Study Guide

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice Essay - Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Introduction

Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

The following entry presents criticism of Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. See also, Jane Austen Criticism, Northanger Abbey Criticism, and Mansfield Park Criticism.

One of the world's most popular novels, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has delighted readers since its publication with the story of the witty Elizabeth Bennet and her relationship with the aristocrat Fitzwilliam Darcy. Similiar to Austen's other works, Pride and Prejudice is a humorous portrayal of the social atmosphere of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, and it is principally concerned with courtship rituals of the English gentry. The novel is much more than a comedic love story, however; through Austen's subtle and ironic style, it addresses economic, political, feminist, sociological, and philosophical themes, inspiring a great deal of diverse critical commentary on the meaning of the work.

Plot and Major Characters

Pride and Prejudice focuses on Elizabeth Bennet, an intelligent young woman with romantic and individualistic ideals, and her relationship with Mr. Darcy, a wealthy gentleman of very high social status. At the outset of the novel, Elizabeth's loud and dim-witted mother, her foolish younger sisters, and her beautiful older sister Jane are very excited because a wealthy gentleman, Mr. Bingley, is moving to their neighborhood. The young women are concerned about finding husbands because if Elizabeth's father, a humorous and ironical man, were to die, the estate would be left to their pompous cousin Mr. Collins. Mr. Bingley soon becomes attached to Jane while Elizabeth grows to dislike his close friend Mr. Darcy, whom the village finds elitist and ill-tempered. Under the influence of his sisters and Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley eventually moves away to London. Mr. Collins, an irritating clergyman, then proposes to his cousin Elizabeth, who refuses him. He marries her friend Charlotte instead, and Elizabeth visits the couple at their estate, where she and Mr. Darcy meet again at the house of his aunt, also Mr. Collin's patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth but she refuses him, partly based on her belief that he dissuaded Mr. Bingley from pursuing a relationship with Jane. In a letter to Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy explains his actions regarding Jane and Mr. Bingley, as well as the way in which he has treated his estranged childhood companion, Mr. Wickham. The next time Elizabeth sees Mr. Darcy, at his estate, she is better disposed toward him, but they are interrupted by a scandal involving Elizabeth's sister Lydia, who has eloped with Mr. Wickham. Mr. Bennet and his brother-in-law Mr. Gardiner attempt to resolve the situation, but it is actually Mr. Darcy who resolves the situation by paying Mr. Wickham and convincing him to marry Lydia. Mr. Bingley then returns to his estate in the Bennets' neighborhood and soon becomes engaged to Jane. Afterward, despite Lady Catherine's attempt to prevent the engagement, Elizabeth marries Mr. Darcy.

Major Themes

Austen's novel is principally concerned with the social fabric of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, a patriarchal society in which men held the economic and social power. In an often satirical portrait of the men and women attempting to gain a livelihood, Austen subtly and ironically points out faults in the system, raising questions about the values of English society and the power structure of the country. Pride and Prejudice contains many elements of social realism, and it focuses on the merging of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy during the era of the Napoleonic wars and at the beginning of the industrial revolution. The novel is also engaged in an ideological debate that drives its plot and defines the essence of its main character. Interested in the balance between pragmatism, or the necessity of securing a marriage, and idealism, particularly Elizabeth's romanticism and individualism, Austen dramatizes her heroine's struggle to find a place within the conservative social institution of marriage. The precise nature of this balance is not necessarily clear, and despite what seems to be a happy marriage, it may not be entirely possible to reconcile Elizabeth's independence and naturalness with Mr. Darcy's conservatism and conventionality. Nevertheless, the novel seems to work toward an ideological balance and an alteration in the fundamental aspects of these characters that will lead to a reconciliation of the themes that they represent.

