended to be happy all the time” (Eugenides, p. 169). Mrs. Karafilis saw the community as being under the facade of of happiness, characterizing the community’s obsession as being happy regardless of the social situation that the character finds himself surroundeded in. The culmination of her confusion was when Mr. Lisbon was seen by her to be stringing Christmas lights soon after Cecilia’s suicide, further commenting that “we Greeks are moody people … putting up Christmas lights after your own daughter does it – that makes no sense” (Eugenides, p. 169). In lights to the notion of happiness in The Virgin Suicides, Mr. Lisbon’s action of stringing up Christmas lights was not a matter of self-deception, of trying to reassure himself that everything was alright; but rather Mr. Lisbon saw it as his perceived duty to the neighborhood to do so. Therefore, rather than stringing up the Christmas lights to lighten up the mood of his family’s misery, Mr. Lisbon instead did so just because social convention dictates that he should do so for the benefit of the whole neighborhood, and to its communal happiness.
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Rather than happiness being an indication of a personal feeling, the happiness exemplified in the Virgin Suicicdes seems to be a matter of communal happiness, or a type of social condition that everybody in the community have to continuously reaffirms to for the benefit of others rather than as an indication of personal feeling. Moreoever, several other incidents throughout the novel supported Mrs. Karafilis theory of happiness. First, the school held a Day of Grieving to commemorate Cecilia’s death, which they regarded as a success even though the Lisbon sisters chose to wait out the ceremoney by hiding in the bathroom. Second, soon after Cecilia’s death, the neighbors gathered together to remove the fences around the Lisbons’ house, without giving a second thought to removing any of the other fences around the neighborhood. The above examples described a communial emphasis of happiness that relies on ritual and conventially accepted standards of behavior over content and meaning. In stringing up the Christmas lights, did Mr. Lisbon hoped to lift up the depressing mood or did he just do so because society conveyed that it was the standard behavior to do during Christmas? What would be the purpose of the Day of Grieving, and how successful can it turned out to be, if those who were most involved with it did not even care to attend it in the first place? And lastly, did the neighbors really cared for the well-being of the Lisbons and the community as a whole by removing the Lisbon’s fences? If so, they should have also removed all the fences around the community. Through the above examples, it is evident to say that the neighbors and the school were not in any way concern for the overall well-being of the Lisbons, but rather they did what they did (Day of Grieving / removing fence) as a way to reinforce the community’s happiness. Therefore, the Lisbons’ neighborhood community existed solely for the purpose of being there to continuously and communally affirmed each other’s happiness, as evidenced by the above examples. Ultimately, the actions that society conveyed as standardized in response to certain events takes over what is morally appropriate. In this underlying framework of pretense, the invention of enforced happiness is just another necessary mockery in dealing with life’s tragedy.
The neighborhood community’s silence following Cecilia’s death inexplicably mirrored the community’s refusal to acknowledge the fact that Mary lived through her first suicide attempt. After her return from the hospital, Mary brought forth into the community a eerie aura of certain death, and therefore the community’s refusal to acknowledge and help Mary in her last month can be seen as the manifestation of the community’s beliefs that happiness can only return to the community following her death. After Mary’s return from the hospital, the neighborhood community’s “veiled wish [was] that she would hurry up and get it over with” (Austen, p. 214). Once again, the notion of happiness in The Virgin Suicides is the forgery of communal happiness, something that the community continuously reassert their beliefs on. Therefore, as the neighbors were aware of Mary’s eventual second suicide attempt, and that they did not do anything in trying to prevent it because they believed that the tragedy must be allowed to run its entirety before the suicide curse can be lifted off. In this instance, the community’s beliefs and expectations of Mary’s eventual death suggested that Mary’s fate of death was simply a physical manifestation of the community’s fear of the suicide virus as well as their beliefs on how the curse can be lifted off.
In a further attempt to reaffirm the communal happiness, Dr. Hornicker and Ms Perl tried to rationalized the reasoning behind the girls’ suicides. Dr. Hornicker believed that their suicidal tendency was brought forth by a chemical imbalance in the body, thus making the diagnosis something treatable, curable, and an individuated event. Ms. Perl, on the other hand, wrote in her report that the girls’ suicides coincides with an astrological event, thus elevating the suicide events to the borderline of insanity and absurdity. By doing so, both Dr. Hornicker and Ms. Perl have reaffirm to the community that there is nothing to worry about, that it is a single individuated event that will not highlight any social problem within the community. By making the suicides as treatable or as a statistical outlier, the threat of the suicide virus is eventually lifted off and the community’s guilt in their helplessness towards the suicide cases more bearable. Ultimately, by confining the incident entirely to the Lisbons’ household, both Dr. Hornicker and Ms. Perl reports reassured the community’s status quo and happiness.
Throughout the novel, Eugenides has shown that the notion of happiness in The Virgin Suicides lies more towards communal happines, one that emphasize more towards the forgery of happiness through appearances and behaviors rather than individual personal happiness.
The theme of happiness can be seen from a different perspective from both novels. In Pride and Prejudice, happiness is seen as the ultimate goal in a woman’s societal life. Achieving a happy marriage is the epitome of a woman’s life accomplishment, and served as the driving force behind the different character’s actions and behaviors. In The Virgin Suicides, however, happiness is not defined as a personal feeling or accomplishment, but rather as a community’s facade of plasticized happiness. Through ritual that is ordained through social standardization, the neighborhood community achieved its happiness by following standardized convention in their everyday life. In this case, to be happy is to appear normal.
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