“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Austen began writing Pride and Prejudice under the title First Impressions in 1796, at the age of twenty-one. She probably wrote the first draft as an epistolary novel, meaning the plot unfolded through an exchange of letters. In 1797, Austen’s father offered his daughter’s manuscript to a publishing company, but they refused to even consider it.
In the first line of the novel, Austen reveals two of its primary themes: marriage and class (particularly as indicated by money). In the world of Pride and Prejudice, individuals are defined by their marital opportunities and financial holdings. However, the irony in this line conceals an implicit criticism. The line’s grammatical focus is on “a single man . . . in want of a wife,” but Austen’s novel is centered on her female characters as they struggle to succeed within this oppressive patriarchy. Each Miss Bennet knows that without a husband of decent means and status, she risks living a life as a powerless and potentially destitute spinster. That Austen can imply such a desperate reality in a superficially breezy and straightforward line is evidence of her mastery.
Mary gives the reader a lens through which to understand one of the novel’s central conceits. On the surface, Mary offers simple definitions of pride and vanity. Her speech also indicates that these attributes are “very common.” Therefore, she implies that it is best to acknowledge one’s tendency towards such behavior. However, at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, both Elizabeth and Darcy believe that they are above pride and vanity. They think they can exist outside these cultural norms, but are ultimately forced to accept that they do in fact exist in the context of a greater society. They have responsibilities to others, and should consider to some extent how their family and friends perceive them.
“Pride…is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. 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.”
On one hand, Charlotte’s pragmatic view of love, stands in stark contrast to the more romantic worldview that Elizabeth (and presumably, Austen herself) possesses. However, Charlotte’s philosophy reflects the unfortunate reality that the women in Pride and Prejudice must face. Charlotte follows her own advice when she shows “more affection than she feels” towards Mr. Collins in order to secure a proposal. Though Elizabeth’s happy ending suggests that it is not always necessary for a woman to be as pragmatic as Charlotte, her philosophy nevertheless serves as a criticism of a world that so limits a woman’s agency.
“It is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely—a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten a women had better show more affection than she feels.”
What concerns Austen is an individual’s duty to him or herself. In the end, Elizabeth and Jane end up happiest. These characters share is an unwillingness to compromise their principles. Lydia, who gives herself completely to frivolity and immorality, will have to live with a deceitful husband. Charlotte, who marries simply for pragmatic financial reasons, will have to bear the insufferable formality and long-windedness of Mr. Collins for the rest of her life.
Ironically, Elizabeth and Jane end up with husbands who are both wealthy and suited to them precisely because they refuse to think of marriage as a business transaction or a mark of social status.
Instead, they determine what matters to them, and use that criteria to find the right husband. In this way, Austen ends her work with a firm optimism that a woman (of a certain class, at least) can manage the world’s limitations through integrity and self-awareness.
Pride and Prejudice contains one of the most cherished love stories in English literature: the courtship between Darcy and Elizabeth.
As in any good love story, the lovers must elude and overcome numerous stumbling blocks, beginning with the tensions caused by the lovers’ own personal qualities. Elizabeth’s pride makes her misjudge Darcy on the basis of a poor first impression, while Darcy’s prejudice against Elizabeth’s poor social standing blinds him, for a time, to her many virtues.
Pride and Prejudice depicts a society in which a woman’s reputation is of the utmost importance. A woman is expected to behave in certain ways. Stepping outside the social norms makes her vulnerable to ostracism. This theme appears in the novel, when Elizabeth walks to Netherfield and arrives with muddy skirts, to the shock of the reputation-conscious Miss Bingley and her friends. At other points, the ill-mannered, ridiculous behavior of Mrs. Bennet gives her a bad reputation with the more refined (and snobbish) Darcys and Bingleys.
If Darcy’s money had failed to convince Wickham to marry Lydia, would Darcy have still married Elizabeth? Does his transcendence of prejudice extend that far? The happy ending of Pride and Prejudice is certainly emotionally satisfying, but in many ways it leaves the theme of reputation, and the importance placed on reputation, unexplored. One can ask of Pride and Prejudice, to what extent does it critique social structures, and to what extent does it simply accept their inevitability?
The theme of class is related to reputation, in that both reflect the strictly regimented nature of life for the middle and upper classes in Regency England. The lines of class are strictly drawn.
The satire directed at Mr. Collins is more subtly directed at the entire social hierarchy and the conception of all those within it at its correctness, in complete disregard of other, more worthy virtues. Through the Darcy-Elizabeth and Bingley-Jane marriages, Austen shows the power of love and happiness to overcome class boundaries and prejudices, thereby implying that such prejudices are hollow, unfeeling, and unproductive.
Family is an integral theme in the novel. All of the characters operate within networks of family connections that shape their decisions and perspectives. For the female characters in particular, the influence and behavior of their family members is a significant factor in their lives. Because “the business of [Mrs. Bennet’s] life was to get her daughters married”, the Bennet sisters constantly have to navigate their mother’s plans and schemes.
Elizabeth Bennet considers herself to have very high standards of integrity, and is often frustrated and disappointed by the way she sees others behaving. She complains bitterly to her sister that
“The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it, and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters.”
She behaves in ways she considers consistent with her definition of integrity by refusing to marry both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy (when he proposes the first time): Elizabeth thinks it is very important to only marry a man she loves and respects, despite the pressure to achieve economic security. By the end of the novel, her commitment to integrity has been rewarded because she marries a partner who will truly make her happy. She has also come to see that she can sometimes be too rigid and judge too quickly, since she was initially mistaken about the nature and ethics of Wickham and Darcy.
The novel both endorses the importance of integrity, and reminds readers not to be too quick to pass judgement on who has it, and who doesn’t.