Critical Reception

Probably Austen's most widely read novel, Pride and Prejudice, which has been continuously in print since its publication in 1813, has been the subject of volumes of diverse critical reactions. Evaluations of this work have included condemnatory dismissals such as that of Mark Twain, measured praises of Austen's sophistication and wit, and plaudits for the novel as the author's masterpiece. Many early critics focused on the social realism of the novel, commenting on the depth, or lack of depth, of Austen's characters. Criticism of the novel from the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century also tended to regard Austen as a moralist, discussing the value system that Pride and Prejudice establishes. Critics from the 1920s through the 1950s focused on Austen's characteristic themes and stylistic devices, as well as discussing her choice of subject matter and the moral and ideological journey that Elizabeth undertakes throughout the course of the novel. During the 1960s and 1970s, commentators offered contextual criticism that evaluated Pride and Prejudice within the literary and social world in which Austen wrote. It was also during this period that new directions in criticism of the novel began to be explored. Since the late 1960s, for example, critics have approached Austen's novel from a variety of linguistic standpoints, such as Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of dialogism, as well as analyzing the work in terms of postmodern theory and applying new developments in psychology to the text. There has also been increased attention given to the political subtext of the novel, suggesting new ways of interpreting its relationship to the historical context of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the later decades of the twentieth century and into the early years of the twenty-first century, the most prominent trends in criticism of Pride and Prejudice have derived from the perspectives of literary feminism, including analysis of the novel's view of female oppression, its portrayal of the patriarchal society of the time, and its treatment of the possibility, fantasy, and reality of female power. Feminist critics such as Judith Lowder Newton have envisioned the novel as a triumphant fantasy of female autonomy, while Jean Ferguson Carr warns that Austen's exclusion of Mrs. Bennet from the social world reveals a persistent subjugation of women throughout the novel. In addition to strictly feminist readings of Pride and Prejudice, many essays not associated with this school of social and literary thought either incorporate or challenge various feminist claims in relation to Austen's work.

Principal Works

Sense and Sensibility. 3 vols. (novel) 1811

Pride and Prejudice. 3 vols. (novel) 1813

Mansfield Park. 3 vols. (novel) 1814

Emma. 3 vols. (novel) 1816

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. 4 vols. (novels) 1818

Lady Susan (novel) 1871

The Watsons (unfinished novel) 1871

Love and Friendship and Other Early Works, Now First Printed from the Original MS (juvenilia) 1922

[Sanditon] Fragments of a Novel (unfinished novel) 1925

Volume the First (juvenilia) 1933

Volume the Third (juvenilia) 1951

Volume the Second (juvenilia) 1963

Criticism

Joseph Wiesenfarth (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Wiesenfarth, Joseph. “The Plot of Pride and Prejudice.” In The Errand of Form: An Assay of Jane Austen's Art, pp. 60-85. New York: Fordham University Press, 1967.

[In the following essay, Wiesenfarth defends the aesthetic greatness of Pride and Prejudice, arguing that its plot is a sophisticated method of erecting an ideal value system.]

Pride and Prejudice has long been considered a classic by the general reader,1 but it no longer enjoys that distinction with many professional critics. To the latter, in the post-James and anti-plot era,2 it seems too elegantly dressed in a strait jacket of form. “Exactness of...

(The entire section is 10286 words.)

Kenneth L. Moler (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Moler, Kenneth L. “Pride and Prejudice and the Patrician Hero.” In Jane Austen's Art of Allusion, pp. 74-108. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Moler discusses the relationship between Pride and Prejudice and the novels of Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson.]

In Pride and Prejudice, it is generally agreed, one encounters a variant of the eighteenth-century “art-nature” contrast when Elizabeth Bennet's forceful and engaging individualism clashes with Darcy's by no means indefensible respect for the social order and his class pride. Most critics agree that Pride and Prejudice does not suffer...

(The entire section is 10077 words.)

Judith Lowder Newton (essay date February 1978)

SOURCE: Newton, Judith Lowder. “Pride and Prejudice: Power, Fantasy, and Subversion in Jane Austen.” Feminist Studies 4, no. 1 (February 1978): 27-42.

[In the following essay, Newton examines the power dynamic in Pride and Prejudice, arguing that although men dominated Austen's society in economic and social privilege, Elizabeth Bennet represents a fantasy of female autonomy.]

To read Jane Austen's letters—with their steady consciousness of bargains, pence, and shillings—is to be aware of one small but nagging way in which she experienced the restrictions of being an unmarried middle-class woman: she had little money, and she had almost no access...

(The entire section is 7136 words.)

A. Walton Litz (essay date 16 December 1979)

SOURCE: Litz, A. Walton. “The Picturesque in Pride and Prejudice.Persuasion, no. 1 (16 December 1979): 13, 15-24.

[In the following essay, Litz discusses Austen's use of landscape in Pride and Prejudice, focusing on how she employs “picturesque moments” to establish meaning and form.]

When I learned that Donald Greene would be talking this evening about possible models for Pemberley, it set me thinking again about the role of landscape—both natural and “improved”—in Jane Austen's fiction. Over the past few years, following the early lead of E. M. Forster, a number of critics have examined Jane Austen's uses of landscape, and have...

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Gary Kelly (essay date June 1984)

SOURCE: Kelly, Gary. “The Art of Reading in Pride and Prejudice.English Studies in Canada 10, no. 2 (June 1984): 156-71.

