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

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

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Major Themes in Pride and Prejudice

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Pride and Prejudice is full of character-driven themes that revolve around the literary concept of “comedy of manners.” A comedy of manners is a literary work that deals with young lovers attempting to unite in marriage, and usually includes several incidences of witty commentary from the main characters, which can take form in terms of anything from clever flirting to open warfare, as in the case of Darcy and Elizabeth. Pride and Prejudice is mainly concerned with the pairing of several couples and the issues surrounding each of those couples. The pursuit of marriage in this novel brings the other major themes to light.

The novel’s title itself indicates one of the major themes of the novel. All of the characters in this novel (with the exception of Jane and Bingley) suffer from the sins of both pride and prejudice. This is evident in Darcy’s introduction, when the entire neighborhood is set against Darcy (and he against them):

Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien—and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance of his having ten thousand a year . . . and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance (6).

Thus Hertfordshire society looks down upon Darcy for the remainder of the novel. This introduction to Darcy also demonstrates an important point about the relationship between pride and prejudice—one leads to the other. The affront that the neighborhood has suffered by Darcy’s refusal to interact with them leads to their prejudice. Darcy, possessing pride as well, is no better, as he develops a bias against the neighborhood and the Bennett family in particular. This intolerance leads to Darcy’s interference in and prevention of Jane and Bingley’s romance. Elizabeth also suffers from both pride and prejudice, as her mortification over Darcy’s description of Elizabeth as “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt” him (7), and his proud behavior at the first party at Netherfield, as she rejects Darcy’s first proposal:

“From the very beginning, from the first moment, I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry”(145).

While Darcy and Elizabeth are alike in terms of personality and ability, and the offer of marriage would be financially and socially advantageous to Elizabeth, her hatred of Darcy, based on her impression of him, determines her decision.

Austen presents two solutions to the problems created by pride and prejudice. The first is to avoid either. Jane and Bingley exemplify this idea. Neither has any pride, and they are not easily prejudiced by the comments of others. When Jane hears of the rumors regarding Wickham, she refuses to believe any of them without proof, whether it is Wickham’s claims of Darcy’s abuse, or Wickham’s infamous escapades with money and Georgiana Darcy. Bingley is of a similar mindset, and refuses to believe or internalize...

(This entire section contains 1475 words.)

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any of the criticisms of his sisters or Darcy regarding anyone in Hertfordshire. Jane and Bingley’s capability to avoid both pride and prejudice is what brings about their happiness at the end of the novel, because their goodness is truly unaffected.

For most of the characters, as well as the rest of us, the faults of pride and prejudice cannot be so easily remedied. Austen gives the rest of us our answer to the problems of these two failings through the development of the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth. The heated exchange between these two characters in Chapter 34 and Darcy’s subsequent letter in Chapter 35 demonstrates both the effects of pride and prejudice and the solution to the problem. Elizabeth’s accusations of Darcy’s pride and his interference in the lives of Jane and Wickham make Darcy reexamine his attitude toward Jane and toward his behavior. Darcy thinks about his mistakes, and by doing so, is able to recognize them, as he tells Elizabeth after she accepts his second proposal:

“The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it, is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: ‘had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.’ Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me; though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice” (275).

Despite his earlier convictions about the Bennetts’ inferiority and the offense that Darcy’s pride has taken through his attraction to Elizabeth, Darcy is able to conquer his negative ideas so that he can see the error of his ways.

Elizabeth, too, must conquer her own pride and prejudices in order to see Darcy’s worth. When Darcy explains his actions in Chapter 35 as a result of the conversation during the previous chapter, Elizabeth must come to terms with several of the problems that she has ignored or avoided throughout the novel. She must acknowledge Jane’s appearance of indifference toward Bingley, which even Charlotte Lucas has previously noted to her. Elizabeth must admit that she might be wrong about Wickham, especially given his refusal to be in the same room as Darcy and his attentions toward Miss King. And most difficult of all, Elizabeth must deal with the impropriety of her parents and her younger sisters, all of which she has known but refused to censure her father for because she adored him so much. Like Darcy, Elizabeth must review and review these facts until she can put aside her prejudices against Darcy so that they can be together.

