Jane Austen is a most beloved author; 4 of her 6 novels are in the 100 books to read before you die list. If that doesn’t give everyone a hint, I don’t know what will. Only Dickens has more (5), unless you consider Shakespeare’s Complete Works actually represents however many plays he wrote 😛 .
Pride and Prejudice is according to most critics Austen’s best work. It’s inspired many stories indeed (Bridget Jones’ Diary comes to mind); for who’s never judged someone based on few interactions – not necessarily representative of the person’s true character – or on other people’s impression of said person?
It is the main theme of Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth Bennet, an otherwise clever young woman, takes a dislike to Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, whom she considers proud, arrogant and every other disagreeable epithet in the dictionary; except handsome. But beauty can’t make up for vanity and meanness. Elizabeth is proud as well; she prides herself on her discernment of people’s true nature, which is actually put to the test. The omniscient narrator highlights the misunderstandings between the characters so we can see the prejudice.
Marriage, as the only prospect for a woman, is a crucial element of the story. The subject is approached in turn from a romantic and tender point of view; ironic; realist or cynical; and dramatic.
In his introduction, Dr. Ian Littlewood invites us to translate the very first sentence of the book, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want for a wife” (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, Wordsworth editions, 1999, p.3) into its opposite. It becomes “…, that a single woman must be in want of a husband with a good fortune.” (ibid., p. IV)
That sheds an interesting light on two instances that would leave you at once amused and disturbed. When a gentleman proposes, he fully expects the answer to be yes; so when the lady says ‘no’, he can’t grasp it. ‘No’ must mean ‘yes’. As I said, it’s funny because there’s no way the lady can express that her response is final, and also concerning because well… no means no.
Besides, why should a woman absolutely want a husband? Why should marriage be the only prospect? Gender equality. Right?
Why should Charlotte Lucas be only known as Mrs. Collins once married? Women lost their identity in marriage (in Of Mice and Men, Curly’s wife has no other name and that’s more than 100 years later). Still we’re not so naïve as to think there’s no struggle left towards true gender equality. Some battles still have to be fought. But that’s another discussion entirely 😉 .
Another underlying theme is the separation of the classes in society: the gentry, the workers, the military etc. They don’t belong in the same worlds and it’s made obvious throughout the book. Bingley’s sisters and Lady de Bourgh represent the gentry set against any mixing of classes. Better to remain among themselves, lest their nobility be diminished. Mr. Bennet is landed gentry but Mrs. Benett’s brother belongs to the working class: his intelligence and fortune are considerable (he is believed to have settled a 10,000£ debt) but it’s of no consequence to Lady de Bourgh. When Elizabeth entertains the idea of being married to Darcy, she knows the gates of Pemberley would be closed to her aunt and uncle no matter how dearly she loves them.
Again it’s something so remote from us today at least in France; although I’m sure those who lay claim to the throne of France if it ever returned to a monarchy, (and there are no less than 3 can you believe it?) wouldn’t mingle their blue blood either 😛 .
The omniscient narrator is a literary device we don’t see a lot in modern novels anymore. There’s a need of immediacy on the readers’ part. I guess I’m no exception. I find the omniscient narrator makes it hard to relate to the heroine. It does however make the situations a lot funnier and more ironic than if we only had Elizabeth’s point of view. I recognize that. Maybe reading more novels in this style – as I’m bound to do throughout this challenge – will renew my appeal to that type of narration.
Pride and Prejudice is a story told many times and it was good to return to the original. It’s a great story, more interesting than your straight up romance. I’d have been totally bored if it were Jane and Bingley’s story exclusively.
But what makes Pride and Prejudice great is everything around the ‘love matches’: the intricacies of family and social pressure to bring together or separate a couple, the understanding of women’s place in society, what relationships were acceptable or not… Each character somehow represent one (or more) element.
The concept of the public and private persona is another interesting theme: what’s being said/done in public as per social conventions vs. what is said/done in private. The hypocrisy of it… Mostly represented by the Bingley sisters and Wickham. The masks.
However, when it comes to expressing actual sentiment of affection, Austen falls short. Love’s at the core of the story yet it isn’t. Marriage is. There is no ‘true’ love in the proposals offered in the book. Bingley’s proposal to Jane isn’t even there. The closest we get is three lines about how the acceptance of one’s proposal makes the young man happy. Yeah! Not to say that the feelings aren’t there. We know they are; but it seems to me that it’s the weakness of the book.
As a social critic, it’s brilliant. I guess that’s one of the reasons it is on that 100 Book to read list. That’s definitely one reason it should be there and why you should read it.
Have you? Did you like it? What did you not like?