Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an enormously appealing book for a wide variety of reasons, and it will probably always retain its popularity thanks to many of these factors. Among the reasons for the book’s demonstrable appeal are the following:
- It deals with relations between members of a family and is therefore appealing in some of the same ways that Little Women is appealing. (Often the same people love both books with the same kind of devotion.)
- It deals with relations not only between siblings but between siblings and their parents and between the parents themselves. These are fundamental human relationships to which most people can relate.
- It deals with romantic relations between people and with the confusions, anxieties, and hopes those relationships can cause. Such relationships, like relationships within families, are ones to which most people can relate.
- It deals with fundamental human worries, especially worries about the future, about one’s worthiness, and about the way one is perceived by others.
- It deals with fundamental human desires, such as the desires for happiness, love, and stability.
- This list could easily be extended.
None of the items on the list above would matter much, however, if the book were not extraordinarily well written. Hundreds of thousands of novels have probably been written that deal with such topics as the ones listed above, but few of those novels are as brilliantly composed as Pride and Prejudice is. (Indeed, some of Austen’s other books do not equal the achievement of Pride and Prejudice.) Consider, for example, the novel’s famous 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.
Often, when trying to determine why a sentence is effective, it is helpful to imagine how the sentence could have been written differently. Consider these alternatives to Austen’s phrasing:
- Everyone knows that a rich man needs to get married.
- Personally speaking, I have to say that wealthy guys need wives.
- You ought to get married if you have money but no woman.
Notice how much better Austen’s sentence is than these. The first four words of her sentence are simple and plain. The next two are a bit grandiloquently multisyllabic. The first six words altogether imply a narrator who at first seems extraordinarily sure of herself (or perhaps, as we discover by the end of the sentence, she is only mocking extraordinary sureness). Notice, also, how effectively the narrator postpones the punch-line until the very last word. Thus, instead of simply and quickly writing “rich man,” she writes “man in possession of a good fortune.” Here again the phrasing is perhaps mockingly elaborate and high-toned. I could go on, but I’m running out of space. Suffice it to say that Austen knows, with the skill of a master, how to use the English language.