Essays and Criticism
Major Themes in Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice is full of character-driven themes that revolve around the literary concept of “comedy of manners.” A comedy of manners is a literary work that deals with young lovers attempting to unite in marriage, and usually includes several incidences of witty commentary from the main characters, which can take form in terms of anything from clever flirting to open warfare, as in the case of Darcy and Elizabeth. Pride and Prejudice is mainly concerned with the pairing of several couples and the issues surrounding each of those couples. The pursuit of marriage in this novel brings the other major themes to light.
The novel’s title itself indicates one of the major themes of the novel. All of the characters in this novel (with the exception of Jane and Bingley) suffer from the sins of both pride and prejudice. This is evident in Darcy’s introduction, when the entire neighborhood is set against Darcy (and he against them):
Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien—and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance of his having ten thousand a year . . . and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance (6).
Thus Hertfordshire society looks down upon Darcy for the remainder of the novel. This introduction to Darcy also demonstrates an important point about the relationship between pride and prejudice—one leads to the other. The affront that the neighborhood has suffered by Darcy’s refusal to interact with them leads to their prejudice. Darcy, possessing pride as well, is no better, as he develops a bias against the neighborhood and the Bennett family in particular. This intolerance leads to Darcy’s interference in and prevention of Jane and Bingley’s romance. Elizabeth also suffers from both pride and prejudice, as her mortification over Darcy’s description of Elizabeth as “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt” him (7), and his proud behavior at the first party at Netherfield, as she rejects Darcy’s first proposal:
“From the very beginning, from the first moment, I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry”(145).
While Darcy and Elizabeth are alike in terms of personality and ability, and the offer of marriage would be financially and socially advantageous to Elizabeth, her hatred of Darcy, based on her impression of him, determines her decision.
Austen presents two solutions to the problems created by pride and prejudice. The first is to avoid either. Jane and Bingley exemplify this idea. Neither has any pride, and they are not easily prejudiced by the comments of others. When Jane hears of the rumors regarding Wickham, she refuses to believe any of them without proof, whether it is Wickham’s claims of Darcy’s abuse, or Wickham’s infamous...
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Good Matches in Pride and Prejudice
The primary concern of Pride and Prejudice is to determine how a young girl of some intelligence and beauty but not much money can enter into a good marriage in Regency England—a time and place in which a good marriage was determined almost entirely by the opportunity for money, status, and “connections” (networking) between families and businesses. Austen criticizes this concept of marriage as financial and social advancement, and instead contends that a good marriage consists of two people who are of similar mind and talents.
In order to understand what is at stake for all of the girls in the novel, it must first be understood that there were very few options available to the daughters of a gentleman such as Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters. Professions for “respectable” women at the time were scarce—the only viable career choice would be as a governess for young children. Since those jobs were few and far between, the most realistic (and sometimes only) option for young women of Austen’s time was marriage. This, of course, made the availability of brides to men plentiful, increasing the anxiety of parents of young girls who did not have enough money, status, or beauty to attract rich young men. Austen addresses the desperation felt by parents who needed to marry off their daughters at the very beginning of the novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (1). This spot of humor highlights the major dilemma of not only the Bennett sisters but thousands of girls in Austen’s time—the desperation of parents to marry their daughters off to the first unmarried man with money that comes along.
Austen presents several attitudes toward the problem of attaining a marriage with underwhelming money, status, and/or looks. The first character to marry in the novel is Charlotte Lucas, who demonstrates her opinion on the concept of a good match in her discussion with Elizabeth regarding Jane and Bingley:
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation, and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life” (16).
Charlotte is advocating not knowing anything about a spouse before getting married because she believes that the less you know, the better. This philosophy, which Elizabeth immediately dismisses as “not sound,” is what leads Charlotte to agree to marry Mr. Collins, a buffoon who will be a constant source of embarrassment and distress to Charlotte. Many characters in the novel, as well as Regency society itself, would consider Mr. Collins a tremendous match for the plain, nearly-spinster Charlotte, who has been previously unsuccessful in attracting a husband. After all, Mr. Collins is a respectable man whose position as a minister for the well-respected Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the envy of many. He will have money and standing throughout his life, and will eventually even inherit Longbourn. It is no wonder, then, that Mrs. Bennett is angry with Elizabeth for turning down an offer of marriage from such an eligible man. However, Austen soon vindicates her heroine because only a few months later, Charlotte is miserable in her marriage despite her social and marital status. Austen demonstrates Charlotte’s mistake in failing to get to know her prospective husband before...
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Humor in Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice is an extremely funny novel, but most students miss the humor because of difficulty with the language. Close examination of Austen’s ironic and scathing treatment of specific characters and scenes in the novel not only helps to clarify the novel’s major themes, but also makes Pride and Prejudice an enjoyable experience.
The novel is sarcastic from its opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (1). This is obviously not true—as any major movie star or rock singer can attest. Austen is ironically stating that when a young, rich, single man is in the neighborhood, people are always trying to set him up with a girl, whether or not he wants to be. This is because, as Austen notes, once he moves into a neighborhood, he becomes the "rightful property” of the girls of the area. This idea of targeting available young men for marriage is the central topic of the novel, as every family in Hertfordshire is attempting to hitch up Mr. Bingley to their daughters. This line also shows the desperation of the families in attempting to attain wealth and connections at all costs.
The first declared victim of this targeting mentality, Mrs. Bennet, is one of the funniest (and the stupidest) characters in Pride and Prejudice. In Chapter 1, Mrs. Bennet is completely oblivious to Mr. Bennet’s sarcasm because she is incapable of understanding anything remotely intelligent, and she is completely fixated on the idea of Mr. Bingley, the latest rich and available young man to move into the neighborhood. Mr. Bennett teases Mrs. Bennet by telling her that there is no need for him to introduce himself to Bingley, which there really is, as the societal rules of the time dictated that the father of a family must first introduce themselves to a new neighbor (especially a male) before the rest of the family was permitted to visit. The teasing comes to a head when Mrs. Bennet exclaims that Mr. Bennet has no regard for her delicate nerves, to which he replies: “You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least” (2). In reality, Mr. Bennet has no respect for his wife’s feelings at all because she is so ridiculous. Austen clarifies this shortly hereafter, when she describes the Bennets as a couple:
Mr. Bennet was odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news (3).
In other words, Mr. Bennet is a smart aleck and Mrs. Bennet is a whiny hypochondriac whose only goals in life are getting her daughters married and gossip. This is indicative of both characters throughout the novel: anything that comes out of Mr. Bennet’s mouth is sarcastic and/or insulting, and whatever Mrs. Bennet says is idiotic and loud. This mismatch of tempers and abilities highlights one of the novel’s most significant themes, the concept of a good match as a unity of similar characters and temperaments as opposed to marriage for the sake of attraction.
Unfortunately, the Bennet marriage also exemplifies another warning from Austen—the ramifications of a bad match on children. The Bennets’ inability to understand each other and get along results in Mr. Bennet’s neglect of his three youngest daughters: Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. He leaves them to his wife to raise because after his patience has worn out after Jane and Elizabeth, and this neglect is what makes these three girls so “silly.” Lydia is an airheaded flirt whose selfishness nearly ruins everything for all of...
(The entire section is 1655 words.)