[In the following essay, Kelly explores the role of reading in Pride and Prejudice, drawing a parallel between Elizabeth's inclination to read her world like a book and the reader's epistemological approach to the novel.]

It is by now well established that Pride and Prejudice is about perception and judgement as acts of the whole mind, with important ethical consequences in domestic and social life.1 The story deals with characters who are, in varying degrees, good or bad observers and judges of themselves and...

(The entire section is 8060 words.)

Dvora Zelicovici (essay date December 1985)

SOURCE: Zelicovici, Dvora. “Reversal in Pride and Prejudice.Studies in the Humanities 12, no. 2 (December 1985): 106-14.

[In the following essay, Zelicovici concentrates on the third volume of Pride and Prejudice, contending that it is vital in developing Mr. Darcy's and Elizabeth's reversals of conviction.]

The third volume of Pride and Prejudice has frequently been regarded as not merely different from but also inferior to the previous two volumes. Marvin Mudrick sees it “diminish suddenly in intensity and orginality,”1 and Reuben A. Brower argues that the perfect harmony achieved between the ironic dialogue and the movement...

(The entire section is 4732 words.)

Anne Waldron Neumann (essay date fall 1986)

SOURCE: Neumann, Anne Waldron. “Characterization and Comment in Pride and Prejudice: Free Indirect Discourse and ‘Double-voiced’ Verbs of Speaking, Thinking, and Feeling.” Style 20, no. 3 (fall 1986): 364-94.

[In the following essay, Neumann studies the speech and thought of Pride and Prejudice, calling attention to Austen's use of “double-voiced verbs,” or verbs that “conflate narration with reported discourse.”]

I. INTRODUCTION

Since so much of an Austen novel is apparently “shown” or dramatized rather than “told” or narrated, it becomes of particular interest not just to trace how Austen reports...

(The entire section is 15378 words.)

Bruce Stovel (essay date winter 1987)

SOURCE: Stovel, Bruce. “‘A Contrariety of Emotion’: Jane Austen's Ambivalent Lovers in Pride and Prejudice.The International Fiction Review 14, no. 1 (winter 1987): 27-33.

[In the following essay, Stovel asserts that Austen's novel allows for the interpretation that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy's relationship is an example of ideal love, as well as the view that it is an “immediate and magnetic attraction.”]

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “ambivalence” as “the coexistence in one person of the emotional attitudes of love and hate, or other opposite feelings, towards the same object or situation,” and this concept would seem to apply...

(The entire section is 4134 words.)

Rachel M. Brownstein (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Brownstein, Rachel M. “Jane Austen: Irony and Authority.” Women's Studies 15, nos. 1-3 (1988): 57-70.

[In the following essay, Brownstein focuses on several of Austen's novels, including Pride and Prejudice, to support her argument that Austen uses irony to convey a “discursive authority” from which women can derive pleasure in a patriarchal society.]

It is a truth universally acknowledged, right now, that language is involved in giving and taking both power and pleasure. Whether we begin by asking if the pen is a substitute for the penis, or think about why we read stories of love and adventure, or consider, from any point of view, pornography...

(The entire section is 5467 words.)

Jean Ferguson Carr (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Carr, Jean Ferguson. “The Polemics of Incomprehension: Mother and Daughter in Pride and Prejudice.” In Tradition and the Talents of Women, edited by Florence Howe, pp. 68-86. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Carr analyzes the role of the mother in Pride and Prejudice, focusing on Mrs. Bennet's exclusion from the social world.]

She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.

—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Stupidity (incomprehension) in the novel is always polemical: it...

(The entire section is 8699 words.)

Joseph Litvak (essay date fall-winter 1992)

SOURCE: Litvak, Joseph. “Delicacy and Disgust, Mourning and Melancholia, Privilege and Perversity: Pride and Prejudice.Qui Parle 6, no. 1 (fall-winter 1992): 35-51.

[In the following essay, Litvak explores the ideas of disgust and pleasure in the various contexts in which they are presented in Pride and Prejudice.]

Let it be understood in all senses that what the word disgusting de-nominates is what one cannot resign oneself to mourn.

—Jacques Derrida

In a well-known passage from one of her letters to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen records her own response to...

(The entire section is 6302 words.)

Gordon Hirsch (essay date winter 1992)

SOURCE: Hirsch, Gordon. “Shame, Pride, and Prejudice: Jane Austen's Psychological Sophistication.” Mosaic 25 (winter 1992): 63-78.

