Berate Jane Austen all you want for producing the 19th-century version of TMZ, but the woman knew a thing or two about relationships. While we no longer attend balls or call on relatives to see if our cousins are still single (incest is kind of a touchy subject now), the basic nature of courtship hasn’t changed all that much.
In fact, if you get past Elizabeth’s snarky commentary and Lydia’s annoying frivolity, you’ll find that Pride and Prejudice presents a truth universally acknowledged: Playing hard to get works.
Think about it: We may hate playing games, but we still play them. It’s all in the timing—who double texted, who sent the last Snapchat. No one wants to be too eager, and with good reason. How quickly do you lose interest when a cute guy uses Tinder to give you his life story before you’ve even met? Or when someone is too flirty, too jealous, even though you’re not dating? We get bored, then annoyed, then just tired.
See: Darcy and Caroline.
She’s gorgeous, she’s wealthy, and she’s available. But she’s also too available, and Darcy just isn’t interested. Maybe we can just chalk it up to her being a shitty person. But even considering Darcy’s inflated sense of self-worth, her money and her friendship should be reason enough for Darcy to like her.
Enter Elizabeth: Snarky, distant, and altogether unwilling to take Darcy’s bullshit. He thinks he hates her, but only two encounters in, he’s hooked. Elizabeth makes herself unavailable, and that’s what makes Darcy chase after her. Whether or not she intends to, Elizabeth plays hard to get.
And even today, we like that. We become suspicious when someone responds online too quickly. If they have a life, however, we want to know more. What absorbs us is the thrill of the challenge—not to mention the verbal challenge that comes with teasing. After all, teasing is to flirting as Colin Firth is to Darcy memorabilia (that is to say, one and the same, most of the time).
That being said, the game must eventually end. By the time Elizabeth learns of Darcy’s involvement in getting her sister’s irresponsible ass home, she no longer berates his pride, but instead sincerely praises him. The literary critic D.A. Miller argues that Elizabeth actually has to lose her sarcastic spunk—her style—to get married and “achieve success” in Austen’s book. Perhaps we don’t have to go so far in today’s world as to lose our independence, but we do have to make our feelings known.
It’s clear that sarcasm only takes you so far; it’s sincerity that gets the job done.
See: The Jane Bennet Effect.
This appears a couple of times in various forms throughout Austen’s novels, but the gist can be summed up as follows: Girl falls in love, but she is incapable of showing it because of her temperament. And as a result, she ends up in an emotional stalemate.
Jane is the archetypal Victorian angel. She and Bingley fall for each other almost instantly. Sadly, neither one knows it. Jane flirts like I flirt—she’s aggressively nice. She’s polite (but she’s polite to everyone). She compliments him (but she compliments everyone). Bingley—and any other potential boytoys—have no way of knowing her feelings. This, of course, leads to Darcy assuming that Bingley is more invested in their relationship than Jane is, so they break up and all sorts of heartache ensues.
We all must face uncertainty during the courtship phase of a relationship. It’s part of what makes playing hard to get so intriguing, so exciting. When that uncertainty is too high, we get scared and, like Bingley, can’t make the leap. But who isn’t terrified of rejection? So we retreat. And maybe there’s heartbreak, maybe there isn’t, but without a doubt there is missed opportunity.
Like Darcy, we thrive on challenge. Still, it’s on us to make sure that the challenges we face aren’t impossible.
Perhaps, like Charlotte Lucas says, “We are all fools in love.” But maybe we can learn something from the fools that came before us in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth plays the game meticulously, and Jane unintentionally acts aloof; ultimately, both have to take a risk and act on their feelings. Elizabeth and Jane aren’t all that different from each other, nor are they all that different from us. This game of love, whether it takes the form of hookup culture or marriage, is not new by any stretch of the imagination.
It might be worth learning a thing or two from Miss Austen. Even if you hate the players, at least you’ll be an expert at the game.
Hannah Barbosa Cesnik is a Columbia College first-year in a major crisis. She is a former associate editorial page editor for Spectator, and can be found on Twitter @HCesnik. Everything I need to know I learned in LitHum runs alternate Tuesdays.
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