Pride and Prejudice

By Jane Austen


Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice is based on an earlier novel of Austen's called First Impressions. This could be taken as a working title of the later novel, and helps inform an approach to the text. How we judge others is a related theme - to do so without enough knowledge invites prejudice. And Austen goes on to show how the extent to which we know other people is directly correlated with the extent to which we know ourselves. Thus Elizabeth is more prone to siding with Wickham because of her prejudice against Darcy; but both characters come to a greater understanding of themselves as they work through their faults, this process eventually serving to draw them closer together. It is easy to label Darcy as being the character symbolic of pride, and Elizabeth of prejudice. Darcy takes pride in his rank, and his arrogance colours his assessment of the people of Longbourn. Elizabeth and the neighbourhood are prejudiced against Darcy from the beginning, taking offence at his low opinion of them. However, it becomes clear that these qualities infect the portrayal of other characters in the book. Lady Catherine displays ridiculous pride in her status; Mrs Bennet is ridiculously prejudiced in her views. Pride and prejudice seep through all of the characters, and in many guises.

Love and marriage

Pride and Prejudice is most easily defined as a romantic comedy, but Austen stresses that the first flush of romantic love will not sustain a marriage and is no basis for happiness. Mr Bennett is described as being 'captivated' by Mrs Bennett's 'youth and beauty' on first meeting her, but this is inadequate for a relationship to last. Similarly, Lydia and Wickham's elopement is, on the face of it, very romantic, driven as they are by passionate feeling. But Austen charts the effect of such recklessness on others, and we see this intensity start to decline as it is brought into the mundane practicality of the everyday.

If Austen is keen to stress the need for passion and attraction to be tempered, she is just as critical of marriages devoid of love and intimacy. Elizabeth angers her mother by refusing the hand of Mr Collins; but while Mrs Bennett see the practical, materialistic considerations of this union outweighing the absence of love, for Elizabeth, money is no recompense for feeling. This is why she is shocked by Charlotte Lucas's unsentimental detachment: "I am not a romantic... I ask only a comfortable home." But this example of marriage is just as unsatisfactory as one based on passion. In Pride and Prejudice, a happy marriage springs from both physical attraction and compatibility. So while Bingley may have been drawn to Jane's beauty, it is their 'general similarity of feeling and taste' that will ensure their marriage lasts. Their love has deepened through their shared setbacks. On the other hand, Darcy and Elizabeth's love only arises once misunderstanding, and blinding pride and prejudice, is overcome. They are made to examine why they love each other with practicality and reason.

Role of Women

In the eighteenth century a woman's role in society was determined by her father and husband. Convention demanded that women were submissive and modest. Their educational opportunities were inferior to men's and they were not expected to think for themselves. On the surface, Austen's fiction would appear to perpetuate this. Marriage is deemed the most a woman can hope to achieve, and her novels end happily with this confirmation. Yet Austen heavily criticizes the ignorance endorsed by popular expectation. Mrs Bennet's comic fickleness and absurd hypochondria result from her narrow mind and 'mean understanding'. Lydia may be spirited but she is also 'ignorant' and 'idle'. Caroline Bingley and Lady Catherine may have status and rank, but they reveal their deficiency in failing to appreciate reading and music.

However, it is through Elizabeth and her relationship with Darcy that Austen betrays most her resentment at the restraint upon women. Elizabeth is contemptuous of idle small chat, preferring to converse with the gentlemen. She possesses wit and intelligence far removed from the conventional representations of women at the time, and especially those in the romantic novels Austen's fiction is said to resemble. Critics have drawn out parallels between the portrait of Elizabeth and the views of early feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft. She argued that in order for women to achieve equality they must think independently with reason. Yet for all her spirit and quick wit, Elizabeth still conforms to expectation. She may have been prepared to reject one of the richest men in England, but at the end of the novel she is keen to assume her role as mistress of Pemberley. Indeed, it could be argued that her visit to the great estate marks the change in her feelings for Darcy.

The relationship between gentry and trade is pivotal in understanding the implications of social interaction in the novel. Darcy's pride springs from his gentleman status; Elizabeth's connection with trade is one of the reasons why initially he has reservations about marrying her. However, Elizabeth does not doubt her fitness to mix with the upper classes, smartly answering Lady Catherine's rejection of her as suitable for Darcy: 'He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal.' Miss Bingley conveniently forgets that the family fortune came from trade; similarly, Sir William Lucas tries to mask his trade background by aspiring to be a country gentleman.

Austen shows personality to be the mark of class. The true gentility of the Gardiners impresses the previously contemptuous Darcy, and they show no shame in their living. This is neatly offset by the vulgar arrogance of Lady Catherine de Bourgh whose manners demonstrate how unworthy she is of her status. Towards the end of the novel class boundaries are necessarily crossed for the good of others. The gentleman, Darcy, works with the tradesman, Mr Gardiner, so that Lydia and the Bennetts will not be disgraced. Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage, then, both subverts and conforms to the social order. Austen is not asking that convention should be upset, only reinvigorated for a new and more assertive generation.