Another theme that appears in the novel is the relationship between reputation and marriage. Because the lack of money and societal connections often made it difficult for middle-class girls to marry, a girl’s reputation needed to be carefully guarded and maintained. The damage created by a thoughtless act was often irreparable, especially when it came to issues of romance, and one action by one daughter often destroyed the reputation of the entire family. This is what makes Lydia’s elopement with Wickham so horrible for the Bennett girls—she has not only jeopardized her own status in society by running away with Wickham, but she has also greatly damaged the opportunities of her sisters. Any possible suitors would not want anything to do with a family that cannot teach one of their girls to act properly. This action immediately ruins the developing romance between Darcy and Elizabeth, who are clearly on the path to marriage until Jane’s letter announcing Lydia’s escapade interrupts them. The problem is compounded by the “vulgarity” of the rest of the Bennet family—the obnoxious whining of Mrs. Bennet, the neglect of Mr. Bennet, the pompous attitude of Mary, and the insipid nature of Kitty. Any author attempting to uphold the guilt-by-association tendencies of Regency society would have ended the novel in tragedy at this point, because Darcy and Bingley would never gain any societal advantage from associating with Elizabeth and Jane.

Austen, however, disagrees with the stereotyping of families and daughters in particular by the thoughtlessness of their relatives, and demonstrates that those who are strong enough to question the practices of society can be rewarded for it. Both Darcy and Bingley, who have taken the time to get to know and understand Elizabeth and Jane, see past Lydia’s foolishness and recognize the value of the women they love. They choose to ignore the dictates of their society for marital happiness. That happiness will help them overcome their problems. Bingley and Jane must tolerate the Wickhams, and are so irritated by them that even Bingley starts to hint that he might ask them to leave (which is extreme for someone who likes everyone). Darcy and Elizabeth must deal with Lady Catherine, whose anger takes a long time to abate. However, by the end of the novel it is clear that both couples have made the right choice, and despite their problems are rewarded for their willingness to move past the pride and prejudices of themselves and their society.

Good Matches in Pride and Prejudice

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The primary concern of Pride and Prejudice is to determine how a young girl of some intelligence and beauty but not much money can enter into a good marriage in Regency England—a time and place in which a good marriage was determined almost entirely by the opportunity for money, status, and “connections” (networking) between families and businesses. Austen criticizes this concept of marriage as financial and social advancement, and instead contends that a good marriage consists of two people who are of similar mind and talents.

In order to understand what is at stake for all of the girls in the novel, it must first be understood that there were very few options available to the daughters of a gentleman such as Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters. Professions for “respectable” women at the time were scarce—the only viable career choice would be as a governess for young children. Since those jobs were few and far between, the most realistic (and sometimes only) option for young women of Austen’s time was marriage. This, of course, made the availability of brides to men plentiful, increasing the anxiety of parents of young girls who did not have enough money, status, or beauty to attract rich young men. Austen addresses the desperation felt by parents who needed to marry off their daughters at the very beginning of the novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (1). This spot of humor highlights the major dilemma of not only the Bennett sisters but thousands of girls in Austen’s time—the desperation of parents to marry their daughters off to the first unmarried man with money that comes along.

Austen presents several attitudes toward the problem of attaining a marriage with underwhelming money, status, and/or looks. The first character to marry in the novel is Charlotte Lucas, who demonstrates her opinion on the concept of a good match in her discussion with Elizabeth regarding Jane and Bingley:

“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation, and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life” (16).

Charlotte is advocating not knowing anything about a spouse before getting married because she believes that the less you know, the better. This philosophy, which Elizabeth immediately dismisses as “not sound,” is what leads Charlotte to agree to marry Mr. Collins, a buffoon who will be a constant source of embarrassment and distress to Charlotte. Many characters in the novel, as well as Regency society itself, would consider Mr. Collins a tremendous match for the plain, nearly-spinster Charlotte, who has been previously unsuccessful in attracting a husband. After all, Mr. Collins is a respectable man whose position as a minister for the well-respected Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the envy of many. He will have money and standing throughout his life, and will eventually even inherit Longbourn. It is no wonder, then, that Mrs. Bennett is angry with Elizabeth for turning down an offer of marriage from such an eligible man. However, Austen soon vindicates her heroine because only a few months later, Charlotte is miserable in her marriage despite her social and marital status. Austen demonstrates Charlotte’s mistake in failing to get to know her prospective husband before the point of no return.

Marriage that is based on looks and physical attraction does not work any better than marrying for status. The Bennets, we are told, marry because they were both good looking:

[Elizabeth’s] father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humor which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her (176).

Mr. and Mrs. Bennett wed because they are physically attracted to each other, but, like Charlotte and Mr. Collins, learn nothing of their prospective spouse’s personality. As a result, they soon find they have nothing in common and by the beginning of the action of this novel cannot even stand to be in the same room for long periods of time. This lack of understanding and tolerance has a devastating effect on the Bennett daughters, as Mr. Bennett’s intolerance of his wife leads him to leave his youngest three daughters alone, which is why they become so silly. Elizabeth acknowledges this after noting Lydia and Kitty’s vulgar behavior with the militia:

But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents, talents which rightly used might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife (177).

