The Value of Prejudice, a Guest Post from Wendy Jones

The Value of Prejudice, a Guest Post from Wendy Jones

Prejudice is generally viewed today as a negative trait Through its association with racism, it has acquired a particularly evil resonance in the U. S.; it’s hard to see anything redeeming here. But it wasn’t that simple in Jane Austen’s time. The key words in her most famous book were morally ambidextrous. Pride could mean either snobbishness or a healthy sense self esteem. Recall Elizabeth’s quip to Charlotte in response to her friend’s defense of Darcy’s right to feel proud: “I could easily forgive his pride [snobbishness], if he had not mortified mine. [self-esteem]” Elizabeth uses pride to mean a healthy sense of self-esteem in reference to herself, and an injurious sense of superiority with reference to Darcy.

Prejudice had similarly good and bad meanings. It could indicate “a preconceived opinion not based on reason or actual experience; bias, partiality” (this and all definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary), our definition of the word. But in Austen’s day, another definition, now obsolete, was in current usage: Prejudice: “A prior judgment; esp. a judgment formed hastily or before due consideration. Hasty judgments are not necessarily poor judgments; in fact, they often turn out to be more accurate and valuable than those formed after “due consideration.” Austen’s novels repeatedly demonstrate this positive aspect of prejudice.

In Pride and Prejudice, the positive aspects of prejudice pertain to Elizabeth’s feelings about Darcy, and this is true despite her self-judgment as having been guilty of the bad kind of prejudice. At this famous couple’s first encounter at the Meryton ball, Darcy disparages Elizabeth within her hearing by telling Bingley that she is “tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me [to ask her to dance].” After that incident, Elizabeth begins to see Darcy through a negative lens. She is all to ready to believe that handsome Wickham’s lies and slander, while also to notice many important things about him, especially that he is falling in love with her.

Fast forward to the first marriage proposal, when Darcy corrects Elizabeth’s false conclusions about both himself and Wickham. Elizabeth is mortified when she realizes that she has had no concrete evidence to believe that Darcy is a villain (as Wickham had represented him) and no concrete evidence to suppose that Wickham is good. Just as she condemned Darcy because he had insulted her, she had a favorable opinion of Wickham because “his countenance, voice, and manner, had established him at once in the possession of every virtue,” and he appeared to like her. She condemns her poor judgement: “Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned.” Elizabeth condemns herself for bad prejudice.

But Elizabeth is far too hard on herself because her hasty judgment—her prejudice—was actually correct in many ways. Darcy did behave badly, and the character flaws Elizabeth detected were actually true of him. Darcy himself admits this after his second proposal has been accepted, telling Elizabeth that her assessment of his character was “totally void of reproach” and that he had been “spoilt” and “encouraged” by his parents “to think meanly of the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own, to care for none beyond my own family circle”—in other words, to be prejudiced in the bad sense of the word. Elizabeth ’s prejudice (in the good sense) is vindicated.

The mind-brain sciences in our own day have confirmed the value of “prejudice” in the sense of hasty judgments. Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink and Gut Feelings by Gerd Gigerenzer contradicted received wisdom that our good judgment relies on rational, step-by-step, consideration, arguing instead that our best judgments and decisions more often rely on immediate, subliminal, thinking.  In fact, conscious thought often interferes without making good judgments. Think of the old advice, go with your first choice on a multiple choice test, or how you often solve a problem when you’re not trying to do so. Lois Isenman, explains that the subconsciously integrate complicated information to that determines what we do or thing, but this happens at lightning speed, below the threshold of conscious thought.

A “prejudice” in the good, archaic sense of the word, is a “first impression,” and as you might know, the original title of Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions. “Impression” is a word from whose first definition is material rather than psychological. Here’s the OED again: Impression: “The action involved in the pressure of one thing upon or into the surface of the other.” One quality of a first impression, whether in engraving or in the mind-brain, is that it has to be changed if the “image” (or thought, feeling, opinion, etc.) is going change. We often do revise our “first impressions, because they can be wrong. Elizabeth got it right with respect to Darcy but wrong regarding Wickham.

And we revise our first impressions when situations change, or we receive new information. Both happen with regard to Darcy: Elizabeth learns more about him, that he has good as well as bad qualities, and he also becomes a better man. Even so, first impressions can be immensely valuable, which is to say that our prejudices—in the good sense—are crucial to well being. Think of what life with an unreformed Darcy would have been like for Elizabeth.  Think of what it would have been like to be married to a man who thought he’d done you an immense favor by condescending to make you his wife, who thought your family was what we would call “trailer trash,” and who expected you to honor his sense of self-importance and superiority. Elizabeth’s first impressions saved her from this fate. Austen’s most famous novel shows that we depend on first impressions, on prejudices, to keep us safe and to help us make choices that lead to happy endings. 

