Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813, is one of the most celebrated novels in the English language.
The novel’s importance
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813, is one of the most celebrated novels in the English language. Austen was an exceptionally talented writer, and in this book she displays her finely-tuned sense of human nature and social interaction, as well as her gift for incisive wit and humor. Pride and Prejudice revolves around the struggles of the Bennett family, made up of five sisters of marriageable age, as they strive to find suitable matches in a society where a woman’s prospects are greatly determined by her marital status.
There are many reasons that Pride and Prejudice remains a hugely popular and widely-studied book, nearly two centuries after its initial publication. For one, it is a very entertaining read; the characters are memorable, the dialogue is thoroughly engaging, and the plot is both clever and satisfying. But it is also a work of genuine historical importance. Austen offers readers an insightful and often cutting look at social mores in early nineteenth-century England, and the ways in which women were consistently disadvantaged.
One theme that is evident throughout Pride and Prejudice is the importance of social class. The novel is set in early 19th century England when society was strictly hierarchical, and marriage and status were intimately linked. Austen often portrays characters as being preoccupied with making good marriages in order to improve their standing in society. Notably, Mrs. Bennet, the mother of the main character, Elizabeth, is obsessed with finding wealthy and well-connected husbands for her five daughters.
Another key theme in Pride and Prejudice is the conflict between appearance and reality. Many characters in the novel are quick to make judgments of others based on first impressions. For example, Elizabeth Bennet initially despises the aloof and arrogant Mr. Darcy, believing him to be an insufferable man. However, over the course of the novel, she comes to realize that he is actually quite kind and generous, and that his reservations stem from his shyness. This theme of mistaken judgments emphasizes the importance of getting to know someone for who they really are, rather than making assumptions based on superficial appearances.
Austen speaks to many social and cultural issues of late 18th and early 19th century England, making subtle commentary through the novel’s characters and events.
One of the most important issues Austen addresses is the status of women in society. At the time, women were expected to follow strict rules and conventions that frequently limited their opportunities. Marriage was often seen as one of the few acceptable paths to financial security and social standing for women. Austen frequently alludes to this in the novel, with characters like Mrs. Bennet desperately trying to marry off her daughters to successful men in order to improve their prospects.
Many other aspects of Regency England make their way into the novel as well, such as the importance of class, social etiquette, and the growing influence of the middle class. Another huge influence on the novel is the fact that, at the time it was published, England was deep into the Napoleonic wars with France. The very real prospect of a French invasion is occasionally referred to in the story, and several of the male characters have military backgrounds.
Intellectual and cultural context
In the early 19th century, when Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, one of the predominant intellectual movements was Romanticism, which valued emotion and intuition over the rationality that had defined the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Therefore, it is not surprising that Austen’s novel portrays characters with such complex emotions, and that the central love story is fraught with misunderstandings and miscommunications.
Many of the novels written around the same time as Pride and Prejudice were similarly focused on courtship, marriage, and the expectations placed on women in society. For example, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) depicts a governess who also has to navigate her feelings for a prosperous but troubled man. However, Austen’s work is generally seen as less dark and intense than the Bronte sisters’ novels, with a lighter tone and more comical moments.
Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet, the second of five sisters in a middle-class, provincial English family in the early nineteenth century. When two wealthy bachelors move to the area and begin courting some of the Bennet sisters, Mrs Bennet is overjoyed. However, both Elizabeth and the proud Mr Darcy are initially prejudiced against each other, which leads to their share of misunderstandings and conflicts. Over the course of the novel, the two of them grow to understand and appreciate one another.
At the heart of the novel is the theme of marriage—both as a social institution and as a means for individual happiness. The many courtship plots of the novel, involving all five Bennett sisters to varying degrees, allow Austen to explore different aspects of love, family, and social hierarchy.
The narrative structure of Pride and Prejudice plays a significant role in shaping the reader’s experience. Austen’s use of third person omniscient narration allows us, as readers, to move seamlessly between various characters and settings.
Austen famously uses a narrative style called ‘free indirect discourse’. This is where a third person narrator describes a character’s emotions in great detail, as if they were suddenly inside their head. The effect of this is that we are both external and internal observers – the novel takes a wide-angle view of multiple characters, while also delving into their innermost, private thoughts. Austen is considered the master of free indirect discourse.
