- social realism
What It’s About
The Romantic Comedy Model
Jane Austen’s popular novel Pride and Prejudice is an inversion of the classic love-at-first-sight cliche: Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet meet at a ball. Darcy isn’t amused; Elizabeth detests him immediately. Only after a slew of misunderstandings and a triumphant victory over pride and prejudices, do the two of them finally fall in love. Austen paints a detailed portrait of society in her place and time. She brings into sharp focus the limited world of the English landed gentry and merchant class in the Georgian period at the start of the 19th century – targeting the hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness of her contemporaries with wit and irony. Yet, she also shows a great deal of empathy for the desperate situation of women whose only chance in life was to marry well. Austin, a clergyman’s daughter, faced this dilemma herself. She never married. Jane, her widowed mother and her sister lived in strained circumstances. Finally, she found security in her brother’s home, where she could write, though she was not known as an author until after her death. Her charming works have provided the blueprint for many of today’s romantic comedies, rivaled only by Shakespeare’s plays as a source of popular entertainment. This unique achievement is testimony to how well she mastered superbly entertaining her readers.
- Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813, is the prototype of the romantic comedy.
- The Bennets have five daughters, but they lack sufficient means to arrange good marriages for them. The second oldest, Elizabeth, attracts the interest of the noble, fabulously wealthy Mr. Darcy with her wit and spirits, yet the pair becomes entangled in a web of class conceits, lies and misunderstandings. It is only when Elizabeth’s sister elopes with a wicked impostor that Darcy can save the day, restore her family’s honor and marry his beloved.
- The novel displays the limited options for women at the time it was written; they could either marry or resign themselves to somber spinsterhood.
- In Jane Austin’s world, a happy marriage requires two things: romantic love and material wealth. On their own, neither is enough.
- She wrote the first version of Pride and Prejudice when she was just 22, but the publisher rejected it outright.
- She rewrote the novel several times and published it anonymously 16 years later.
- Austin’s style of writing about normal people in ordinary circumstances makes her one of the founders of the modern novel.
- Her view was limited to the world she knew, that of the landed gentry, clergy and merchant class.
- Some criticized her as a reactionary for this. Others interpret her book’s perspective as a subtle satire on a society petrified by traditions and illusions.
- “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (Darcy to Elizabeth)
Mrs. Bennet has a problem: She has five daughters of marriageable age, but no dowry for any of them. Therefore, she’s glad to hear that a nearby property, Netherfield, has, at last, been rented. The new tenant is a young unmarried gentleman, Charles Bingley, who turns out to be a great catch. He is attractive, polite, open-minded and wealthy. At a ball, the local ladies jealously stand by as he lavishes attention on Jane, the oldest and most beautiful of the five Bennet sisters. His friend Fitzwilliam Darcy arouses mixed emotions: admiration at first, followed by aversion, since the tall, dark-haired man offends the locals with his arrogant, mocking ways. He dances only with Bingley’s female relations and disparages Elizabeth, the second oldest Bennet sister, speaking so loudly that she inevitably overhears him.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Mrs. Bennet tries everything to match her eldest with Mr. Bingley. When his sisters invite Jane for dinner, the mother arranges for her daughter to go from their home in Longbourn to Netherfield on horseback, instead of lending her their carriage. She hopes for rain to give Jane a pretext to stay overnight at her host’s home. The plan works: Jane catches a severe cold and is confined to bed. The next morning Elizabeth make the three-mile journey on foot to keep her beloved sister company. She arrives at Netherfield with a dirty petticoat and cheeks glowing from the exercise. The arrogant Bingley sisters treat her with contempt, but Darcy is increasingly impressed by her lively wit and bright, intelligent eyes. He is torn between admiration for Elizabeth and disdain for her relatives. Mrs. Bennet is of simple attorney’s stock, unbearably loud, with embarrassingly coarse manners. Among the three younger sisters the bookish Mary excels in precocious comments and has an appalling singing voice, while Kitty and Lydia flirt shamelessly with the young officers.
