Pride and Prejudice Themes

The main themes in Pride and Prejudice are the importance of moderating pride, the limitations of wealth and class, and the pursuit of a happy marriage.

  • Pride in moderation: Both Darcy and Elizabeth come to realize that an overabundance of pride results in arrogance and rash judgements, while Charlotte Lucas and Jane learn that a lack of pride results in missed opportunities.
  • The limitations of wealth: The triumph of love over class barriers highlights how arbitrary such distinctions are.
  • Happiness in marriage: Elizabeth and Darcy's happiness suggests that the key to a truly happy marriage is mutual respect and desire. 

Themes

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Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1375

The Importance of Moderating Pride

One of Pride and Prejudice’s primary themes is that an overabundance of pride results in arrogance. Many characters exhibit prideful behavior:

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  • Darcy is rude and dismissive towards the Bennets and the other country residents, because he views himself as part of a superior class.
  • Elizabeth’s pride in her intellect and judgement cause her to misjudge Darcy.
  • Lady Catherine De Bourgh shows pride in her attempts to interfere in the match between Elizabeth and Darcy in order to uphold her family’s status.
  • William Collins is prideful to the point that he refuses to believe that Elizabeth would truly reject him.

In Elizabeth and Darcy’s case, pride serves as a barrier to understanding. Darcy’s excessive pride causes him to behave condescendingly towards Elizabeth and her family, which inspires Elizabeth to form an unfavorable opinion of him. Elizabeth admits to Jane that she might have forgiven Darcy for his pride had he not “mortified” her own. The implication is that pride itself is not inherently bad, but in excess it results in insult and prejudice. However, even though Elizabeth condemns Darcy for his prideful behavior, she exhibits the same flaw. Her pride in her judgment renders her unwilling to revise her opinion of Darcy. It also leads her to unquestioningly believe Wickham’s lies, because they reaffirm her own beliefs. Only after Elizabeth and Darcy have been humbled by one another are they able to see the truth and make a happy marriage. Darcy still takes pride in his status, and Elizabeth still takes pride in her intelligence, but each has been tempered by humility.

However, the lack of pride can also have negative results. Charlotte Lucas and Jane Bennet both dispense with pride entirely. Rather than pursuing someone who is her intellectual equal, Charlotte marries Mr. Collins in order to ensure her financial future. Though her decision is practical, it is not a choice likely to result in true marital happiness. Unlike Elizabeth, who rejected both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy in the belief that she deserved to be happy, Charlotte settles for the first man to express interest in her. Similarly, Jane, despite being the oldest and prettiest Bennet daughter, is humble to a fault. Rather than openly displaying her regard for Mr. Bingley, she demurs. Though Jane’s humility is portrayed as a virtue, it leaves her open to rejection and ridicule. Ultimately, pride is most beneficial when it encourages people to behave responsibly and is most detrimental when it encourages prejudice or placidity.

The Limitations of Wealth and Class

The opening line of Pride and Prejudice foregrounds the importance of wealth in the novel. Almost every character is defined by society according to their social position and annual income:

  • The Bennet daughters, who will receive very little in their inheritance, are driven by their mother to marry well.
  • Wickham, hounded by gambling debts, is also driven to pursue women who stand to inherit good fortunes.
  • Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, by contrast are comfortably wealthy. For them, contrarily, their class restricts their choices.

Both class and wealth act as limitations on love. For the Bennet daughters, marriage must by necessity also function as a business transaction. From a practical perspective, Elizabeth’s decision to reject both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy is as rash and irresponsible as Mrs. Bennet claims. Mr. Collins stands to inherit Longbourn, meaning that he could have provided Elizabeth, her mother, and sisters with a place to live. By rejecting him, Elizabeth rejects not only her own financial security but also that of Mrs. Bennet and her younger sisters. For her, however, wealth is not the only factor. Elizabeth was raised by her father to view love as a vital part of marriage. By contrast, Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr. Collins’s proposal in order to ensure her own future, despite not loving him. Whereas Elizabeth is an idealist, Charlotte is a pragmatist.

