Pride and Prejudice is a rich and meaningful work, and there are multiple messages conveyed through the character development and conflicts in the text. The most important message each individual reader takes away will depend on their own background and what they personally bring into the reading experience. Below are some of the primary messages and key ideas of the novel:
First impressions can be misleading: Throughout the novel, we see evidence that first impressions are often incorrect—in fact, the original title of Pride and Prejudice actually was First Impressions. The danger of relying on a first impression is made clear through the development of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy's relationship. Darcy casually dismisses Elizabeth when he first meets her, claiming that he doesn't find her all that remarkable; likewise, Elizabeth believes Darcy to be an arrogant, heartless snob. It isn't until much later that each of them recognizes that they have incorrectly judged one another. Many of the central conflicts of the novel are driven by misunderstandings or misjudgments of character: Elizabeth refuses Darcy's initial proposal because she is mistaken about his motives and character. Darcy separates Jane and Bingley because he misinterprets Jane's reserved nature as indifference toward his friend. Elizabeth and the rest of her family are so charmed by Wickham's friendly personality that they assume he is a good man, realizing too late they were mistaken, when he elopes with Lydia.
The value of love and mutual respect: Though multiple marriages are depicted in Pride and Prejudice, the two couples best suited for each other are the ones that find the most happiness in the end, with Bingley marrying Jane and Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy coming to realize their true feelings for one another. These love matches—which, for Elizabeth and Jane, also represent the most financially advantageous marriages of the book—suggest that those who prioritize love and respect in a partner will be rewarded.
These successful partnerships are contrasted against several unsuccessful partnerships, including Charlotte and Mr. Collins, Lydia and Wickham, and even Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Through these other matches, readers see the negative consequences of marrying without love: Lydia is stuck with an immoral man who had to be bribed into marrying her, Charlotte spends much of her time deliberately avoiding her odious husband, and Mr. Bennet has spent decades with a woman he finds foolish. Near the novel's end, Mr. Bennet explicitly cautions Elizabeth against marrying someone she cannot respect, suggesting that he does not wish her to repeat his own mistake.
Rigid gender roles disadvantage women: The gender roles of the Regency era prove very limiting for the female characters in Pride and Prejudice. Unable to achieve financial independence, the women in this novel are largely at the mercy of the men in their lives, including their fathers, cousins, and husbands. Mrs. Bennet is a ridiculous woman who comes across as obsessed with her finding rich husbands for her daughters. Underneath her embarrassing antics, however, lies a very real and practical concern: she is desperate to see all of her daughters marry well because she doesn't want them to be penniless and homeless when their father dies. The Bennet estate is entailed and must pass to a male heir. Since the Bennets have five daughters and no sons, Mr. Collins (Mr. Bennet's closest male relative) will inherit their home when Mr. Bennet dies.
The Bennet daughters all feel the pressure to marry well, and their situation is grave enough that Mrs. Bennet fully expects Elizabeth to marry the obnoxious Mr. Collins so that she may keep the estate. Though Lizzie ultimately refuses to marry Mr. Collins, her good friend Charlotte Lucas does agree to marry him—not out of love but out of pragmatism. With neither good looks nor fortune, Charlotte is well aware that at twenty-eight, she is unlikely to receive a better offer. When Elizabeth expresses her shock at Charlotte's choice, Charlotte chastises her, claiming that she's simply being practical and trying to secure her financial future. Unlike Elizabeth, who holds out hope for a love match, Charlotte has made peace with the idea that love is not a prerequisite for marriage. Elizabeth is ultimately rewarded for her romantic inclinations, but Charlotte's sad choice to settle perhaps more realistically reflects the pressures women faced in this era.