[In the following essay, Hirsch discusses Pride and Prejudice in the light of modern psychology, focusing on the role of shame in the novel.]

Elizabeth Bennet's great moment of psychological insight in Pride and Prejudice comes soon after she reads Darcy's letter:

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

“How...

(The entire section is 7743 words.)

Matthew Schneider (essay date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Schneider, Matthew. “Card-playing and the Marriage Gamble in Pride and Prejudice.Dalhousie Review 73, no. 1 (spring 1993): 5-17.

[In the following essay, Schneider argues that card-playing serves as an apt metaphor for the courtship ritual in Pride and Prejudice.]

Henry Austen's casual observation that his novelist sister “was fond of dancing, and excelled in it” (Pride and Prejudice 308) has in recent years been invested by critics with a far-reaching metaphoric significance. Dancing, the argument goes, both figures the particular charm of Austen's style and provides an elegant symbolic matrix for much of the social interaction around...

(The entire section is 4995 words.)

Julia Prewitt Brown (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Brown, Julia Prewitt. “The ‘Social History’ of Pride and Prejudice.” In Approaches to Teaching Austen's Pride and Prejudice, edited by Marcia McClintock Folsom, pp. 57-66. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1993.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses the ways in which Austen's novel depicts early nineteenth-century society, arguing that Austen explores the defining historical realities of her era.]

In what sense are Jane Austen's novels historical? This is often the first question students ask when they read Austen. It may be posed in the form of the familiar question, Where are the Napoleonic Wars, the decisive historical...

(The entire section is 5058 words.)

William Christie (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Christie, William. “Pride, Politics, and Prejudice.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 20, no. 3 (1997): 313-34.

[In the following essay, Christie finds that in Pride and Prejudice, a novel deeply concerned with the pressing political issues of the day, Austen's compromise between conservatism and progressivism is ultimately a “collapse of the progressive position.”]

Progressively more preoccupied with the individual sensibility and with the individual as a morally autonomous consciousness, the social phenomenon of the novel reflected that ultimately indefinable manifold of changes in the details and structures of scientific, philosophical, and...

(The entire section is 10741 words.)

Sandra Peña Cervel (essay date 1997-98)

SOURCE: Cervel, Sandra Peña. “Pride and Prejudice: A Cognitive Analysis.” Cuadernos de Investigación Filológica, nos. 23-24 (1997-98): 233-55.

[In the following essay, Cervel analyzes Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of Cognitive Linguistics, a conceptual model for reality that, Cervel argues, Austen's novel exhibits.]

1. INTRODUCTION

An analysis of literary works can be carried out from different points of view which will vary with the critic's aims and ideology. An analysis along the lines provided by specific linguistic theories has seldom been attempted. I shall try to show that this type of analysis sheds light...

(The entire section is 10511 words.)

Susan Reilly (essay date April 2000)

SOURCE: Reilly, Susan. “‘A Nobler Fall of Ground’: Nation and Narration in Pride and Prejudice.Symbiosis 4.1 (April 2000): 19-34.

[In the following essay, Reilly stresses that, through her portrayal of the ideal and picturesque private estate at Pemberley, Austen reinforces English nationalism and decries the “dangerous enthusiasms of New World democratic ideals.”]

Elizabeth, as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter. The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered...

(The entire section is 7024 words.)

Barbara K. Seeber (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Seeber, Barbara K. “We Must Forget It: The Unhappy Truth in Pride and Prejudice.” In General Consent in Jane Austen: A Study of Dialogism, pp. 85-92. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, which applies Mikhail Bakhtin's linguistic theory of dialogism to Austen's works, Seeber concludes that Pride and Prejudice remains “haunted” by the narrative of Wickham and Georgiana despite the main narrative's repression of this material.]

Pride and Prejudice, Austen's “own darling Child” (Austen 1995, 201), is often considered the quintessential Austen novel, certainly the most widely read and most widely...

(The entire section is 2928 words.)

Nora Foster Stovel (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Foster Stovel, Nora. “Famous Last Words: Elizabeth Bennet Protests Too Much.” In The Talk in Jane Austen, edited by Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos Gregg, pp. 183-203. Edmonton, Canada: University of Alberta Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Foster Stovel examines Elizabeth's first impressions of Mr. Darcy, claiming that the reader knows they are destined for each other from the beginning because of Austen's “classic comic structure.”]

“I believe, Ma'am, I may safely promise you never to dance with him” (PP 20). So Elizabeth Bennet declares to her mother in Pride and Prejudice. These are famous last words indeed. The astute...

(The entire section is 8280 words.)