Meanwhile Mr. Collins, a clergyman and distant relative of Mr. Bennet, announces he’s coming to visit Longbourn. Since Mr. Bennet has only daughters, Mr. Collins will inherit his estate, which is entailed and can go only to a male heir. This is an utter nightmare for Mrs. Bennet. The pompous Mr. Collins, to everyone’s surprise, ends up proposing to a dismayed Elizabeth. He’s convinced that she will accept his exceedingly generous offer to keep the Bennets on the estate after they marry. Even when Elizabeth refuses, he considers it merely a bashful affectation and smugly holds out the prospect of a second proposal.
“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.” (Mr. Bennet)
Mrs. Bennet’s hurried assurance that she’ll stop Elizabeth from being a “headstrong, foolish girl” and bring her to reason makes him hesitate: As a minister he cannot afford to have a headstrong, foolish wife, and he is determined to present his revered patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh with an acceptable wife upon his return. Hence, he proposes to Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte the very next day, and she accepts. What else could she possibly do, she explains to a baffled Elizabeth, at her advanced age of 27, being only of moderate looks and means?
“I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’ character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.” (Charlotte)
Elizabeth, on the other hand, believes in true love. She feels attracted to a dashing, charming officer, George Wickham, who gives her more reasons to distrust Darcy. Wickham tells her that the haughty Darcy has disgracefully defrauded him of his inheritance. Wickham’s father was once the overseer on the Darcy family estate, and the head of the family had bequeathed Wickham a comfortable position as a clergyman to provide amply for him as his beloved godchild and the caretaker’s son. Yet the young Darcy, Wickham continues, disregarded the will and gave the post to someone else. Elizabeth is filled with indignation and dismisses her elder sister Jane’s careful reminder that, given the gravity of the accusations, she should hear Mr. Darcy’s version of the story before drawing conclusions.
Meanwhile, Jane hides her own great disappointment: While her mother is boasting of the imminent marriage between her and Mr. Bingley, he’s left for London without a word of farewell. In her letters, Bingley’s sister Caroline doesn’t entertain the idea that he might return. Instead she drops hints that her brother has fallen in love with the lovely Goorgina Darcy, Mr. Darcy’s sister. Jane, who is inherently selfless, gentle and kind-hearted, accepts this new turn. Elizabeth, however, is convinced that Mr. Darcy and the Bingley sisters have conspired to tear the two lovers apart.
“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it.” (Elisabeth)
A visit from Mrs. Bennet’s brother Mr. Gardiner and his wife brings a welcome change. The two of them suggest taking Jane to London for a few months to cheer her up and take her mind off her troubles. Before their departure, Mrs. Gardiner cautions Elizabeth against falling seriously in love with Wickham. She thinks that his lack of wealth makes him a very unfavorable match. Elizabeth, while acknowledging the argument against him, hesitates to rule out taking imprudent actions for the sake of love. Shortly thereafter Wickham resolves the dilemma by abandoning Elizabeth for a bland but wealthy young lady.
Marriage Proposal, Take Two
After the desertion, Elizabeth visits her friend Charlotte in Hunsford and spends a great deal of time on the palatial country estate of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the patron of Mr. Collins. In his turgid speeches, Mr. Collins elevated Lady Catherine to the level of a living saint, but she turns out to be an imperious, patronizing, know-it-all. This is why Elizabeth is almost relieved when Mr. Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam come to visit Lady Catherine, who is also their aunt. She is intent on attaching Darcy to her sickly daughter. But the two gentlemen routinely and conspicuously visit the Parsonage where Elizabeth is staying. To her great astonishment, Elizabeth often bumps into Darcy when she goes walking in the park. One day Darcy finds her alone in the Parsonage and reveals his passionate love for her. Conscious of her inferior social status, he goes on to say that he has fought his feelings for too long, all in vain.
“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (Darcy)
Caught in his passionate speech, Darcy doesn’t even realize the extent to which such explanations infuriate Elizabeth. Moreover, just before this proposal, Colonel Fitzwilliam told her that Darcy did indeed actively scheme against Bingley’s relationship with Jane. To Darcy’s great surprise and resentment, she refuses his proposal, since his expression of loving her against his will and contrary to all reason is cruel and unflattering. She accuses him of depriving Bingley and Jane of their happiness and Wickham of his heritage. Darcy storms out of the house.
