Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1703
The Roles of Pride and Prejudice: It was commonly held in Austen’s time that novels ideally should serve two purposes: entertainment and moral instruction. The moral focus of Pride and Prejudice is found in the book’s title. Most of the characters in one way or another exhibit these two tendencies, and the main plot hinges on Elizabeth and Darcy being able to overcome them. It’s an example of Austen’s nuanced approach to the story, though, that pride and prejudice aren’t presented as unqualified flaws. Throughout the novel there are commentaries on pride’s virtues as well as its faults. There’s also a gray area between prejudice and discernment in some of the key decisions and judgments the characters make.
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- For discussion: What are the most crucial examples of pride and prejudice exhibited by Elizabeth and Darcy? How and why do these characteristics change for them over the course of the novel? Do some facets of pride and prejudice remain in either of them at the end? If so, is that a bad thing?
- For discussion: How do pride and prejudice show themselves in the novel’s other characters, such are Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Lady de Bourgh, Mr. Collins, Lydia, and Wickham?
- For discussion: Elizabeth’s sister Jane is the exceptional character who shows few, if any, signs of pride or prejudice. Does that make her a better person than Elizabeth? Why or why not?
Love and Other Considerations in Choosing a Marriage Partner: In the world of Pride and Prejudice, marriage is about more than love. It’s a union that, for women, is most often the single factor that will determine their economic and social standing in life, and for men it can be a means of stability or upward mobility within a highly class-conscious, stratified society. Throughout the novel there are examples of marriage that are entirely practical (Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins), primarily founded in mutual affection (Jane and Mr. Bingley), and the result of delusion and manipulation (Lydia and Wickham). Though he hardly has the personality of a wild-eyed romantic, Darcy is, out of all the characters, the one who’s most obviously driven to choose a spouse because of love. It’s a luxury afforded to him by his great wealth.
- For discussion: How would the story have played out if Darcy weren’t rich? If he had been a military officer like Wickham, is there any scenario in which he could have won Elizabeth’s heart?
- For discussion: Did Charlotte Lucas make a mistake in marrying Mr. Collins? Why or why not?
- For discussion: Is the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet more happy or unhappy? Which of the younger characters do they most resemble? Which of the novel’s new marriages will end up most closely resembling the Bennets’?
The Balance Between Realism and Satire: Pride and Prejudice, with its multidimensional protagonists and its focus on the practical concerns of England’s landed gentry, was a groundbreaking work of realism. At the same time, it was a biting satire. Many of the secondary characters are caricatures of English society: Mr. Collins, the sycophantic clergyman; his patron, Lady de Bourgh, the domineering noblewoman; the Bingley sisters, snobbish, backbiting socialites; Wickham, the classic rogue. Pride and Prejudice demonstrates how realism and satire can successful play off one another. It’s a given that secondary characters are less developed and less nuanced. Through satire, Austen makes them memorable and engaging, while using them to level criticism against the society she lives in.
- For discussion: Was Austen more successful as a realist or a satirist?
- For discussion: Which of the secondary characters seem the most realistic?
Jane Austen, Feminist?: Pride and Prejudice focuses on the experiences of women, and its protagonist makes bold choices in rejecting the proposals of Collins and, on the first occasion, Darcy. Given the confining context of her society, Austen feels like a protofeminist writer. But she creates a world in which Elizabeth experiences no negative consequences for her atypical behavior. It would have been a very different, and almost certainly more realistic, story if Darcy hadn’t chosen to humble himself and propose a second time.
- For discussion: Is Austen doing a service to women by creating a heroine who is rewarded for asserting her independence and dignity? Or is she painting too rosy a picture for Elizabeth? Why?
- For discussion: How does Elizabeth’s boldness compare to that of her younger sister Lydia? What risks do they each take, and effects do their actions have?
- For discussion: How aware are Austen’s female characters of their societal confinements? How do they feel about the roles they inhabit?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Rigid English Class Structure Portrayed in the Book Can Be Off-Putting and Hard to Relate To: Pride and Prejudice is thoroughly grounded in a segment of English society that can come across as privileged and superficial—especially to readers who value hard work, personal initiative, and social mobility. Moreover, the strict rules governing proper behavior in the different classes might be unknown to students, and are not always explicitly explained by Austen.
