Illustration of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy with neutral expressions on their faces

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen
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Explain the first line of Pride and Prejudice that starts, "It is a truth universally acknowledged..."

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The opening sentence, while intriguing in itself, reveals further depths of meaning retrospectively. Its richness stems in large part from the teasing ambiguities of the narrative point of view. As we read that opening sentence, we assume that the point of view is that of the narrator, because of the...

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The opening sentence, while intriguing in itself, reveals further depths of meaning retrospectively. Its richness stems in large part from the teasing ambiguities of the narrative point of view. As we read that opening sentence, we assume that the point of view is that of the narrator, because of the seeming authority of that 'universally acknowledged [truth]'. However, we do not have to read far to see that this is not really the case. The idea of universal truth is immediately undercut by the opening of the second paragraph, which shows that the 'feelings or views' of the young man himself are  'little known'. The explanation is that this, far from being a universal truth, is merely an opinion 'fixed in the minds of the surrounding families'.

What we have, then, is at least two jostling narrative points of view: first one that appears authoritative, but is revealed to be the limited perspective of families with marriageable daughters, and then the assessment of a more objective observer. The effect of all this is to generate ironic and lightly humorous comment on the motivation of the families who found their ideas about truths on their ambitions for their own daughters.

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Certainly, there is a facetious tone to this line, underscored by the humorous character of Mrs. Bennet whose life's goal is to procure suitable husbands for her daughters as evidenced in the subsequent somewhat satiric lines:

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

With the introduction of Mr. Darby to the young ladies of  society, he, with his aristocratic arrogance pride) and his belief in the superiority of the landed gentry (prejudice) along with Elizabeth Bennet and her proud trusting of her own observations (pride) and her hasty assessments of people (prejudice) are the instruments of Austen's novel of manners that questions social dictations, the cogent point of the editor above.

That the novel revolves around the attitudes and reasons for  marriage is obviously foreshadowed by this first sentence of Austen's novel, "Pride and Prejudice."

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The opening line of the work indicates how Austen is going to assemble the idea of social conventions having a role in how individuals are "supposed" to act.  Such a line indicates the idea that a single man is going to marry.  This social expectation is placed upon women in that their function is "supposed" to compete for such a man's affection.  The fact that Austen uses the words "universally" and "truth" to describe such a condition indicates that social conventions are something that are meant to be upheld under all circumstances, such as universal truths are to be upheld in all circumstances.  I believe Austen uses this line to open her novel which will question socially dictated notions of the good, stratification within a social order, and question the merit of such a body that tells men and women what to do ("universally acknowledged truth") as opposed to allowing them what they wish to do.  As you read the book, it will be interesting for you to compare this line to the situations that you will encounter and test its validity.  In doing so, I think you will see why Austen begins with such a notion.

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