Pride and Prejudice was written for a literate public familiar with comedy and contemporary didactic and romantic fiction. Today, the novel is read as a classic work of fiction and an ageless tale of the evolution and growth of personal attachment and personality. The plot, the theme, the artistic execution, the humor, and the underlying moral comment continue to appeal to young people and adults.
In assessing this novel, critics have persisted in noting the artistic achievement of the work despite its limited scope. This scope—the trials associated with marriage, the social initiation into adulthood in this acquisitive culture—Jane Austen herself recognized as her “two inches of ivory.” Within that scope, the work describes the uniting of both the fortunes and the feelings of two passionate people within such a tightly constructed comic plot that virtually every detail focuses on the artistic conclusion.
The novel has a plot and subplot, both of which end in marriage. The progression of these two plots—one complicated, the other simple—presents an assessment of moral character while it moves toward resolution. Elizabeth and Darcy are strong individuals whose paths present opportunities to grow emotionally. They contrast with an instructive array of characters and behaviors: the good but modest Jane and Bingley, who do not change; the more complex Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Bennet, who choose the simple life by giving in or giving up; and the simple fools Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins, Wickham, and Lydia, who have only superficial understanding and strive to manipulate others to their own ends.
Austen’s careful selection of events, economic descriptions, and use of irony fortify each detail with artistic purpose. The title suggests the complicated, ironic reversals that will take place. Elizabeth’s prejudice is based on pride in herself and her judgment; Darcy’s pride is based on social prejudice. Events serve several purposes simultaneously. The arrival of Mr. Collins explains the extreme need of the Bennet sisters to marry well. It also presents a pompous fool against whom readers can measure other characters’ behaviors and shows Elizabeth’s integrity of feeling in her refusal to succumb to external pressures. On the other hand, the description of Pemberly is austere and vague, employing general adjectives such as “vast,” “grand,” and “natural.” What is important about Darcy’s estate is that it reflects positively his taste and style, gives him an opportunity to change his impression of Elizabeth’s family connections, and gives Elizabeth an opportunity to change her impression of him. The two appearances of Lady Catherine are functional. First, she presents a portrait of an ill-mannered and pompous aristocrat, provides for the renewed acquaintance of Darcy and Elizabeth, and facilitates Elizabeth’s new insights into Darcy’s character; then, she inadvertently reveals to Darcy Elizabeth’s changed feelings. Ironic statement and observation contribute to meaning by allowing for both what is said and what is implied. For example, the opening assertion, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” implies the obverse as well: that a single woman lacking a fortune is in need of a husband.
While the behaviors of all the characters contribute to the moral comment of the novel and the culmination of the plot, they also present a source of comedy. The work satirizes human behavior, especially that of the pompous and self-important. The final marriages are both artistically and morally satisfying. The right people get together and, most important, Elizabeth and Darcy have grown. By recognizing and altering their own pride and prejudices, they have earned mutual respect and love.