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[147] Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” [15]

Written at a time of political tumult, on the heels of the French and American Revolution at the turn of century, Pride and Prejudice is devoid of such politics of Austen’s era. But she has chosen to investigate, to elaborate, and to illuminate the enduring issues of social pressures and gender politics that only not are not outdated but also seems as vital and relevant as ever. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” So begins one of the finest and most cherished novels written in the English language. This famous opening line magnificently serves to satirizes the society Elizabeth Bennet lives in, a world in which personal relationships are based more often on gain than on love and respect. For when the young, well-to-do Mr. Bingley takes residence in town, the truth of that first aphoristic sentence is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families—that he is considered as the rightful property of someone or other of their daughters.

This is the world of the five Bennet sisters and their friends the Lucas, growing up in the English countryside who must find husbands if they are to make their way in the society. Mrs. Bennet hopes to secure him as a husband for her beautiful, eldest daughter, Miss Jane Bennet. The growing relationship, however, is sabotaged by the young man’s haughty friend, Mr. Darcy, who regards the match as unsuitable. When Mr Darcy in turn falls in love with the second Bennet daughter, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, his condescending offer of marriage is rejected by Elizabeth with scorn and the connection seems over. Elizabeth’s being idealistic and cynical of the milieu she lives in has rendered her prejudiced. Her discernment of Darcy leaves her without any reserve and scruple in sinking his character. The irony is that as wise and mature as she believes she is, so assured of the inconsistency of all human characters, she has courted prepossession and ignorance. She adopts first impression of Mr. Darcy, rashly decided by the community, and sharpens into a particular resentment. But she is foolish enough, almost jaded, to be taken in temporarily by a seductive scoundrel Wickham, whose state of poverty she holds Darcy responsible.

Mr. Darcy is also an irony. He learns to trust his heart and mute his arrogance. The truth is, as Austen might have intentionally delayed to reveal, is that he despises civility, deference, and officious attention. He does not go along with what society expects of a wealthy young man and is thus running low on everyone’s esteem. Some people call him proud, as the house-keeper acknowledges, but to her fancy it’s only because he does not “rattle away like other young man.” Darcy is disgusted with the women who are always speaking and looking and thinking for his approbation alone. That Elizabeth’s behavior to him is at least always bordering on the uncivil, and that she never misses the occasions for teasing and quarreling with him as often as may be actually strike him as sincerity. For most of the book, these two, one mutes the arrogance and the other resolves not to make hasty judgments, spar verbally and contentiously; as Elizabeth says, “We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with the eclat of a proverb.” Indeed they are on common ground about true and false moral values, except that the vanity of one and the pride of the other have thwarted the communication. Granted it is Elizabeth who eventually awakes from her prejudice and absurdity, Darcy has hardly undergone a transformation except for one through her prejudiced eyes, for his behavior only seems altered to her, as underneath his pride there has always lay a true and generous nature.

The assessment of human nature—so acute and unforgiving—would not be complete without the presence of minor characters who are as ridiculous and entertaining as they are ironic. The breeding of the well-breed, of which the haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who disapproves of Elizabeth and Darcy’s engagement, is a prime example, is revealed as every bit as bad as that of the low born. The judgment of the intelligent, like Mr Collins, who believes Elizabeth’s refusal of his proposal must be a female ploy, is sometimes stupid. What ensues are hysterical responses and exchanges. The absurdity and authenticity of humane nature, spawned from social and gender issues, indeed makes this novel a classic and one that will be re-visited by many.

11 Responses

  1. I’ve been looking forward to this review. It’s a wonderful assessment with some astute observations. You made an excellent point about Darcy’s noble and generous nature which, while always present, is not obvious to most of the other characters–especially Elizabeth. Austen provides us with an example of how easy it is to misread individuals who are of a quiet stamp or who habitually observe certain proprieties; people often mistake their demeanor as a token of arrogance rather than understanding that the individule, because of their nature or past experience, might prefer to be restrained or cautious in presence of strangers. Most of us are more complex than we might appear. in Pride and Prejudice, Austen, one of the most discerning observers of human nature in all of literature, has created a memorable and highly entertaining exploration of human tendencies–one that will live over the ages.

    I await your reviews of Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion.

  2. So insightful and astute of a review! I think that Austen has not fully revealed Darcy’s nature put us readers to be under the same prejudiced eyes as Elizabeth’s. We don’t know much about Darcy, who seems not very well-developed (it’s a deception until the end). The delay also is a bright device to fully illuminate the point, like Greg has commented, that individual is often so much more complicated than what the society might have judged him. I remember that his character was immediately decided at his first meeting with the Bennets and the townfolks, and that Elizabeth has gone along with them in her opinion of Darcy is rash and dangerous. How often do you misread someone who is quiet as being either introvert or arrogant?

  3. An excellent assessment of P&P. I’d just like to add that Jane Austen is also a terrific entertainer. Her books full of social commentary, they have much to say about her world and our own, but they are also good fun. She is one of the few authors who can make me laugh out loud along the way.

  4. Greg S:
    In addition to her elegant writing style, I have to complement that Jane Austen is one of the greatest social commenter. She’s a very keen observer of her times.

  5. John:
    I think the success of the novel hinges on this irony between Elizabeth and Darcy’s perspectives of life and social conventions.

  6. CB James:
    I plan to treat myself more of her, and as I peek into her world of social happenings I also expect to be laughing along with the characters! 🙂 I’ll read Sense and Sensibility next.

  7. This is one of my favorite books of all time. Thanks for the insights. It’s nice to hear what a literature professor has to say about things. I miss that. :o)

  8. […] adventures of the sisters who possess opposite mental constitution. Elinor, who in time morphs into Elizabeth Bennet—for she asserts a suspicion that human wishes are vain and unreliable, represents privacy and […]

  9. […] in the fall, my reviews on bedrock classics that are read in schools, like A Separate Peace and Pride and Prejudice, get more traffic. I might read over a hot apple cider rather than coffee as the cool air settles […]

  10. Wonderful assessment of the book! I admit that I love this book purely for the romantic in it — but you show that it is so much more.

  11. […] and beguile Scarlett. The more their dramatic interaction advances, the more it reminds me of Pride and Prejudice. Rhett Butler, who ships in goods by boat and is rumored to be estranged by his family in […]

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