Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
The following entry presents criticism of Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. See also, Jane Austen Criticism, Northanger Abbey Criticism, and Mansfield Park Criticism.
One of the world's most popular novels, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has delighted readers since its publication with the story of the witty Elizabeth Bennet and her relationship with the aristocrat Fitzwilliam Darcy. Similiar to Austen's other works, Pride and Prejudice is a humorous portrayal of the social atmosphere of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, and it is principally concerned with courtship rituals of the English gentry. The novel is much more than a comedic love story, however; through Austen's subtle and ironic style, it addresses economic, political, feminist, sociological, and philosophical themes, inspiring a great deal of diverse critical commentary on the meaning of the work.
Plot and Major Characters
Pride and Prejudice focuses on Elizabeth Bennet, an intelligent young woman with romantic and individualistic ideals, and her relationship with Mr. Darcy, a wealthy gentleman of very high social status. At the outset of the novel, Elizabeth's loud and dim-witted mother, her foolish younger sisters, and her beautiful older sister Jane are very excited because a wealthy gentleman, Mr. Bingley, is moving to their neighborhood. The young women are concerned about finding husbands because if Elizabeth's father, a humorous and ironical man, were to die, the estate would be left to their pompous cousin Mr. Collins. Mr. Bingley soon becomes attached to Jane while Elizabeth grows to dislike his close friend Mr. Darcy, whom the village finds elitist and ill-tempered. Under the influence of his sisters and Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley eventually moves away to London. Mr. Collins, an irritating clergyman, then proposes to his cousin Elizabeth, who refuses him. He marries her friend Charlotte instead, and Elizabeth visits the couple at their estate, where she and Mr. Darcy meet again at the house of his aunt, also Mr. Collin's patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth but she refuses him, partly based on her belief that he dissuaded Mr. Bingley from pursuing a relationship with Jane. In a letter to Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy explains his actions regarding Jane and Mr. Bingley, as well as the way in which he has treated his estranged childhood companion, Mr. Wickham. The next time Elizabeth sees Mr. Darcy, at his estate, she is better disposed toward him, but they are interrupted by a scandal involving Elizabeth's sister Lydia, who has eloped with Mr. Wickham. Mr. Bennet and his brother-in-law Mr. Gardiner attempt to resolve the situation, but it is actually Mr. Darcy who resolves the situation by paying Mr. Wickham and convincing him to marry Lydia. Mr. Bingley then returns to his estate in the Bennets' neighborhood and soon becomes engaged to Jane. Afterward, despite Lady Catherine's attempt to prevent the engagement, Elizabeth marries Mr. Darcy.
Austen's novel is principally concerned with the social fabric of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, a patriarchal society in which men held the economic and social power. In an often satirical portrait of the men and women attempting to gain a livelihood, Austen subtly and ironically points out faults in the system, raising questions about the values of English society and the power structure of the country. Pride and Prejudice contains many elements of social realism, and it focuses on the merging of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy during the era of the Napoleonic wars and at the beginning of the industrial revolution. The novel is also engaged in an ideological debate that drives its plot and defines the essence of its main character. Interested in the balance between pragmatism, or the necessity of securing a marriage, and idealism, particularly Elizabeth's romanticism and individualism, Austen dramatizes her heroine's struggle to find a place within the conservative social institution of marriage. The precise nature of this balance is not necessarily clear, and despite what seems to be a happy marriage, it may not be entirely possible to reconcile Elizabeth's independence and naturalness with Mr. Darcy's conservatism and conventionality. Nevertheless, the novel seems to work toward an ideological balance and an alteration in the fundamental aspects of these characters that will lead to a reconciliation of the themes that they represent.
Probably Austen's most widely read novel, Pride and Prejudice, which has been continuously in print since its publication in 1813, has been the subject of volumes of diverse critical reactions. Evaluations of this work have included condemnatory dismissals such as that of Mark Twain, measured praises of Austen's sophistication and wit, and plaudits for the novel as the author's masterpiece. Many early critics focused on the social realism of the novel, commenting on the depth, or lack of depth, of Austen's characters. Criticism of the novel from the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century also tended to regard Austen as a moralist, discussing the value system that Pride and Prejudice establishes. Critics from the 1920s through the 1950s focused on Austen's characteristic themes and stylistic devices, as well as discussing her choice of subject matter and the moral and ideological journey that Elizabeth undertakes throughout the course of the novel. During the 1960s and 1970s, commentators offered contextual criticism that evaluated Pride and Prejudice within the literary and social world in which Austen wrote. It was also during this period that new directions in criticism of the novel began to be explored. Since the late 1960s, for example, critics have approached Austen's novel from a variety of linguistic standpoints, such as Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of dialogism, as well as analyzing the work in terms of postmodern theory and applying new developments in psychology to the text. There has also been increased attention given to the political subtext of the novel, suggesting new ways of interpreting its relationship to the historical context of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the later decades of the twentieth century and into the early years of the twenty-first century, the most prominent trends in criticism of Pride and Prejudice have derived from the perspectives of literary feminism, including analysis of the novel's view of female oppression, its portrayal of the patriarchal society of the time, and its treatment of the possibility, fantasy, and reality of female power. Feminist critics such as Judith Lowder Newton have envisioned the novel as a triumphant fantasy of female autonomy, while Jean Ferguson Carr warns that Austen's exclusion of Mrs. Bennet from the social world reveals a persistent subjugation of women throughout the novel. In addition to strictly feminist readings of Pride and Prejudice, many essays not associated with this school of social and literary thought either incorporate or challenge various feminist claims in relation to Austen's work.