Additionally, the chronological order in which the story is told gives the reader a sense of forward momentum, as we witness events unfold one by one. Austen builds the story this way to create suspense and anticipation as we follow the protagonists through a series of conflicts, misunderstandings, and moments of growth.
One character who plays a vital role in Pride and Prejudice is Elizabeth Bennet, the novel’s protagonist. Intelligent, witty, and independent, she stands out amongst her four sisters as the most outspoken and unapologetic. It is Elizabeth’s wit and sense of humor that make her interactions with Mr. Darcy – a proud and haughty man – so entertaining. Elizabeth’s character helps ground the novel in realism, and her development as she navigates her feelings for Mr. Darcy and challenges social expectations is core to the story.
Another important character is Mr. Collins, an absurd clergyman who is both pompous and obsequious. Mr. Collins brings a lot of humor to the novel, as Austen often satirizes his airs and pretensions. As the cousin and heir to the Bennet estate, Mr. Collins also plays a key role in the dynamics of the family, as his potential marriage to one of the Bennet sisters could secure their financial future.
Jane Austen employs a great deal of wit and irony throughout Pride and Prejudice. This is especially evident in her portrayal of the larger-than-life Mr. Collins, whose pomposity is regularly undercut by the author’s quips. By using this humor, Austen is able to make her critiques of the social expectations and strictures of her day all the more incisive.
Austen also makes use of the free indirect discourse technique, which allows her to present events from a character’s perspective while still retaining her own narrative voice. By doing this, Austen is able to reveal character motivations without explicitly spelling them out, encouraging readers to form their own interpretations.
She doesn’t need to say ‘Elizabeth felt angry at Mr Darcy’. Instead she can say ‘how rude Mr Bennett was being! Elizabeth could not abide it’ – and we as the reader are aware that this is Elizabeth’s view of Mr Darcy. It is left to us as readers to figure out whether he is indeed being rude (hint: things aren’t what they seem!). This technique also allows for subtle social commentary, as it highlights the gaps between what characters say and what they really feel.
Austen uses symbolism in many ways throughout her novel, frequently as a means of making complex ideas and emotions workable in the story. Consider, for example, the importance of the ball in the novel, which is often so central to the development of both character and plot. As an intricate social ritual, it provides a scene through which Austen can symbolize a whole host of social behaviors and dynamics, in a world where overt displays of emotion were rare and frowned upon.
In addition, symbolic relationships between characters can be found throughout the novel. Take, for instance, the contrasts that are constantly drawn between Lizzie and her sister Jane, who each embody different ways of being in the world. Lizzie, with her wit and intellectual curiosity, provides a sharp contrast to Jane’s more traditionally feminine and passive demeanor. These juxtapositions help Austen to hold in relief two different modes of being, and to analyze their relative strengths and weaknesses.
Pride and Prejudice has fascinated and beguiled readers for centuries. Part of Austen’s genius is the ambivalence of her prose. She always deliberately creates shades of grey – leaving it open for readers to make their own interpretations.
In recent decades, many have focused on the gendered aspects of the plot. The famous opening line says that: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Modern readers have often viewed this both as a sign of the treatment of women as material property in Austen’s era, as well as a subtle mockery of such a state of affairs. The idea that this fact is a ‘truth universally acknowledged’ is regularly undermined by Austen in the novel.
It is difficult to overstate the impact that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has had on literature and culture since its publication in 1813. Regarded as a classic of Western literature, the novel has, in some ways, defined the genre of the romantic novel. The witty, engaging narrative and memorable characters captivated early readers and the novel has remained popular for over two hundred years.
The influence of Pride and Prejudice on subsequent novels cannot be understated either. Its lasting popularity has shown generations of novelists the potential of pairing clever, often ironic prose with a compelling love story. Just about every rom-com ever produced owes something to this!
Just as importantly, Austen’s work demonstrates that a novel with a seemingly light and entertaining subject matter can, in fact, contain astute social commentary and insights into the human experience. Pride and Prejudice stands as one of the pillars of English literature, and its influence on culture and other works of literature is evident to this day.