Another way in which class inhibits love is how men like Darcy are expected to marry noble, wealthy women in order to maintain the reputation and bloodlines of their houses. As a landowner, Darcy is responsible for the livelihoods of those who live on his property. He is expected to behave as a gentleman, and his wife is expected to contribute wealth and status to Pemberley. Elizabeth, though a member of the landed gentry, is poor and, in the eyes of people like Lady Catherine, an unsuitable match. Similarly, Bingley’s sisters disapprove of his match with Jane, because Jane cannot provide the same status or wealth for their brother as someone like Georgiana Darcy could. Since the Bingley family obtained its wealth via trade rather than inheritance, a marriage to a wealthy and respectable woman of the landed gentry would help them solidify their social status.

However, for all that class and wealth dictate social status, they do not impact manners or behavior. The wealthy Lady Catherine de Bourgh looks down on Elizabeth due to her lack of wealth and connections, but she herself has poor manners. She is almost comically rude to Elizabeth, and her visit to Longbourn solely to discourage Elizabeth’s alleged relationship with Darcy is highly inappropriate. By contrast, the Gardiners are some of the most charming and sympathetic characters in the novel. Though they are middle class, their manners exceed those of many of the noble characters. These contrasts emphasize the arbitrary importance placed on class differences.

Personal Desire and Marital Happiness

Marriage is a central goal of almost every character in Pride and Prejudice even though their approaches to marriage often differ. Over the course of the novel, four different couples marry. Austen uses these couples to highlight the outcomes of several different approaches to marriage:

  • For Elizabeth and Darcy or Bingley and Jane, happiness is achieved for everyone involved.
  • For Charlotte Lucas, contentment is achieved through compromise.
  • For Lydia and Wickham, their elopement reads as a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of neglecting duty and selfishly pursuing personal satisfaction.

As Mr. Bennet’s favorite daughter, Elizabeth has been encouraged to pursue her own happiness. Although she faces poverty and homelessness if she does not marry well, Elizabeth still hopes for a marriage based on love. Because of this, she puts both her own future and those of her mother and sisters at risk by rejecting Mr. Collins. However, Elizabeth’s commitment to her own happiness ultimately allows her to make a good marriage to Mr. Darcy. Darcy remarks that it is the “liveliness” of her mind that initially attracted him, and his reformed behavior is largely credited to her criticism of him. Austen uses Elizabeth to emphasize the importance of a marriage founded on mutual respect and attraction.

Elizabeth’s desire for marital happiness contrasts with Charlotte Lucas’s blunt practicality and her values of comfort and duty. By marrying Mr. Collins, Charlotte secures financial stability, if not marital bliss. Though Elizabeth judges Charlotte harshly for her decision, Charlotte does not seem unhappy. She doesn't love Mr. Collins, but she knows how to redirect his pompousness and is content to be his wife. Unlike Elizabeth, Charlotte’s happiness comes from knowing that she will have a stable living and a manageable home. Though Austen is critical of the idea of marriage as a financial transaction, Charlotte stands as an example of a woman who did what she felt was necessary and made the best of it.

Lydia Bennet takes an entirely different approach to marriage. Her radical exercise of personal autonomy nearly results in social ruin. Rather than carefully considering the consequences of her actions, Lydia impulsively elopes with Wickham. If not for Darcy’s intervention, she likely would have ended up impoverished and alone. Her marriage is ultimately unhappy, highlighting the limitations of love and attraction in a world ruled by wealth and status. However, beyond the personal ramifications of her choice, she also brought shame on her family. Had Darcy not forced Lydia and Wickham to marry, the other Bennet daughters would have become even less marriageable. Lydia demonstrates how selfishly pursuing personal satisfaction has dire consequences. Though Elizabeth risks her family’s future by rejecting Mr. Collins, she does not wholly disregard her reputation and responsibilities as Lydia does.

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