In his lecture “Jane Austen, Sociologist” to honor the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice Wednesday night, James Thompson, a visiting professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argued Jane Austen is the first sociologist because the focus is on human interaction and conversation in her novels.
“As a careful observer and recorder of association of small group interaction and the minutia of conversation, I am going to argue that Austen is less a moralist than the first sociologist,” Thompson, a professor of English, said.
Thompson explained the importance of dialogue and face-to-face conversation in Austen’s novels using Pride and Prejudice, since the first half of the novel is mostly dialogue.
He said Austen's work had similar observations as Erving Goffman, a 20th century sociologist. Both Austen and Goffman emphasize the importance of first impressions. Thompson said Austen and Goffman both see a first impression as “a crucial test case of social form.” He explained that a first impression is a measure of how well the participants of a conversation understand the “rules” of social interaction.
“Jane Austen and Erving Goffman are simply the most acute observers and analysts of the minutia of conversation so far,” Thompson said.
He went on to explain Goffman’s assertion that “selves” are a product of interaction, meaning that personalities, or other’s understandings of personalities, are a product of group gatherings and social interactions. Thompson said Goffman concluded that a person is like a performer and their performance affects other’s perceptions of them. He used Darcy and Wickham from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as an example of this.
“We can see here the drama of Darcy and Wickham,” Thompson said. “One who is what he claims to be, but a poor and negligent performer – a terrible actor we might say – and the other isn’t what he claims to be but is a superior performer.”
Thompson said social gatherings are “little societies.” He said Austen’s characters Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy both know what the “rules” of society are, but they both refuse to follow them. He said both retain their horrible first impressions of each other for the first part of the novel, which peaks when Darcy proposes to Elizabeth and they end up livid and screaming at each other. Thompson said this challenges the romantic image that people have of Austen’s novels.
“We think of Austen as these novels about niceness, about drinking tea with their pinky out and everyone was well-behaved,” he said. “As if there were a time when people, children and congressmen were well-behaved and didn’t yell at each other.”
Thompson ended his lecture with a focus on the introspective aspect of the second half of Pride and Prejudice and Goffman’s position on apologies.
He said Goffman describes apologies as a social construct that serve two purposes. They soothe the offended and offer redemption to the offender. Thompson said this concept of apologies is present in the second half of Pride and Prejudice because it’s a more introspective look at Elizabeth rethinking her ways and seeking redemption for her behavior towards Darcy.
He concluded that Jane Austen is, in her own way, an early microsociologist.
Thompson’s lecture was a part of the English department’s Colloquium in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth Century British Literature. Thompson was invited to speak by Nicholas Allen, an English professor and the director of the Willson Center. Allen introduced Thompson and said he invited him to speak because Thompson hired Allen at UNC Chapel Hill.
Chloe Wigston-Smith, an assistant English professor at UGA and one of the coordinators of the colloquium, said the lecture was a good way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice and she was glad the lecture broke the “nice” stereotype that people have of Jane Austen’s work.
“I thought it was really fascinating,” Wigston-Smith said. “I think that for a long time, not only in scholarship, but also just within the popular reception of Austen’s works, that readers sort of saw her as someone who talked about nice social relations or niceties. I think that there’s a lot more at stake in her novels and a lot more complexity that I think has gotten overlooked in our sort of collective desire to be swept up into the romance of her stories."