Meet Wendy Jones: 

Wendy Jones is a practicing psychotherapist and former English professor known for her scholarly work on the connection between literature and the mind-brain sciences. Her work has appeared in English Literary History, the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the recent collection Jane Austen and Sciences of the Mind, and other venues.  She is the author of Consensual Fictions: Women, Liberalism, and the English novel, which examines Austen and other authors in the context of the history of marriage. Her recent book, for general readers, Jane on the Brain: Exploring the Science of Social Intelligence with Jane Austen, was published in December. 

From Publisher’s Weekly,

“Being a Jane Austen fanatic isn’t required for appreciating this fascinating book; Jones, a psychotherapist and former English professor, will win over the initially unconverted by the book’s end. Readers will find this book well worth the generous investment of time required and finish it better informed about both the science behind human behavior and the artistry behind Austen’s work.” Publishers Weekly

From Booklist:

In a fascinating mash-up of literary analysis and neuroscience, psychotherapist and former English professor Jones attributes Jane Austen’s everlasting appeal to her ability to empathize. With deep research and convincing arguments, Jones cites numerous examples of how Austen understood the brain even before science could explain its inner workings. Jones filters various psychological theories—from the philosophy of Austen’s near contemporary, David Hume, to Antonio Damasio’s experiments about decision making—through characters readers already know, love, and analyze. . . .  Highly recommended for Austenites and pop-psychology fans, as both will find plenty of original, acute concepts to pore over.

Book Blurb: 

An Austen scholar and therapist reveals Jane Austen’s intuitive ability to imbue her characters with hallmarks of social intelligence—and how these beloved works of literature can further illuminate the mind-brain connection.Why is Jane Austen so phenomenally popular? Why do we read Pride and Prejudice again and again? Why do we delight in Emma’s mischievous schemes? Why do we care that Anne Elliot of Persuasion suffers?
We care because it is our biological destiny to be interested in people and their stories—the human brain is a social brain. And Austen’s characters are so believable, that for many of us, they are not just imaginary beings, but friends whom we know and love. And thanks to Austen’s ability to capture the breadth and depth of human psychology so thoroughly, we feel that she empathizes with us, her readers.
Humans have a profound need for empathy, to know that we are not alone with our joys and sorrows. And then there is attachment, denial, narcissism, and of course, love, to name a few. We see ourselves and others reflected in Austen’s work.
Social intelligence is one of the most highly developed human traits when compared with other animals How did is evolve? Why is it so valuable? Wendy Jones explores the many facets of social intelligence and juxtaposes them with the Austen cannon.
Brilliantly original and insightful, this fusion of psychology, neuroscience, and literature provides a heightened understanding of one of our most beloved cultural institutions—and our own minds.

Link to Publisher’s Page with Links to Purchasing (Amazon, B&N).

Also, here’s the link to purchasing on Amazon:

Link for B&N:

14 Responses to The Value of Prejudice, a Guest Post from Wendy Jones

  1. Wendy has dissected our two favorite words brilliantly! In the process, she has also highlighted something which has been a favorite theme of mine…that our language (English, in this case) is full of color which makes well-composed writing so interesting. I tend to refer to it as temperature with some words being hotter (or cooler) than others…see “angry” versus “Pissed.” I can see Wendy leaning over her copy of the OED digging around the remarkable nuances of the tongue!

    • Don, Yes, English is full of nuances, and some have vanished in the 200 years between us and Austen. Fortunately, her stories capture those nuances. We would know that Elizabeth wasn’t entirely wrong even if we didn’t know the old meaning of “prejudice.”

  2. Man… this is why Austen is STILL so popular… she was a genius of human personalities. You have broken her work down into delightful tidbits that I can understand. Lawd… I thought I just enjoyed Austen for the story. Looks like there is a deeper meaning to my reading pleasure. Well, I don’t care… I still like it … and now… I can see that my social brain was simply enjoying the company of my favorite characters. I still cringe when Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter and we find out that Wickham is so bad. I try to read P&P every year and still love it. I follow it or even companion read it with Regina Jeffers’ books that go with it. She was my first introduction to JAFF. Yeah, it is about time I do that re-read again. Thanks for this delightful post. It was so informative.

    • J. W. Garrett, You didn’t just enjoy Austen for the story even if you thought you did. The wonderful thing about stories is that they embed all those other deeper meanings in a way that other modes, such as observations, fail to do. Keep reading for the plot and everything else will follow along!

  3. Thank you for being our guest today, Wendy. First impressions are the hardest to change, for me; therefore, I attempt to without my opinions until I have encountered the person several times. For example, I attempted to learn more of one of my physicians before I looked for another doctor. My first impression was his “bedside manner” was lacking. Later, I decided he was simply having a bad day on the day we met. Yet, I have been with him for fifteen years now, and I often recommend him to others.

    • You’re welcome Regina! It has been a pleasure being your guest.
      Yes, first impressions often need revision and it’s a good idea to withhold judgment. But your first impression of your doctor was accurate. He was having a bad day, and if he had continued to act as he did, you would have been right in switching doctors. Elizabeth solidifies that first impression without modifying it, but many elements of it turned out to be spot on.

Comments are precious!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.