The next day, Darcy waits for Elizabeth in the park and hands her a long letter. In it he presents his point of view on several matters. Without expressing any grudges, he exposes Wickham as a liar and fraud: In truth, the man never intended to become a clergyman, so Darcy gave him a tidy sum in lieu of the post’s income, so that he could study law. After Wickham squandered it all, he asked for the position anyway, but Darcy refused. In the end, Wickham tried to elope with Darcy’s 15-year-old sister, in an attempt to get his hands on her fortune. Darcy’s letter continues to say that in his opinion, Jane never appeared to reciprocate Bingley’s feelings, given her cheerful and serene, but rather restrained and indifferent countenance. In this, he admits in the letter, he may have been mistaken. Nonetheless, Mrs. Bennet’s and her three younger daughters’ tactless and embarrassing conduct had convinced him of the necessity of preventing the connection between Jane and his friend. The letter gives Elizabeth cause to ponder. Darcy’s opinions of her family mortify her, but secretly she concedes they aren’t completely unjust. Upon her return to Longbourn, Kitty and Lydia welcome her with silly chatter about men and fashions. They are inconsolable that the regiment is about to relocate to Brighton. When a friend invites Lydia to spend the summer with her family in Brighton, Elizabeth tries to persuade her father to prevent the visit due to Lydia’s impulsive passions, but to no avail.
Reunion in Pemberley
Elizabeth forgets her worries about Lydia’s loose morals when she accompanied the Gardiners on a summer trip to Derbyshire, where Mrs. Gardiner spent part of her youth. This is also the location of Mr. Darcy’s country castle, Pemberley. After making sure Darcy is absent, Elizabeth visits the castle. She is pleasantly surprised by the large forest and the manor’s tasteful harmony with the enchanting landscape. To Elizabeth’s great astonishment, the housekeeper tells her that Mr. Darcy is the most generous and sweet-tempered man in the world – you couldn’t find a single servant or tenant who would find fault with their master.
“She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (about Elisabeth)
As fate would have it, Elizabeth bumps into him as he unexpectedly arrives at his estate. She’s so embarrassed that she’s speechless, while Darcy seems transformed. He treats her and her relatives with great respect. He is talkative and polite – showing no trace of his previous pride and snobbery. In the following days, he introduces them to his sister and seeks their company whenever possible. On one such occasion, he is present when an ominous letter arrives from Jane: Lydia has eloped with Wickham. At first, they were said to have gone off to Scotland, in order to get married there. But, as it turns out, the officer didn’t intend to marry her at all, but rather, he’s hiding with her in London. Darcy doesn’t say a word when he hears the bad news. Elizabeth’s hitherto unspoken hope for a new start with Darcy seems doomed. She believes that such deep disgrace and ugly stain on her family’s honor are insupportable.
Searching for Lydia
The Gardiners and Elizabeth leave for Longbourn at once. Before heading for London, Mrs. Bennet tells her brother Mr. Gardiner that, if he finds Lydia, he must make her marry Wickham, but she should absolutely consult with her mother before buying a dress! A wedding actually seems like a fantasy. Wickham is up to his neck in debt. What could induce him to marry the almost penniless Lydia? Finally, a letter arrives from Mr. Gardiner. He reports that Lydia and her lover are well. Wickham wants to marry Lydia solely on the condition that he will receive 100£ a year and Lydia’s share of the meager bequest. Gritting his teeth, Mr. Bennet agrees. Given this relatively modest request, he assumes that Mr. Gardiner has bribed the indebted officer with a tidy sum.
“She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to – she is lost for ever.” (Elisabeth about Lydia)
Lydia and Wickham know neither shame nor remorse when they visit the family shortly thereafter. The new bride mocks Jane as an old maid and brags about her wedding ring throughout the village. In passing she mentions that Darcy was present at the wedding. Finally, Elizabeth learns from Mrs. Gardiner what really happened in London. It was Darcy, not Mr. Gardiner, who located the two of them in their hiding place, discharged Wickham’s debts and gave him additional money so that he would marry Lydia. Still, he didn’t want anyone in the Bennet family to find out about it.
