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

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

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Jane Austen’s heroines have long been admired. Like Elizabeth, they are all intelligent, independent, and strong-willed. Nevertheless, all of them have flaws. The imaginative young Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey (1817) tries to make a Gothic novel out of ordinary life, while in Emma (1815), the forceful title character, Emma Woodhouse, is so determined to do good that she ignores the wishes of others, with unfortunate results. The deficiencies of Austen’s heroines, however, are defects not of character, but of judgment. When, in the course of the novels, they come to know themselves better and to see others more clearly, their inherent virtues are strengthened by wisdom.

With the growth of feminist criticism, however, have come new questions about Austen’s intentions, especially where her heroines are concerned. While there is still general agreement that Elizabeth Bennet is the most admirable, as well as the most appealing, of her female characters, some critics argue that Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy represents a sacrifice of her selfhood. Even in a patriarchal society such as Austen’s, a girl whose father is as passive as Mr. Bennet can rule her own life unless, like Lydia, she blatantly defies society. Darcy, however, is quite a different kind of person from Mr. Bennet. It is questioned whether Elizabeth can maintain her independence as the wife of a man who is her equal in will and intellect and her superior in rank and wealth, especially since she will be moving in his social circle.

Since Austen wrote no sequel to Pride and Prejudice which could settle the issue, however, most critics continue to believe that the novel ends happily. They see Elizabeth as a woman who will assert herself, no matter what her situation, and Darcy as a man who would never attempt to destroy the very qualities in Elizabeth that initially elicited his admiration. Perhaps the significance of these questions is not merely that they emphasize how repressive Jane Austen’s environment actually was, but also that they underline her amazing achievement. In a society dominated by males, she managed to bring to life a number of strong-willed female characters and to produce some of the finest literary works of her era.

Form and Content

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Pride and Prejudice revolves around love and marriage in an acquisitive society. While the Bennets are members of the leisure class, the family fortune is entailed upon a male heir. This difficulty causes Mrs. Bennet to act frantically to find husbands for her five daughters. Elizabeth, the heroine, looks toward marriage with her clear sense of self and her ability to judge others accurately. To unite with a worthy husband, however, she must change her perceptions and grow in understanding. The novel is presented in three volumes, the sections mirroring Elizabeth Bennet’s emotional growth through her response to the hero, Fitzwilliam Darcy.

The story begins with Elizabeth, like the other young women in Meryton community, looking forward to a party that introduces two eligible bachelors with fortunes. She sees with pleasure that Charles Bingley is attracted to her older sister Jane. She dismisses the other bachelor, the aristocrat Darcy, as a proud man who considers himself their social superior. Elizabeth painfully recognizes the truth of his assessment as she observes her mother and sister Lydia in unseemly attempts to ensnare any possible suitor. Elizabeth’s sentiments and values are further revealed when she rejects the offer of Mr. Collins, the pompous, condescending gentleman on whom their fortune is entailed and is instead attracted to the handsome Wickham, who beguiles her with his charm and his story of ill-treatment by Darcy. His story evokes her sensitive feelings and increases her resentment toward Darcy.

Elizabeth is reconnected with Darcy when she visits her friend Charlotte, who, in a spirit of expediency, accepts Mr. Collins. Their home is the parsonage on the estate of Lady Catherine de Bough, Darcy’s aunt. After several visits from Darcy, Elizabeth is shocked and angered when he proposes to her, despite what he calls her low family connections. Elizabeth not only refuses but also rebukes him for the part that she suspects he has played in separating Jane and Bingley and for his reprehensible treatment of Wickham. She is later astonished by the long letter from Darcy explaining how he misjudged Jane’s affection and how he and his sister were, in fact, misused by the profligate Wickham. Elizabeth recognizes the error of her judgment.

In the third section, she develops admiration for Darcy, and indeed he too changes. Believing him to be away, she accidentally encounters him at Pemberly, his beautiful and tasteful estate that she tours while traveling with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. Here, she observes his gracious manners with her relatives and learns of the esteem that his servants and tenants have for him. As her regard for Darcy grows, Elizabeth is once again embarrassed by her family when Wickham and Lydia run off together. Darcy makes use of this incident to exhibit his care for Elizabeth by quietly paying off Wickham. He further promotes himself in Elizabeth’s eyes by influencing the renewed connection between Bingley and Jane. With her feelings for Darcy transformed, Elizabeth now hopes that he will repeat his request, which he does, and both couples are united. Elizabeth and Darcy, however, have undergone the trials of love and learned to value each other.

Literary Precedents

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Influenced by the comedy of manners and the sentimental novel. Pride and Prejudice is unique in how it combines and extends these traditions to achieve what is almost a self-parodic use of the marriage plot. It goes beyond the didactic novels of the day as well because of its complex moral vision of an interdependent society in which the moral choices of one character can affect all. Numerous writers, many of them women, had been trying their hands at novels, and in a superficial way they can be said to have influenced Jane Austen. However, with her solid education in literature of all kinds, she was able to take the form beyond the achievements of most. Ian Watt sees her most worthy predecessor to be Fanny Bumey (1752-1840), for she was the first to combine successfully the divergent traditions of Henry Fielding and Richardson. In Austen, the influence of Richardson dominates because of the centrality of her heroine's moral integrity. She is placed by some critics—those having immense patience with the epistolary style—beneath him in achievement but this judgment slights Austen's superior artistry.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements