“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” With one of the most memorable opening lines of literature, so begins one of the most popular books ever written. Actually, I have the audacity to state that Pride and Prejudice could be the greatest novel ever composed. To underestimate its importance would not only be a grand disservice to Jane Austen, but to the course of English literature. While Sense and Sensibility serves as a rich appetizer into the world of Austen, Pride and Prejudice is a full course meal with all of the author’s talents on full display. It is a comedic story of misunderstandings and miscommunications, but also a morality tale on the importance of truly getting to know someone and not being swayed by faulty first impressions. While I enjoyed this book immensely several years ago, I discovered so much more this time around.
Pride and Prejudice is the story of the Bennet family who find themselves in rather dire straits. When the parents were young, they were foolish and didn’t save their money (Austen was giving some sound financial advice here). The Bennets were counting on having a son who would care for them in their old age as well as inherit the family estate of Longbourn. Unfortunately, life did not work out as planned; rather than having a son, they now have five daughters. Jane, the eldest, always tries to see the best in everyone. Elizabeth, the heroine of the story, possesses sound judgement of character (unless her own feelings are involved). The middle child Mary always tries to see life from an intellectual standpoint, while the two youngest, Kitty and Lydia, are rather shallow and materialistic. Since the estate has to go to a male heir, the next in line is a cousin by the name of Collins. The Bennets now have the arduous task of finding suitable husbands for their daughters or risk becoming poor, which back then was a fate worse than death. So begins a humorous journey into the world of courtship and romance (if only Austen was around today).
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
At the center of this novel is the the greatest heroine in all of fiction. Elizabeth Bennet possesses so many fantastic qualities that falling in love with her is not a matter of if but when. She is the type of woman to cut with a witty remark one moment, but also to show incredible kindness to others, such as her understanding of someone’s shyness or spending hours walking through the mud in order to attend to her ill sister. The opportunity to meet an eligible bachelor by the name of Bingley breathes new life into the Bennets with the hope of marrying off at least one daughter. While this eligible bachelor proves to be quite the charmer, his best friend and cousin Mr. Darcy appears as quite the opposite. During their first encounter, Elizabeth judges his character to be quite arrogant and snobbish. These first impressions are solidified by the information provided by a gentleman named Wickham, another potential suitor for one of the Bennet girls. Elizabeth soon learns that her pride in her abilities is not without fault.
Of all of Jane Austen’s works, Pride and Prejudice boasts the most well-drawn characters with distinct personalities. I was impressed not only with the main cast, but also the minor characters as well. Each one benefits the overall story in one way or another, even if it only a brief scene only. With her other novels, some of the smaller characters tend to be forgettable. I assure you dear reader, these characters are quite memorable.
One cannot discuss Austen without exploring her incredible comedic voice. I think a lot of readers are quick to discount her books as pre-Victorian romance novels. To view them as such is an injustice; they are satires, and Pride and Prejudice displays Austen’s witty dialogue in all its grandeur. All of the scenes between the sensible Mr. Bennet and his materialistic wife were hilarious. They were truly a phenomenal double act. The scene where Elizabeth rejects the marriage proposal by Mr. Collins had me laughing out loud (he struggles with rejection). Brilliant characters can only exist if they are provided with the right dialogue, which Austen manages quite elegantly. She is a writer who knows how to tell a story with just the right amounts of humor, drama, and suspense depending on what the scene needs at the time. Understand that every chapter moves the story along without a wasted word.
The original title of this novel was First Impressions and written in the epistolary form that was quite popular in 18th century fiction. Austen expanded the work as a third-person novel, but readers only see events unfold through Elizabeth’s eyes. Therefore, letters would continue to serve an important element in plot development as a means of conveying information to our heroine. The other method of communication would be the use of gossip, a tradition that sadly still possesses relevance today. Throughout the novel, we see the dangers and mistakes that can occur through the use of gossip as well as an important lesson that Austen teaches Elizabeth. First impressions can often be misleading, while information delivered second-hand should be taken with the smallest grain of salt. There really is no substitution for getting to know someone first-hand, leading Elizabeth to see Darcy for the man he truly is rather than her distorted initial impressions.
“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”
I have mentioned before that a certain amount of self-confidence is important. Put yourself on a pedestal, but be humble enough to own your imperfections. Life is often defined by the mistakes we make. If we stay open to growth and learn from them, we have a much better chance of coming out unscathed. While this novel features a narrator who prides herself on her judgement of character, her own poor discernment blinds her from the truth about Darcy. The stoic and prideful nature of Darcy gives him the appearance of someone unlikable, and Elizabeth is unable to see his true nature preventing her from happiness. In the end, our own pride and prejudices must be tempered with an open heart. We shouldn’t let our mistakes hold us down. We have to make peace with ourselves or that happiness will always allude us. The ones who truly care about you will accept you for the person you are if you truly make good choices in life.
Once again, my deeper explorations into Austen’s novels resulted in fruitful results. While I saw the entire forest on display during the first reading, this time I made a closer inspection of the trees themselves. The separate pieces of plot, character, and voice come together into a beautiful whole. Had Pride and Prejudice been Jane Austen’s final novel, she would still be remembered off of the strength of her first two published works. Fortunately for the world, there was more to come.
“Till this moment, I never knew myself.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.