Mr. Bennett’s loathing of his wife is no excuse for his parental neglect, and he is responsible for not guiding Mary, Kitty, and Lydia properly. Lydia and Wickham are no better off—they foolishly run off to London without knowing much of anything of each other because they too are attracted to each other. Lydia is a carbon copy of her mother, and Wickham, who is far more cunning, soon tires of her. Had they bothered to acquaint themselves with each other, they might have avoided the Bennets’ fate.

Jane Austen’s concept of a good match is more than looks and status—it is a match of character and intelligence. Darcy and Elizabeth are proof of this. Both characters demonstrate their intelligence and wit throughout the novel, often through their verbal sparring with each other. Both suffer from their own pride, as well as the prejudice created by each other’s actions. However, Elizabeth’s prejudice against Darcy’s comments and actions in the beginning of the novel is much more severe than Darcy’s, which explains why he falls in love with Elizabeth long before she has any interest in him. While Elizabeth’s personality appeals to him, Darcy is convinced that he is superior to Elizabeth because he has the same expectations of a match that those of his society maintain. This sense of superiority is a tremendous offense to Elizabeth in Chapter 34, and she has little trouble rejecting Darcy because he is so rude. Elizabeth, however, is not innocent either, and believes herself to be superior to Darcy because she thinks she is not as rude as he is. The reality of the situation, however, is that Elizabeth is just as dissatisfied with people as Darcy is:

“The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and everyday confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense” (101-102).

At this point in the novel, Darcy is attracted to Elizabeth beyond reason, but as this would send him down the same road as the Bennets or the Wickhams, it is insufficient to woo Elizabeth, and thus the proposal cannot be accepted until Darcy learns that Elizabeth is an equal.

Fortunately for both of them, Darcy and Elizabeth come to realize that they are indeed equals. Darcy meets the Gardiners, who demonstrate that Elizabeth’s relations can not only act in a civilized manner, but can actually be a delight to speak to. Elizabeth sees the regard of Darcy’s servants for their master, and witnesses the behavior of the reformed Darcy at Pemberley. Both use their intelligence to see past their own pride and the prejudices that have been formed, and are ready by the end of the novel to be together. However, one last issue remains—the impact of society’s prejudices on Elizabeth and Darcy. When Lydia runs away with Wickham, society’s values at the time would dictate that Darcy end his pursuit of Elizabeth because any connection with a family whose daughter would thoughtlessly run away with a man without getting married would poison that person’s status in society permanently. Darcy sees past this, solves the problem by bribing Wickham (which is a great source of pain considering Wickham’s insidious attempt at elopement with Georgiana). Elizabeth must deal with the venom of Lady Catherine, who makes her prejudices against Elizabeth and her family plain in the rudest possible way. Austen rewards the efforts of Elizabeth and Darcy to see past their own limitations and the limitations imposed by the society around them with domestic felicity, as it is clear at the end of the novel that they are indeed a good match.

Humor in Pride and Prejudice

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Pride and Prejudice is an extremely funny novel, but most students miss the humor because of difficulty with the language. Close examination of Austen’s ironic and scathing treatment of specific characters and scenes in the novel not only helps to clarify the novel’s major themes, but also makes Pride and Prejudice an enjoyable experience.

The novel is sarcastic from its 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” (1). This is obviously not true—as any major movie star or rock singer can attest. Austen is ironically stating that when a young, rich, single man is in the neighborhood, people are always trying to set him up with a girl, whether or not he wants to be. This is because, as Austen notes, once he moves into a neighborhood, he becomes the "rightful property” of the girls of the area. This idea of targeting available young men for marriage is the central topic of the novel, as every family in Hertfordshire is attempting to hitch up Mr. Bingley to their daughters. This line also shows the desperation of the families in attempting to attain wealth and connections at all costs.