Even before the local gossipmongers have fully exhausted the scandalous wedding, the rumor mill is replenished: Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy have returned to Netherfield. It soon becomes obvious that Bingley is still in love with Jane. This time around, Elizabeth knows his friend approves of the match. One night Mrs. Bennet shoos all the younger sisters out of the drawing room, so that Bingley finds himself alone with Jane – successfully paving the way for his marriage proposal. Darcy, on the other hand, is reserved and taciturn. To Elizabeth’s great disappointment, he leaves for London alone. Then Lady Catherine de Bourgh makes a surprise visit to Longbourne. She immediately demands to speak with Elizabeth in private: It has come to her attention, she bursts out, that Darcy is going to propose to Elizabeth, an idea she considers preposterous and impossible, since she has already reserved him for her own daughter.
“Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me. I shall go distracted.” (Mrs. Bennet)
She appeals to Elizabeth’s sense of duty and honor and tries to force her to promise to give up Darcy. She appeals in vain. Snorting with rage she leaves Longbourn, announcing that she will personally change her nephew’s mind. Her efforts achieves the exact opposite effect: Encouraged by his aunt’s tirade, and convinced that Elizabeth does love him after all, Darcy rushes to her from London and proposes for a second time. Overjoyed, she accepts.
About the Text
Structure and Style
Pride and Prejudice combines the main plot of Darcy and Elizabeth’s courtship, with several parallel or contrasting subplots. In the first half of the novel, a number of misunderstandings – whether accidental or intentional – make the two main characters move away from one another. The story climaxes approximately halfway through the novel, after Darcy’s unsuccessful marriage proposal. From this point forward, they move toward one another again, uniting in harmony by the end of the story.
The story is chiefly narrated in third person from Elizabeth’s perspective. Yet the author grants the readers an edge in knowledge and feelings over the female lead, thereby increasing their emotional involvement. For instance, we know long before Elizabeth that Darcy is crazy about her, yet she has to go through the agony of several setbacks until the couple overcomes all obstacles.
Jane Austen uses subtle irony to prick the ignorance and narrow-mindedness that some of her characters display, while managing to avoid a spiteful tone. Ludicrous figures like Mrs. Bennet or Mr. Collins provide welcome comic relief on the bumpy ride toward the inevitable happy ending.
- Pride and Prejudice is a trenchant portrait of the marriage market in provincial England at the beginning of the 19th century, a period in which a “good match” was the only option available to women who wanted social and economic security.
- The characters’ motives for marriage differ significantly. Charlotte’s example shows that you can never achieve perfect happiness by striving merely for material safety. Yet despite Darcy’s substantial wealth, Elizabeth doesn’t say “yes” to him until after he has morally redeemed himself in her eyes. Conversely, romantic love alone isn’t a basis for a happy marriage, either, as Lydia’s adventure sadly demonstrates.
- Modest class distinctions seem acceptable as long as the partners’ characters complement one another, just as Darcy overcomes his initial conceits by getting to know Elizabeth and learning to appreciate her wit. Austen points out that character, intellect and manners aren’t necessarily related to one’s pedigree. The noble Lady Catherine is gross and inconsiderate, while the Gardiners, mere commoners, are a perfect example of distinguished, moral behavior.
- Austen writes only about what she knows from her own experience. Her novel therefore reads like a – conscious or unconscious – lightly comic perspective on the limited world of her social circle.
- The author represents traditional values such as discipline, morals and feminine virtues, and expresses no sympathy for revolutionary social ideas. Yet Austen’s name is inextricable linked to a revolution of another kind: She renewed the literary genre of the novel by focusing on regular people in day-to-day situations. This is why many experts cite her as a founder of the modern novel.
Rural Idyll in Turbulent Times
Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 amidst great political and economic upheavals. The Napoleonic Wars had set fire to most of Europe, while the Industrial Revolution and imperial expansion were turning Great Britain into the “workshop of the world.” In the ballooning, squalid cities, proletarian discontent was rising. Industrial workers and the masses of impoverished peasants had little patience for the excessive, Prince Regent and future King George IV, who reigned in lieu of his insane father George III during the Regency era from 1811 to 1820.