- What to do: Acknowledge the legitimacy of this observation, but at the same time challenge students to look closely at contemporary society. Are there parallels between social structures today and in Austen’s time? Do students ever find themselves behaving in certain ways because they feel society expects it of them? Why or why not?
- What to do: While the social conventions of Austen’s time might be foreign to students, the characters populating her novel probably feel very familiar. Encourage students to connect with characters on a personal level before attempting to contextualize them in the story’s society. Do students know anyone in their own lives or in popular culture who is obsessed with her children’s marriages the way Mrs. Bennet is? Or who loves to flirt and to shop like Lydia?
The Language of the Novel Is Sometimes Stilted and Archaic: Pride and Prejudice often employs words that sound old-fashioned or that have slightly different meanings than they do in present-day usage. Two weeks is a “fortnight.” Women don’t wear dresses, they wear “gowns.” When members of a higher class “condescend” to you, they’re bestowing an honor by showing interest in you.
- What to do: Play it by ear. Many students will adjust to, and may even enjoy, the unfamiliar language. Often it’s possible to intuit meanings from context. It helps to use an annotated text if possible.
- What to do: If the language is posing problems, read some passages aloud. Hearing the words spoken often helps to reveal meaning (in much the same way that acting out Shakespeare can be a revelation). Reading a passage like Mr. Collins’s proposal to Elizabeth can serve a double purpose: it helps students unravel stilted speech, and also shows how Austen sometimes lampoons the convoluted formal language of her day.
Film Adaptations of the Novel May Tempt Students to Watch instead of Reading: Pride and Prejudice has been adapted to film many times. A 1995 BBC miniseries was extremely popular; it and a 2005 theatrical film are easy for students to find.
- What to do: You can’t stop students from seeing the films, but you can use the films as a teaching tool. Show the class film versions of a scene, such as Elizabeth’s introduction to Darcy, and have students compare them to the text. Have the filmmakers captured the spirit of the book? What changes have they made, and why might they have made them?
- What to do: The 2001 film version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, which reinterprets Pride and Prejudice in a modern setting, can be used in a similar way. Show a scene from it alongside one of the period films. How does Bridget compare to Elizabeth? What concerns of a young, single woman have changed in 200 years and what remain the same?
Alternative Approaches to Teaching Pride and Prejudice
While the main ideas and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving Pride and Prejudice, the following suggestions represent alternative approaches that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
Focus on the men of Pride and Prejudice. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Austen is more concerned with the lives of her female characters than her male ones. Devote some attention to relationships between Austen’s men. When the men and women go to separate rooms to socialize after a dinner, the reader always stays with the women. Have students speculate about what the men are up to. Or consider what happens in specific scenes between men that Austen doesn’t describe directly, such as when Darcy confronts Wickham after he’s run away with Lydia, or when Darcy goes to Mr. Bennet’s library to ask for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. Writing one of these scenes could be a homework assignment.
Introduce students to the Jane Austen Society. Austen has a large, fanatically devoted present-day following. Some of her biggest fans belong to the Jane Austen Society of North America, which draws hundreds of attendees to its annual three-day convention and has 76 regional groups that meet more frequently. A visit to its website, www.jasna.org, gives a sense of the society’s activities and enthusiasm. Ask students why they think Austen is so loved and so widely read now, some 200 years after her books were published. Do they think the society captures the true spirit of Pride and Prejudice, or is it more caught up in the superficial aspects of the novel— the period dress and the courtly rituals? Students might consider submitting an entry into the society’s annual essay contest, which has a division for high schoolers.
Reimagine Pride and Prejudice as a reality TV show. Come up with a reality show concept—say, “The Real Housewives of Hertfordshire”—as a way for students to have some fun acting out the novel’s characters of in a contemporary setting, with the cameras rolling. How would a 21st-century Darcy propose to Elizabeth? How would he react when she turns him down?