The first declared victim of this targeting mentality, Mrs. Bennet, is one of the funniest (and the stupidest) characters in Pride and Prejudice. In Chapter 1, Mrs. Bennet is completely oblivious to Mr. Bennet’s sarcasm because she is incapable of understanding anything remotely intelligent, and she is completely fixated on the idea of Mr. Bingley, the latest rich and available young man to move into the neighborhood. Mr. Bennett teases Mrs. Bennet by telling her that there is no need for him to introduce himself to Bingley, which there really is, as the societal rules of the time dictated that the father of a family must first introduce themselves to a new neighbor (especially a male) before the rest of the family was permitted to visit. The teasing comes to a head when Mrs. Bennet exclaims that Mr. Bennet has no regard for her delicate nerves, to which he replies: “You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least” (2). In reality, Mr. Bennet has no respect for his wife’s feelings at all because she is so ridiculous. Austen clarifies this shortly hereafter, when she describes the Bennets as a couple:

Mr. Bennet was odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news (3).

In other words, Mr. Bennet is a smart aleck and Mrs. Bennet is a whiny hypochondriac whose only goals in life are getting her daughters married and gossip. This is indicative of both characters throughout the novel: anything that comes out of Mr. Bennet’s mouth is sarcastic and/or insulting, and whatever Mrs. Bennet says is idiotic and loud. This mismatch of tempers and abilities highlights one of the novel’s most significant themes, the concept of a good match as a unity of similar characters and temperaments as opposed to marriage for the sake of attraction.

Unfortunately, the Bennet marriage also exemplifies another warning from Austen—the ramifications of a bad match on children. The Bennets’ inability to understand each other and get along results in Mr. Bennet’s neglect of his three youngest daughters: Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. He leaves them to his wife to raise because after his patience has worn out after Jane and Elizabeth, and this neglect is what makes these three girls so “silly.” Lydia is an airheaded flirt whose selfishness nearly ruins everything for all of her sisters, and Kitty is a nervous wreck who is far too easily influenced by Lydia’s lead. However, the oldest of the three silly girls, Mary, is another source of amusement in the novel. Mary is sarcastically introduced in the novel by her father, who facetiously appeals to the “wisdom” that she has gathered from great amounts of reading: “’What say you, Mary? For you are a young lady of deep reflection, I know, and read great books, and make extracts’” (4). Despite reflecting deeply and reading always, Mary has no ability to apply the knowledge she has gathered, and is just as much of an idiot as her mother is. Austen demonstrates this immediately with Mary’s lack of a response to her father’s taunt: “Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how.” This is Mary’s problem throughout the novel, as she says a great many things, but absolutely none of them are sensible. Another example of this occurs after Elizabeth finishes playing the piano at the second gathering of the novel, where she is quickly succeeded by Mary, who devours any chance at attention even though she cannot sing. Austen then describes Mary more thoroughly:

Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application [perseverance], it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached. Elizabeth, easy and unaffected, had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well (17).

Mary’s vanity and know-it-all attitude make her intolerable to everyone around her, but it is the result of the neglect of her father, who could have taught her proper manners and could have helped in her education, as he had done with Jane and Elizabeth. Elizabeth notes this failing in her father later on in the novel, reminding us that the consequence of a bad match is often miserable and neglected children.

Another of Austen’s humor targets is Mr. Collins. With the possible exception of Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins is the biggest buffoon of Pride and Prejudice. His letter of introduction in the novel makes his silliness obvious:

[F]or having received ordination at Easter, I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh...whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be very ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England (47).

Mr. Collins sees his primary job as Lady Catherine’s doormat (which is a good thing, since she is determined to treat him and every other character in the novel that way), and will also force himself to baptize, marry, and bury the members of his parish whenever time permits. Both Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet immediately recognize that he may not necessarily be “sensible,” and their assessment is justified when Mr. Collins arrives shortly thereafter. He constantly praises everything, down to the most minute piece of furniture. He also apologizes profusely for the smallest thing, a habit appreciated by no one except Mary and Mrs. Bennet. His constant remarks of admiration for Lady Catherine, whose condescension and sheer rudeness equal the money she possesses, irritate virtually everyone around him.

One of the best examples of the failings of Mr. Collins and of humor in the novel in general is Mr. Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth. When Mr. Collins asks Mrs. Bennet for a private word with Elizabeth, Elizabeth tries to avoid being alone with him by first saying that no one needs to leave, and then tries to leave the room herself, but is stayed by her mother’s order. Then Mr. Collins begins his declarations of love for Elizabeth: “’Almost as soon as I entered the house I singled you out as the companion of my future life’” (80). This statement is false, since he initially shows interest in Jane and only makes up his mind for Elizabeth when Mrs. Bennet tells him that Jane is practically engaged to Bingley. He then proceeds to list his reasons for marrying, all of which basically boil down to the fact that Lady Catherine told him he should, which is hardly romantic. He also goes so far as to say that the best thing about marrying him is that Elizabeth will get to be near Lady Catherine herself, which, in Mr. Collins’ mind, is the ultimate reason to marry anyone. Elizabeth is, not surprisingly, not enticed by this proposal, and refuses Mr. Collins. This hilarious and awkward scenario, a primer on what not to do when one proposes, is also a reminder to Austen’s audience that the only reason to marry anyone is for true love—love that is based on understanding and equality of mind and character, not love of status or beauty. Unfortunately, Mr. Collins is so dense that he does not believe Elizabeth, and therefore persists several more times before he finally gives up his suit and proposes to Charlotte Lucas, who he does not even know. This point is exemplified later through the Collins’ marriage, as Charlotte is completely miserable and must encourage her husband to be away from her as much as possible.

There are many other examples of humor in this novel. From Darcy and Elizabeth’s verbal war to the nonsensical behavior of the sillier characters in the novel, Austen’s use of irony, both verbal and situational, makes her examination of the rules of courtship and society a joy to read, and her style also emphasizes her major points. Pride and Prejudice is the perfect example of humor’s ability to teach important lessons about life.

Pride and Prejudice: Historical Background and Treatment of Men and Women

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Pride and Prejudice published in 1813, is Jane Austen's second, and probably best known novel, though it was originally published anonymously. Austen began Pride and Prejudice in 1796 under the title First Impressions. Her family found the novel entertaining and continued to reread it for at least two years. By 1799, she'd begun working on Eleanor and Marianne, which was later published as Sense and Sensibility in 1811. She again began revision work on First Impressions, though she was forced to retitle it as the name had already been used by another novelist. Pride and Prejudice finds its popular appeal in its control of language, wit, clever dialogue, and charming representations of human foible portrayed in characters such as Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Mrs. Bennet. It is a far more mature and better written novel than Sense and Sensibility.

Known as a novel of manners, it, like Emma (1816), another popular Austen novel often used in the classroom, portrays the life of gentility in a small, rural society. Austen dramatizes the delicate and precarious nature of a society based on an ecology of manners. In such a society, the well-being of everyone hinges on people maintaining their proper places and behaving according to a strict code of manners. For the Bennet girls, their chances of marriage fall precipitously with every show of impropriety.

From the beginning, it is important to understand the very real danger that faces the Bennet girls if they do not marry. Upon Mr. Bennet's death, the girls' cousin, Mr. Collins, will inherit Longbourn. That means that the family will have no source of support and no place to live. A marriage of one of the girls to a wealthy man would provide a solution, but there is another problem, even for Jane and Elizabeth who do not suffer from ill-bred, vulgar behavior as their sisters do. Each girl possesses a negligible dowry to entice a prospective husband. Any man who chooses to marry a poor girl must do so for love or to acquire a good wife. Clearly Kitty, Mary, and Lydia will not make good wives. They have not been brought up to behave properly. Indeed, with the example of the loud, tactless Mrs. Bennet, it is a wonder that Elizabeth and Jane have managed to grow up so well.

Mrs. Bennet cannot be the only one blamed for the poor behavior of her daughters. Mr. Bennet keeps himself aloof from his wife's quirks, using them only as fodder for his dry wit. When Mrs. Bennet sends Jane on horseback to Netherfield, plotting that Jane should catch cold, Mr. Bennet, though making disparaging comments, does not attempt to stop her. He is as ineffective a parent as she is, taking no responsibility for the improprieties of the girls, until Lydia's elopement. At this point he realizes he has been derelict as a parent and attempts to change. This is part of Austen's goal to teach the necessity of proper behavior, of taking responsibility for one's actions. Thus is it important that both Darcy and Elizabeth admit to their Pride and Prejudice and the mistakes that they have made. In doing so, they seek to learn from their mistakes, but also they recognize the danger of such rash opinionated behavior, such as that of Darcy's childhood friend, Wickham. Mr. Wickham was nearly the ruin of both of them and their families.

However, in spite of Wickham's and Lydia's complete break with propriety, and the danger that she places the rest of her family in, she neither learns from her mistakes, nor suffers particularly from them. In a world where so much depends on people fulfilling their positions, behaving properly, punishment is a luxury that society cannot afford. For if Lydia were punished, perhaps ostracized, the rest of the family, and through them friends and the rest of the community, would suffer. The taint of scandal and gossip serve to make women ineligible to marry. In this small community, no one could afford to associate with the Bennets. At the same time, maintaining that sort of ostracism would cause schism and the ecology of the community would be forever crippled, if not destroyed completely. Therefore, Lydia must be forgiven and her improprieties overlooked. This is only possible because she has returned to the fold, once again conforming within the bounds of acceptable behavior. Once she and Wickham have married, they have sufficiently rectified their situation and no longer pose a danger to the society.

