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In chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Mr. Darcy says,

"[T]here is a meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable."

What does Mr. Darcy mean by this?

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  • Related (but not well answered) question on another site: What did Jane Austen mean by “employ for captivation”?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 8 '20 at 7:06
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    Cunning is an interesting word that has drifted in connotation from neutral to negative back to positive. In Austen's era, it was considered bad (at least for respectable people).
    – Xerxes
    Dec 8 '20 at 15:07
  • Where is your own research, Rash M? At least, what is your idea of the meaning of "cunning"? Dec 9 '20 at 23:32
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In context, Mr. Darcy is replying to Miss Bingley, who has just accused Elizabeth Bennet of employing a “very mean art”:

“Elizabeth Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her, “is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art.”

Jane Austen (1813). Pride and Prejudice, chapter 8. Project Gutenberg.

By this “very mean art”, Miss Bingley means Elizabeth’s humorous self-deprecation, which she interprets as a device for attracting the attention of men. So when Mr Darcy replies to her saying

“there is a meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation”

he intends this as a rebuke to Miss Bingley: that is, he can tell that she also has been employing arts to captivate men, and one of those arts is the deprecation of rivals like Elizabeth Bennet, but this will not work on him. After this rebuke is delivered, the narrator says:

Miss Bingley was not so entirely satisfied with this reply as to continue the subject.

This is humorous understatement (litotes): Miss Bingley is in fact quite upset, as she has been hoping to win Mr. Darcy for herself.

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    This could be improved by explaining the second part of Mr. Darcy's statement, "Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable." Dec 8 '20 at 18:51
  • @forgivenson: See the other answer. Dec 8 '20 at 18:59
  • Re: "Elizabeth’s humorous self-deprecation": Not self-deprecation, but rather, deprecation of women in general. ("Their own [sex]" means "ladies", or perhaps specifically "other ladies".)
    – ruakh
    Dec 9 '20 at 5:33
  • @ruakh the remark is surely less self-deprecation, or deprecation of women general than it is a barb aimed at Darcy's unrealistic expectations.
    – Jontia
    Dec 9 '20 at 11:07
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    @Jontia: Yes, good point; but regardless, Miss Bingley is characterizing it as deprecation of women.
    – ruakh
    Dec 9 '20 at 19:27
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Mr Darcy means that women sometimes use tactics to attract men. He says that such tactics show a certain cunning on the part of the women using them. He thinks that anything that uses cunning is worthy of contempt; cunning is thought of as sly and underhand. Meanness doesn't mean spite, as it does today. It means something small and unworthy. So Mr Darcy is saying that the tactics women use to attract or entice men should be criticized, because they rely on cunning and are therefore contemptible.

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    Isn't it rather that all of those arts are mean, but those arts who rely on cunning are also contemptible? Dec 8 '20 at 13:46

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