The pursuit of a loving and prosperous marriage, and the ability of such unions to benefit all of society—despite contrary impulses and forces—is the central theme of all of Jane Austen's novels. Pride and Prejudice remains one of her most popular, as indicated by the number of attempted literary sequels (six) and film versions, perhaps because the two main characters are so evenly matched: flawed but strong individuals, witty, and basically good-hearted. However, within this major framework, there are other themes and sub-themes that show a great variety in the workings of human nature. A few noteworthy sub-themes include the role of the family and the relations between family members, the variety of characters even within the same family, and the importance of nurture and education. The tension between surface social decorum and what goes on in the emotions of the characters is also important. It is important to note the influence of social expectations on what characters express and what they hold back.
Although Jane Austen is sometimes criticized for a lack of psychological depth and range—for slighting the passions—she actually communicates the deeply passionate natures of her characters by having them act under the restraints of social decorum. The forces of passion and discord are always there, although they may not always be readily apparent. Within the Bennet family, for instance, we soon become aware that the marriage is not a happy one. Mr. Bennet retreats to his study to avoid his wife's banter; when he is unable to escape to the study, he puts her down mercilessly. He is not the best of fathers, either. Mr. Bennet does not restrain Lydia from going to Brighton even though he has misgivings. Elizabeth and Jane seem to absorb their kindness and good sense from the culture around them, as neither parent appears to have enough of either.
If books are an escape from life for Mr. Bennet, the knighthood that has been conferred on his friend Sir William Lucas becomes for Lucas a means of retiring from the world and resting on his laurels. Is it this sort of superficiality that prompts Sir William's daughter Charlotte to marry purely for social advantage? The human folly of the main characters appears slight in view of the fact the roster of other characters in the novel includes a range of fools, all of whom are in some stage of denial of their own character...
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The two major themes of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice are summed up in the title. The first aspect can be traced in the actions and statements of all of the work's major and many of its minor characters. Pride is the character flaw that causes Elizabeth Bennet to dislike Fitzwilliam Darcy upon their first meeting. She perceives in him a cold aloofness that she attributes to his own inflated opinion of himself. Yet Elizabeth herself also suffers from the same flaw; her pride in her own ability to analyze character is such that she refuses to reevaluate Darcy in the face of evidence in his favor.
In some characters, Austen depicts pride overtly. Lady Charlotte de Bourgh is motivated by pride in her family's status to try to break up a potential match between Elizabeth and Darcy. Mrs. Louisa Hurst and Caroline Bingley try to achieve the same effect with the relationship between their brother Charles Bingley and Jane Bennet. In each case, however, Austen depicts the pride of these minor characters as ridiculous: "Austen treats pride," writes Robert B. Heilman in "E pluribus unum: Parts and Whole in Pride and Prejudice" "as if it were wholly unproblematic, a failing no less clear-cut than prejudice."
In the case of Elizabeth and Darcy, however, Austen treats pride less directly. On his first appearance in the novel, Darcy appears "above his company and above being pleased," reports Heilman, the "proudest, most disagreeable man in the world." The people who record these observations, the critic continues, "believe that they are seeing a sense of superiority, snobbishness, excessive self-approval." However, they do not take into consideration that some of the other behavior that Darcy exhibits, such as "reserve, an apparent unresponsiveness to overtures, a holding back from conventional intercourse, pleasantries, and small talk," may actually stem from a quiet personality. So what appears to be pride may be simple shyness or awkwardness. When Elizabeth and others consider Darcy full of pride, they are also condemning him, says Heilman, for not obeying the rules of the "neighborhood social ways." For Darcy and Elizabeth, at least, pride can be more than a simple negative quality.
In fact, pride serves several different functions in the novel. In addition to the misplaced pride of the minor characters, there are characters who negleet to honor their pride when they should protect it. Elizabeth's friend Charlotte Lucas decides to marry William Collins, the heir to Mr. Bennet's estate, out of a simple desire to make his estate her own. Elizabeth strongly objects to such a union; it offends her sense of pride for someone to enter into a loveless marriage for purely material purposes. The George Wickham-Lydia Bennet elopement is another example of an arrangement where pride should have been taken into consideration and was not. In this way, Heilman states, Austen defines pride as "the acceptance of responsibility. This indispensably fills out a story that has devoted a good deal of time to the view of pride as an easy and blind self-esteem." Gradually, even Darcy and Elizabeth herself come to a realization of the necessity not to reject pride, but to control it.
Prejudice and Tolerance
The subject of prejudice is linked to pride in the title of Pride and Prejudice. It is also more directly linked to Elizabeth Bennet's character. From the beginning, states Marvin Mudrick in "Irony as Discrimination: Pride and Prejudice," "Elizabeth sets herself up as an ironic spectator, able and prepared to judge and classify, already making the first large division of the world into two sorts of people: the simple ones, those who give themselves away out of shallowness (as Bingley fears) or perhaps openness (as Elizabeth implies) or an excess of affection (as Mr. Collins will demonstrate); and the intricate ones, those who cannot be judged and classified so easily, who are 'the most amusing' to the ironic spectator because they offer the most formidable challenge to his powers of detection and analysis." EIizabeth is prepared to divide the entire world into one of these two categories—an extreme example of prejudice in the "pre-judging" sense of the term. It is most evident in her judgment of Darcy, so sure is she of her powers of observation that she refuses to reevaluate Darcy even when the weight of evidence begins to turn in favor of him.
It is not until Darcy overcomes his own prejudice against those of lower social station—by treating Elizabeth and the Gardiners graciously and considerately at Netherfield—that Elizabeth's opinion of him begins to change. "Not only do Elizabeth and Darcy . . . have the most serious problem of surmounting barriers of misconception and adverse feeling," Heilman declares, "but they are the most sensitive—both in susceptibility to injured feelings and in capacity for getting to the center of things—to matters of prejudice and pride." The ending "is a remarkable tracing of Elizabeth's coming around to a completely changed point of view," the critic concludes. "To Jane she acknowledges that she has cultivated her 'prejudices' and has been 'weak and vain and nonsensical.'" With this realization, Elizabeth begins the process of change that will eventually bring herself and Darcy together.
Change and Transformation
The major characters of the novel suffer from a combination of the two title characteristics of Pride and Prejudice. What separates Elizabeth and Darcy from the silly minor characters, such as Wickham, Lydia, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine, and even from the good minor characters such as Mr. Bennet, Jane, and Charles Bingley, is their ability and willingness to learn and grow, to overcome their initial shortcomings. They mature and come to a better understanding of each other by the novel's end through a slow and painful growth process.
Darcy begins his process of transformation with Elizabeth's rejection of his suit. He makes his proposal to her clumsily, stressing his own wealth and position (and minimizing hers) and stating that he has tried to suppress his feelings because of the low position of her family. When Elizabeth indignantly rejects his hand, accusing him of arrogance and selfishness, Darcy begins a process of reevaluation of his behavior. When he next appears in the story—at the beginning of Volume 3—he is much friendlier and more attentive to Elizabeth. She begins to feel an attraction to him that is not fully realized until the Wickham-Lydia elopement is fully resolved. Darcy completes his transformation by swallowing his pride and proposing to Elizabeth again, in spite of the fact that her acceptance will make the silly Bennet girls his sisters-in-law and the detestable Wickham his brother-in-law.
Elizabeth's process of transformation begins later and takes longer. She realizes her own prejudices toward Darcy in Chapter 12 of Volume 2, when he gives her the letter in which he reveals the truth about Wickham...
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