Austen does remain cautious about marriage without some sort of attachment, or marriage between people of comparable characters. Charlotte marries Mr. Collins, suffering for the rest of her life with an obsequious fool and under the thumb of Lady de Bourgh. In exchange for security, she has given up her individuality and freedom. And while Austen does suggest that individuality must be contained within the codes and mores of society, it should not be repressed all together. Individualism has the power to add zest and charm to life, as long as it does not subvert the community. This sort of conforming individualism is best exemplified in Elizabeth. She is a unique character, abiding by the social demands of the community, yet at the same time her sharp wit and humor make her the only woman that engages Darcy's mind and heart.

Feminists have criticized Austen's portrayal of women in Pride and Prejudice as being too passive. None of the women ever take active control of their lives. They instead must wait until men act. Jane must wait for Bingley, and when he leaves Netherfield, she cannot contact him or ask for any explanation. Similarly, when Lydia disappears with Wickham, none of the Bennet women—who incidentally will be more fundamentally affected by the events than anyone else—are allowed to do anything to retrieve Lydia. Instead they must wait at home for news. This enforced passivity reinforces the traditional view of women as helpless and delicate. Men must take care of women since they are incapable of managing for themselves. However, it should be noted that Austen gives most of the dialogue to the women throughout the novel.

Another thing that many readers notice about Austen's novels, is that in spite of the fact that she writes during the political turmoil of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the growing Industrial Revolution, and the escalating political and social upheaval in England, except for the officers stationed m Meryton, there is no evidence of any of this strife in her novels. Austen herself notes that she knows little of the world at large and instead chooses to write about what she does know. However, it is clear that she does not know how to write male characters well. As mentioned above, much of the dialog in the novel is given to women. Some critics have suggested that Austen herself was not familiar enough with men to write believable male characters. When Elizabeth accepts Darcy's proposal, Austen only vaguely suggests his reaction: "he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do."

Austen's writings had great influence on a number of writers throughout the century. Glimpses of Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins can be found in Dickens Elizabeth's sharp wit can be found in Thackeray, Eden, and Trollope. Her exploration of manners and the constrictions of women were taken up by later women writers such as George Eliot, Sarah Grand, and Elizabeth Gaskell. She helped to legitimize the novel as an art form. At the same time, she set an example for other women writers, showing them that even without the expansive education given to men, women could still make valuable contributions.

Source: Diana Francis, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Francis is a doctoral candidate at Ball State University.

The New Romance in Pride and Prejudice

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Students, like many critics, question the point of the last volume (the final 19 chapters) of Pride and Prejudice because they already know who will "get" whom. Many feminist scholars portray Austen's happy unions as either sexist, sellouts, or parodies. But critics' declared dissatisfaction with marriage as a narrative resolution is never reconciled with unexamined prejudices against single women. A number of critics themselves reiterate the tired news that Austen was a "spinster," a term that Austen's books never once invoke and that hardly defends singleness as a liberating option. The twin assumptions that neither single nor married women can be powerful, useful, or happy leads to a deadlier myth, the curiously perverse axiom that suicide is woman's only "life-affirming" choice. In fact, the art—particularly Kate Chopin's The Awakening—and the authors—Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath—in vogue during the last few decades have often been seen as glorifying death as the only way out for women in an inexorably unjust culture. By implication, simply surviving, let alone coping, becomes synonymous with compromising. The last third of Pride and Prejudice, however, imagines an alternative: far from smothering under a shroud of "the marriage plot," Elizabeth Bennet works out a new institution of love based on a new conception of self.

After the crisis of Elizabeth's initial embarrassment at Mr. Darcy' s unexpected arrival at Pemberley, including her "amazement at the alteration in his manner," Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle the Gardiners "were again surprised, and Elizabeth's astonishment was quite equal to what it had been at first, by the sight of Mr. Darcy approaching them." Elizabeth's second surprise is that "he really intended to meet them." The encounter here between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy encapsulates the recurring action of this final volume; Elizabeth continually assumes that Mr. Darcy will "strike into some other path," but whenever the "turning" that obscures him fades away, he always turns up, "and at no great distance"—in fact, "immediately before" her. Every time that "her thoughts were all fixed on that one spot . . . whichever it might be, where Mr. Darcy then was," she finds that he is on an errand expressly to see or to help her.