Yet none of this historical background is visible in Jane Austen’s work. She confined her novels to the perfect and petty world of the landed gentry, clergy and bourgeois merchant class in rural village communities. In her time, literary classicism, romanticism and realism overlapped, yet Austen’s work doesn’t neatly fit into any of these categories.
Austen wrote the first version of Pride and Prejudice as early as 1797 – at the young age of 22. Her father presented that early manuscript to a publisher who refused to even look at it. It is missing to this day. Sixteen years passed between the first draft and the publication of the final version. The author made a number of changes during this period, however, it remains unclear when and to what extent.
Austen published Pride and Prejudice anonymously. The only reference to the author noted that the book was, “By a Lady.” This was Austen’s favorite work, but in a letter to her sister Cassandra, she dismissed it as “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling.”
Yet this is exactly what has fascinated readers. The characters, masterfully depicted with wit and irony, spring right out of the author’s life and circumstances. The father of the family, Mr. Bennet, shows a striking resemblance to Austen’s own father, and even one of the marriage proposals might be autobiographically inspired. At age 27 she received a proposal from a younger man, whom her niece Caroline described as “awkward and even uncouth in manner.” Although Jane didn’t love him, she initially accepted, only to refuse the next morning.
Reviews and Legacy
Pride and Prejudice was a great contemporaneous success. The first edition of 1,500 copies sold out within a few months and was followed by a second edition the same year. Austen’s readers appeared downright relieved that her story allowed them to experience commonplace, probable situations, suffering and laughing along with fictional people who seemed to be taken from real life. Annabella Milbanke, the future Lady Byron, got to the heart of it shortly after the novel’s first publication: “It depends not on any of the common resources of novel writers, no drownings, nor conflagrations, nor runaway horses, nor lap-dogs and parrots, nor chambermaids and milliners, nor rencontres and disguises.”
Great minds don’t think alike about Jane Austen. Sir Walter Scott praised her “exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things…interesting”. Others, such as Charlotte Brontë, Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson, criticized her book’s for having the sterile atmosphere of a bloodless society moribund in tradition, as well as thin plots that seemed limited to the one and only question: Does he or she have enough money to marry? While Victorian interpreters commented that Austen’s novels upheld domestic virtues and taught women valuable moral lessons, some of their feminist successors a century later conjectured about subversive elements in her prose.
Many modern screen adaptations gave Pride and Prejudice a tremendous boost in popularity in recent years. The most notable was the popular 1995 six-part BBC mini-series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. The bestselling book Bridget Jones, adapted to the screen with Firth again in the leading male part as the gallant lawyer Mark Darcy, is a modern-day remake of the 200-year-old original.
About the Author
Jane Austen was born in Seventon, Hampshire, on December 16, 1775. She was the seventh child of rector George Austen and his wife Cassandra. Jane and her elder sister Cassandra, with whom she had a close relationship, received a basic education for five years and then continued to educate themselves through ample reading in their father’s extensive library, as well as learning painting and piano. Jane began to write at the youthful age of 12. In this period, she developed numerous early works. Between 1795 and 1799, she began the initial versions of her novels which were published more than a decade later after a number of revisions. Her contemporaries described the young Jane as an avid dancer and theater lover. While having a few suitors, she didn’t seem to be particularly interested in marriage, remaining single like Cassandra. When their father died in 1805, the sisters and their mother became financially dependent on Jane’s brothers. They moved repeatedly between Bath, London, Clifton, Warwickshire and Southampton, and briefly stayed with various relatives. In 1809, the three women finally settled in Chawton village, Hampshire, where they lived in a large cottage. Stability reawakened Jane’s creative forces. She prepared Sense and Sensibility (1811) as well as Pride and Prejudice (1813) for publication. In 1814, she released Mansfield Park, followed by Emma in 1816. At this point, Austen was a widely-read, albeit anonymous, author. She died at 41 on July 18, 1817, possibly of Addison’s disease, the cause of which is unknown and which was untreatable at the time. Her novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously in 1818. Only then did Jane’s brother Henry make the authorship of all six works publicly known.
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