When a novel focuses on the day-to-day life of a family with five young unmarried daughters, the subject is certain to be romance. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE’S depiction of Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia Bennet is something richer, though. As its title hints, the novel is a shrewd and subtle psychological study. Pride and prejudice are the double defects shared by the heroine and hero, spirited Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a rich, aristocratic young man she meets when his friend Bingley rents the estate next to the Bennets’.
In the course of the story, Darcy becomes more flexible in his social views and learns to recognize excellence (notably Elizabeth’s) in the ranks below his own. Similarly, Elizabeth becomes less rigid in her judgments, more aware of the many virtues of Darcy, whom she had at first dismissed as cold and haughty. Elizabeth and Darcy’s growing love delights the reader because everything about the two--their minds, tastes, appearances, and words--shows them to be ideally suited.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE contains less brilliant variations on the marriage theme as well. Jane Bennet, the serene oldest sister, and easygoing Charles Bingley, a couple whose engagement is for some time thwarted by Darcy and the Bingley sisters, are equally well matched if less dashing. The Reverend William Collins, the pompous cousin who as next male relation will inherit the family estate on Mr. Bennet’s death, hopes to marry Elizabeth, but on being rejected, settles for her plain and practical friend Charlotte Lucas, a woman aware of his foolishness but in need of the security his situation can provide. The fourth match made in the novel is between a charming but amoral officer, George Wickham, and pretty, empty-headed Lydia, the youngest Bennet sister. Wickham first attracts Elizabeth, then elopes with Lydia. Only when Darcy intervenes is he persuaded to marry the silly girl.
Supplementing this cast of characters is a wonderfully imperfect gallery of human types. The selfish and cynical Mr. Bennet, his ill-bred wife, their priggish daughter Mary, and the domineering Lady Catherine de Bourgh are all people a reader would walk far to avoid in real life. But they are figures delightful to encounter in Austen’s satirical novel.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Contains nine essays treating such topics as manners and propriety, love, intelligence, and society. Includes a chronology and bibliography.
Brown, Julia Prewitt. Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979. A response to critics who claim that Austen does not write about important issues because she writes about domestic life. Choosing a spouse points to life’s complexity, which intelligent characters know; the foolish choose badly, dooming themselves and future generations.
Gillie, Christopher. A Preface to Jane Austen. London: Longman, 1974. An invaluable guide that includes useful background material and brief discussions of Austen’s novels. A reference section contains notes on people and places of importance, maps, and explanations of numerous words used in the works. Amply illustrated. Annotated bibliography.
Halperin, John, ed. Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. A collection of essays on various aspects of Austen’s work. An excellent chapter by Robert B. Heilman explains how the title Pride and Prejucide defines the theme and the structure of the novel. In another essay, Karl Kroeber suggests some reasons for the work’s lasting popularity.
Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. A thorough and highly readable critical biography, written with the stated purpose of making Jane Austen “come alive.” Argues that neither Elizabeth Bennet nor any other character in the novels should be taken as representing so complex a person as Austen. Has perhaps the best summary available of the theories about the genesis of Pride and Prejudice. The book also includes a family tree, copious notes, and numerous illustrations.
Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. A detailed biography that depicts Austen’s life and work and provides a portrait of England and the age. The chapter on Pride and Prejudice focuses on the novel’s reflection of a changing society in which economics, social class, and character all affect individual happiness.
Howe, Florence, ed. Tradition and the Talents of Women. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Feminist criticism of various writers. An essay by Jen Ferguson Carr notes that although both Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth are excluded from power in a male-dominated society, only the daughter is intelligent enough to use language to “dissociate herself from her devalued position.”
Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction. Brighton, Sussex, England: Harvester Press, 1983. Although Elizabeth Bennet is the most appealing of Austen’s heroines, the novelist herself had misgivings about Pride and Prejudice, probably because its light-hearted ending depends upon Elizabeth’s losing her integrity. Concludes with a helpful summary of the critical tradition.
McMaster, Juliet, ed. Jane Austen’s Achievement. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1976. A collection of six papers delivered at the Jane Austen Bicentennial Conference at the University of Alberta. Lloyd W. Brown’s chapter “The Business of Marrying and Mothering” and A. Walton Litz’s “‘A Development of Self’: Character and Personality in Jane Austen’s Fiction” both deal with Pride and Prejudice.
Mansell, Darrel. The Novels of Jane Austen: An Interpretation. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1973. An interesting interpretation that insists Austen is less interested in imitating reality than in depicting the psychological progress of Elizabeth and Darcy. The chapter on Pride and Prejudice provides an excellent analysis of Austen’s use of irony.
Moler, Kenneth L. “Pride and Prejudice”: A Study in Artistic Economy. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Intended as a student’s companion to the novel, a useful book for the first-time reader of Jane Austen. Includes a historical context and critical reception of the novel. Also examines the themes of moral blindness and self-knowledge, art, and nature, as well as Austen’s use of symbolism, language, and literary allusion.
Smith, LeRoy W. Jane Austen and the Drama of Woman. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen shows the ideal marriage as depending upon overcoming the institution’s “threat to selfhood.” Unlike most women of her period, Elizabeth Bennet insists both on choosing her own husband and on retaining her intellectual and emotional independence.
Sulloway, Alison G. Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989. Pointing out that in nineteenth century society men had “rights” and women had “duties,” this author examines the various areas in which women function in Austen’s novels, including the “Ballroom,” the “Drawing Room,” and the “Garden.” Sulloway’s approach is original and perceptive.
Yaeger, Patricia, and Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, eds. Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. A collection of essays on various writers. In “The Humiliation of Elizabeth Bennet,” Susan Fraiman argues that when Elizabeth Bennet marries Darcy, she is exchanging a passive, permissive father for a father figure who, as a strong-willed male of lofty social status, may give her ease but will certainly take away her independence.