In the woods of Pemberley, Elizabeth is far from imagining that Mr. Darcy is on such a quest. In fact, she begins an alternating pattern of distancing herself from him—fancying that her friendly praise "might be mischievously construed"—yet nevertheless bewildering herself with his mystery: "Why is he so altered?. . . It cannot be for me, it cannot be for my sake." Always the stunning answer is that her "reproofs at Hunsford [did] work such a change as this," because "it is [not] impossible that he should still love" her. Mr. Darcy himself later explains why he does not "avoid her as his greatest enemy," by distinguishing between hatred and anger: he could never hate her, and even his anger "soon began to take a proper direction"—at himself. Through an affecting contrast, Austen honors this man's exceptionally receptive resilience. Elizabeth's response to the events at Hunsford had been an inability to "feel the slightest inclination ever to see him again"; Mr. Darcy, however, not only wishes to continue as Elizabeth's friend but hopes that his sister, Georgiana, may come to know her as well.

The trope of Elizabeth's shock will be picked up when she is home at Longbourn, looking out the window to see Mr. Darcy riding up to the house with Mr. Bingley. The narrator explains, "Her astonishment at his coming was almost equal to what she had known on first witnessing his altered behaviour in Derbyshire." Elizabeth's surprise is great because she has felt that the disgrace of Lydia's elopement would destroy Mr. Darcy's affection. But we also learn that although Mr. Darcy continues to astound, the shock is lessening and is now only "almost equal" to what she had felt before. The stupefaction Elizabeth experiences here, like that created by Mr. Darcy's behavior at Pemberley, reflects the conventional belief that men cannot be loyal and deeply attached lovers. Mr. Darcy's arrival at Longbourn enlarges Elizabeth's expectations of men's capacity to love. One measure is that when he returns yet again, after Lady Catherine de Bourgh has stormed through Longbourn vowing to separate her from Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth now only "half expect[s]" him not to come.

Back in Lambton, Elizabeth had begun to rely on Mr. Darcy's affection, or on her own "power, which her fancy told her she still possessed, of bringing on the renewal of his addresses." But that confidence is shattered by the news of Lydia Bennet's elopement. For readers swept by a growing excitement at Elizabeth's discovery of Fitzwilliam Darcy's "impossible" power "still [to] love me," the turning point at the lodgings is a careful frustration of our hopes, a transformation of exhilaration to anguish. Elizabeth mistakenly, and conventionally, reads Mr. Darcy's "earnest meditation" about how to find Mr. Wickham as a sign that "her power was sinking." The inadequacy of Elizabeth's equation of love with "power" is suggested by a sudden shift in tone. From the pathos of "she could neither wonder nor condemn," the narrator unexpectedly swells into sentimental cliches: "but the belief of his self-conquest brought nothing consolatory to her bosom, afforded no palliation of her distress." "Of course not," respond students, who readily see that women's self-sacrifice is silly. Elizabeth realizes only "now, when all love must be vain," that she "could have loved him"; yet she, at least as much as Mr. Darcy, must let go of such traditional, and false, visions of sexual relations.

At issue are assumptions about the selfishness and instability of men's love. When Elizabeth discovers that Mr Darcy had been at Lydia's wedding, "conjectures as to the meaning of it, rapid and wild, hurried into her brain," but they "seemed most improbable." However, what she considers her most farfetched fancies will be "proved beyond their greatest extent to be true." Elizabeth's inability to conceive that Mr. Darcy could cherish a concern for her as "ardent" as hers for Jane culminates when we learn that while her new respect for Mr. Darcy is fervent, it still does not do him justice. "Elizabeth was now most heartily sorry" that she had not concealed the elopement from "all those who were not immediately on the spot." By designating Mr. Darcy as just another bystander, Elizabeth would, in her yearning for secrecy, negate her unreflecting confidence—her disclosure of how fully she has accepted his revelations about Mr. Wickham—and deprive herself of Mr. Darcy's delicately underspoken comfort. But Elizabeth's regrets are hilariously inappropriate because the joyful truth is that Lydia's problems never would have been solved had Elizabeth not confided in Mr Darcy. Only he knew how to find Mr. Wickham.

