What is the main theme in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?
The main theme of Pride and Prejudice is seen in the dynamic between Elizabeth and Darcy, which drives the story's conflict. She is at first, understandably, prejudiced against the gentleman Darcy because of what she perceives as his snobbery and pride, but their dynamic changes as they learn more about each other.
The main theme of the novel is that perception is not reality. Elizabeth's prejudice and Darcy's pride are both forms of blindness.
Elizabeth forms an implacable prejudice against Darcy the first time she encounters him. She overhears him saying she is not pretty enough to tempt him to dance. This, coupled with his other standoffish behavior at the assembly, causes her to decide he is an arrogant, insufferable jerk. Elizabeth's initial dislike then motivates her to be more than willing to believe the worst about him. Rather than weigh the evidence rationally, when the charming and attractive Wickham tells a sob story about being cheated out of a comfortable job promised to him by Mr. Darcy, she is quick to believe Darcy behaved badly. This is an example, well ahead of the term being coined, of confirmation bias: Elizabeth has decided, on scanty evidence, that Darcy is a jerk, so she readily jumps on whatever confirms her bias.
Darcy's pride likewise blinds her to the reality that Elizabeth and her family might be equal to him as human beings, even if they have less money and, in the case of some of her family members, less polished manners. He wounds and completely infuriates her in his marriage proposal, which assumes that a lowly person like her will naturally want to marry a great man like him. He more or less tells her he will deign to take her despite her lack of money and her embarrassing relatives. This throws her into such a fury that she tells him she, in effect, wouldn't marry him if he was the last person on earth.
It is not until Elizabeth learns to become less prejudiced against Darcy that she can see his true worth. Likewise, Darcy has to get off his high horse to be able to see that Elizabeth and her family are owed greater respect. When this happens, the two, now more mature, can happily wed.
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As the title suggests, the main themes in Pride and Prejudice really are pride and prejudice. Elizabeth is shown to be guilty of prejudicially judging Darcy to be prideful. In addition, it turns out that improper pride is actually the reason behind Elizabeth's prejudice. Finally, while Darcy is recognized as feeling above his company, the reality is that he really is the most noble character in the book and found to actually not have any improper pride. We know that pride and prejudice are the most dominant themes in the book because it is these two themes that create the main conflict in the story, which is Elizabeth's dislike of Darcy and Darcy's unrequited love for Elizabeth, also expressed as character vs. character.
Elizabeth first realizes the error of her judgements after reading Darcy's letter explaining his thoughts on her family's behavior and his history with Wickham. It is after this that she realizes she foolishly judged Wickham to be the most amiable man she's met simply because he is conversational and friendly. Likewise, she realizes that she judged Darcy to be a despicable man partially because he is reserved and standoffish and partially because of what Whickham told her about Darcy's treatment of him, which turned out to be all lies. As Elizabeth herself expresses it:
How despicably have I acted ... I, who have prided myself on my discernment ... Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. (Ch. 36)
Hence we see that it is truly Elizabeth who has had the wrongful pride and that her pride has caused her to prejudicially misjudge both Darcy and Wickham.
Darcy expresses a very central point towards the beginning of the book. He argues that "pride--where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation" (Ch. 11). His point is that people who genuinely do have a greater, more intelligent understanding than others and who act upon principles and morals while others fail to do so really should feel genuine pride. And he is shown to be right. All throughout the novel Austen shows us that there really are people who have limited sense and understanding, such as Mrs. Bennet, and who act in immoral, imprudent ways, such as the rest of the entire Bennet household, especially Lydia, and Wickham. Darcy, on the other hand, always acts upon morals and principles and even rescues Lydia and the whole Bennet household from disgrace. Hence, Darcy really is shown to be superior in both sense and morals to other characters in the book, which is why Elizabeth says towards the end of the novel, "Indeed he has no improper pride" (Ch. 59). However, Darcy is also proven to have felt himself to be above his company and to have looked down on others simply because of their connection with the merchant class. Darcy makes this realization by the end of the novel and repents having acted upon his principles with "pride and conceit" (Ch. 58). Hence we see that Darcy had genuine reason to appreciate, or take pride in, his sense and morals, but was also guilty of acting in a way that judged and criticized others.
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