What are some of the themes in Pride and Prejudice?

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One theme of Pride and Prejudice is to critique and satirize (poke fun) at the Regency marriage market. Austen condemns the way her society forces women to compete for rich husbands because the women are denied inheritance and given no way to earn a decent living. Mrs. Bennet might look ridiculous for the desperate manner in which she husband-hunts for her daughters, but she knows that without husbands the daughters will be destitute when their father dies.

Another theme is that while a companionate marriage based on love and mutual esteem is the best basis for wedded happiness, a woman needs to be prudent in choosing a marriage partner. Charlotte Lucas may be a little cold-blooded in marrying a man she must despise to earn income and status, but Lydia is even more foolish to run off with an unstable man who can't provide for her—and who has to be strong-armed into marrying her. People can't live on air, Austen contends, and a marriage must involve sufficient income along with esteem to stand a chance.

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is in some ways a conventional love story in which the two Bennett sisters overcome various obstacles to achieve happy marriages. Within this narrow framework, however, Austen explores many important social and ethical issues.

The first important theme is the nature of love. The antagonist Wickham exemplifies love as a mixture of self-interest and infatuation, a model Austen rejects. Charlotte's marriage with Collins shows love as a pragmatic choice, ruled by economic need, also a model Austen finds unsatisfactory. The marriages of Jane and Elizabeth show two different but equally admirable forms of love, one quieter and more peaceful and the other more dramatic and passionate.

The next major theme is social prejudice. Although in theory the Bennetts are members of the "gentry," they rank lower on the social scale than the Darcys and Bingleys. There is social prejudice against Mr. Edward Gardiner because he is "in trade" but actually he is one of the more admirable characters in the book—energetic, generous, and sensible.

Another theme is pride and how it can mislead people and cloud their vision, not only of other people, but of their own true feelings.

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Austen uses Elizabeth, Jane, Darcy, and Wickham to explore the related themes of Concealment and Approbation and Disapprobation.

  • concealment: the action of hiding something or preventing it from being known (Oxford Dictionary)
  • approbation: approval, praise; to commend (Oxford and Random House Dictionaries)
  • disapprobation: strong moral disapproval; condemnation (Oxford and Random House Dictionaries)

Jane is said by Charlotte to too thoroughly conceal her affection for Bingley from public scrutiny:

[R]eplied Charlotte, ... "[It] is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. ... a women had better show more affection than she feels."

Elizabeth more than once playfully cautions Jane against concealing from her own scrutiny the faults in people she is acquainted with, which leads to concealment's twin fault of granting approbation for "the good of everybody's character":

[Elizabeth said,] "You never see a fault in anybody. ... I never heard you speak ill of a human being in your life. [...] But ... to take the good of everybody's character ...."

As predicted by Charlotte, Jane's character flaws of concealing special preference and granting approbation to all while viewing everybody's traits to be as beautiful as her own--as though she sees them shine through the light of her own beauty and goodness--leads her to lose Bingley. Darcy, seeing no "symptom" of love in Jane for Mr. Bingley and horrified at the empty, boastful pride of Mrs. Bennet, convinces Bingley that, though he feels love for Jane, she will never return his love with a love of her own and that the Bennets are beneath him. He advises Bingley to leave Netherfield and Jane. Later Darcy, to reinforce his planned separation of Jane and Bingley, practices concealment when he intentionally keeps from Bingley the news that Jane is in London at her Aunt and Uncle Gardner's home in Cheapside. Darcy later confesses to and apologizes for this concealment.

The Bingley sisters are co-conspirators of concealment with Darcy to separate Jane and Bingley because of their disapprobation for the Bennet family and of their earlier false approbation of Jane (they tolerate Elizabeth for her qualities though they feign no approbation for her). Jane falls from their good graces as a country acquaintance because, in their arrogant pride and prejudice, they have their own schemes for Bingley's happiness that do not include marriage to a woman--no matter how fine in character and beauty--who has embarrassing family connections and no wealth. As a result, they join in the effort to conceal from Bingley the fact of Jane's presence in London.

Wickham is perhaps Austen's crowning achievement in illustrating the twin themes of Concealment and Approbation and Disapprobation. What doesn't Wickham conceal? He conceals the truth about himself. He conceals his mounting debts. He conceals his truthful past history, giving a fairy tale version of half-truths. He conceals his conduct toward Miss Darcy, Darcy's sister Georgiana. He conceals that he is motivated by revenge (toward Darcy) and greed. He conceals his true sentiment of feeling for the heiress Miss King. He conceals his flight from Meryton and Brighton under cover of dark to escape debts. The harm Wickham's concealments cause drives the development of the plot and takes it to its climax and resolution.

Motivated by rightful family pride and deep feelings of approbation for Georgianna, Darcy participates in Wickham's concealments by concealing what he knows to be the truth about Wickham's true inner character. Had Darcy shuned concealment, no family would have welcomed Wickham at the hearths and no merchant would have extended him credit. Had Darcy not concealed the truth, Lydia's inner character may have remained intact and Mr. Bennet may not have been revealed as the bitterly neglectful parent that he was.

Through these characters, events and outcomes, Austen explores concealment, approbation and disapprobation and shows that falseness in applying any of these often results in terrible injustice and harm. This is the contrite lesson Darcy learns and makes amends for when he rescues Lydia from her own foolishness and provides for her marriage to Wickham and for Wickham's enlistment in another branch of the military, so as to provide them with an income. This is also the lesson that Elizabeth learns when she discovers that her prejudiced and hasty approbation of Wickham and disapprobation of Darcy have led to injustice and have helped to facilitate the harm Wickham wreaks in Meryton, Brighton, his regiment and in the Bennet family.

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