Elizabeth's doubts about the possibility of allegiance from Fitzwilliam Darcy are hardly a private matter. Neither Austen's culture nor our own has traditionally demanded much of men as lovers. William Collins's spleen when Elizabeth refuses him reflects the customary churlishness of the disappointed suitor. Mr Darcy's own first movement toward Elizabeth embodies the sexist view that he is a good catch who has only to choose and be accepted, that no matter how he has insulted any woman, she will be happy either to dance with or marry him whenever he can force himself to ask. The novel does not support such conventional views. Most students have been raised on the interwoven notions of women's craving for men and men's indifference to women, a trope misnamed "the battle of the sexes" and a heritage that Pride and Prejudice explicitly invokes in its opening torture scenes in which Mr. Bennet baits Mrs. Bennet. Readers continue to adore Mr. Bennet's bitter humor on a first reading and only later learn to reevaluate that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which . . . was so highly reprehensible." Pride and Prejudice offers a vision of love in which women and men may care about each other with a passionate tenderness at least equal to that felt by strongly united sisters: the other person' s well-being is simply and immediately crucial. Mr. Darcy's concern for Elizabeth is so great, so sublimely disinterested, that, whether or not she loves him, he wants to make her happy and never claim the credit.

At stake is how we recognize romance. What are the signs in others that we respond to as allure, and what are the alterations in ourselves that we identify as passion? What Pride and Prejudice offers to Elizabeth Bennet through Fitzwilliam Darcy is a sexuality that casts away usual power relations with their traditional alternatives of confrontation and capitulation, when men sweep women off their feet but both sides nurse an underlying narcissism as their truly dominant passion. The traditional proposal Mr Darcy made at Hunsford betrays a masturbatory fixation with his own desires and sacrifices, however, his avowal of love in the lanes near Longbourn portrays a generous focus on Elizabeth Bennet, foretelling a relation of listening reciprocity. Mr Darcy's reform is convincing because it is based on a goodness and generosity that Elizabeth had never credited him with, and it is moving because it is unimaginable according to cultural ideas of men's capacity and feelings. The sexual politics of the relation between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy locates erotic pleasure in kindnesses that any person can show another. To women Austen offers a vision in which nothing about men's honest devotion is too good to be true—a prophecy that women need not settle for less. In a final volume made up almost exclusively of characters' astonishment at how others' actions surpass or betray their expectations, the delicately crocheted chain of Elizabeth's surprises carefully builds excitement over reunions that we are asked to celebrate because they change our ideas about what love, even marriage, can mean.

Yet as Elizabeth discovers Mr. Darcy's affection, she must explore her own—in a process that protects the integrity and disinterestedness of her attachment. "She respected, she esteemed, she was grateful to him, she felt a real interest in his welfare." Her effort to "make [her feelings] out," as she "lay awake two whole hours" is a comic reversal of an earlier moment when, with "something like regret," she had toyed with envy about the position as "mistress of Pemberley." Now, as Elizabeth investigates her new tenderness for Mr. Darcy, we can delight in how she stretches out the process of committing herself. Respect, esteem, gratitude, and an interest in his welfare all add up to love. Such feelings are the origin of love based on knowledge, and, Pride and Prejudice shows, nothing else is love.

But Elizabeth's discerning standards for heterosexual affection display a revolution of self as well as of eros. Even at the height of her suspense about Mr Darcy, Elizabeth asserts the worth of her own life, gloriously declaring to herself, "If he is satisfied with only regretting me, when he might have obtained my affections and hand, I shall soon cease to regret him at all." Such faith that if need be she can outlive her affection for Fitzwilliam Darcy is based on the new idea that he will be unworthy if he cannot continue to love. The value for her own future, separate from her connection to a man, and her resolve to judge his rather than her own worth by his performance intensify our suspense over the test: Can Mr. Darcy justify her affection? The fulfillment of that quest comes in a love scene that readers have long depreciated as an anticlimax.

Pride and Prejudice is a pivotal moment in our feminist heritage, an achievement whose power has in many senses been lost, as we have so often lost women's history and work. This novel offers an iconoclastic representation of women and men. Austen is a creative political thinker in her own right, but her politics must be located through attention to the relationships among her characters, between those characters and their narrator, and between narrator and reader, before we try to place her in extratextual heritages or contexts. Rather than look for politics by turning away from the text to events outside the novel, we need at last to accept that the book's explicit concerns are themselves political. Pride and Prejudice does more than teach us about the debates of Austen's day; it can guide us among the many urgent issues of identity and gender with which we continue to struggle. In an age when we have learned to see the battle of the sexes as one aspect of the abuse that women have been taught to label as "love," the answer is not to throw out romance altogether. Pride and Prejudice's moving prophecy is that we may also make Elizabeth Bennet's demand that Fitzwilliam Darcy become worthy of her love.

Source: Susan Kneedler, "The New Romance in Pride and Prejudice," in Approaches to Teaching Austen's Pride and Prejudice, edited by Marcia McClintock Folsom, Modern Language Association of America, 1993, pp. 152-66.


Critical Overview


Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen