Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, is Jane Austen’s best-known and probably most widely studied novel. But what does the novel mean? What is it really all about? And where did that title, Pride and Prejudice, come from?
Before we attempt to answer some of these questions, it might be worth recapping the plot of Austen’s novel. So, before our analysis of Pride and Prejudice, here’s a brief plot summary.
Pride and Prejudice: plot summary
A wealthy man named Mr Bingley moves to the area, and Mrs Bennet – mother of five daughters – tells her husband to call on the eligible young bachelor. A match between Bingley and the eldest Bennet daughter, Jane, is soon in the works – but a match between another rich bachelor, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, and the second-eldest Bennet daughter, Elizabeth, looks less likely.
This is because Mr Darcy’s pride – his haughty attitude towards Elizabeth Bennet and her family – sour her view towards him, while Elizabeth’s prejudice towards Mr Darcy is also a stumbling-block. After he acts in an arrogant and disdainful way towards her at a ball, she learns from a young soldier, Mr George Wickham, that Darcy apparently mistreated him. Wickham is the son of a man who used to be Darcy’s steward or servant, and Darcy acted unkindly towards the young George. Darcy’s and Bingley’s sisters conspire to drive a wedge between Mr Bingley and Jane Bennet because they believe Bingley can find a wife from a better social station than the Bennets.
Meanwhile, Darcy also has an arrogant aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who acts as patroness to a clergyman named Mr Collins, who in turn flatters her with disgusting servility. (Mr Collins is also Mr Bennet’s nephew: since Mr and Mrs Bennet have no sons, Mr Bennet’s estate is due to pass to Mr Collins when Mr Bennet dies.) Mr Collins is encouraged to ask one of the Bennet sisters for her hand in marriage, and he decides upon Elizabeth. She, however, turns him down, and he marries Charlotte Lucas instead.
The happy couple get together, and Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, but it’s clear he still views her and her family with some contempt because he is of a higher social status than they are. She responds by citing George Wickham’s accusations against him; she also thinks he played a part in breaking up the match between her sister, Jane, and Bingley.
However, in a later letter to her, Darcy reveals that Wickham cannot be trusted: he is a womaniser and a liar. Elizabeth visits Darcy’s home, Pemberley, while visiting the north of England with her aunt and uncle. Darcy welcomes them and introduces them to his sister.
Darcy’s words about Wickham are proved true, as the soldier elopes with Lydia, the youngest of the five Bennet sisters. Darcy tracks the two lovebirds down and persuades them to marry so Lydia is made an honest woman of. Bingley and Jane finally get engaged, and Darcy and Elizabeth overcome their ‘pride and prejudice’ and become a couple.
Pride and Prejudice: analysis
In his vast study of plot structures, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker suggests that Pride and Prejudice is more straightforwardly in the ‘comedy’ genre than it may first appear to be. He points out that much of the novel turns on misunderstandings, characters misreading others’ intentions or others’ personalities, and people generally getting things wrong: the Bennets think Mr Wickham is the wronged one and Darcy the villain, but it turns out that they have this the wrong way around.
So what used to be more explicit in, say, stage comedies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – indeed, going right back to Shakespeare – is made more subtle and internalised in Austen’s novel, and rather than having her characters literally confuse one person with another (because of some absurd coincidence, wearing similar clothing, and so on), her characters find they have misread a person’s motive or misjudged their honesty, as with Mr Wickham.
This is why the title of the novel is so important: Darcy and Elizabeth’s union at the end of the novel strikes us as true because they have had to overcome their own personal flaws, which prevent a union between them, but having done so they have an honest and realistic appraisal of each other’s personality. They have, if you like, ‘seen’ each other. We might contrast this with the various illusions and misapprehensions in the novel, or the other motivations driving people together (Mr Collins trying to woo Elizabeth simply because she’s the next Bennet sister in the list).
Is Pride and Prejudice a late Augustan work or a novel belonging to Romanticism? Romanticism was largely a reaction against Augustan values: order, rationalism, and the intellect were tempered if not wholly replaced by the Romantic values of freedom, emotion, and individualism. But whether we should regard Pride and Prejudice as Augustan or Romantic is a question that divides critics. Terry Eagleton, in The English Novel: An Introduction, points out that Austen was not somebody who trusted wholly in the supremacy of reason, not least because her beliefs – what Eagleton calls her Tory Christian pessimism, which made her alert to the flawed nature of all human beings – would not allow her to be so. Austen is aware that human beings are imperfect and, at times, irrational.
And in this connection, it is worth pondering what Andrew H. Wright observes in Jane Austen’s Novels, a Study in Structure: that the reason Elizabeth Bennet, rather than Jane, is the real heroine of Pride and Prejudice is that Jane is not flawed enough. She is too perfect: something that would make her the ideal heroine for most novels, but the very reason she cannot be the protagonist of a Jane Austen novel. Austen is too interested in the intricate and complex mixture of good and bad, as Wright points out: Austen likes the explore the flaws and foibles of her characters. Elizabeth, in being taken in by Wickham and his lies and in misjudging (or at least partly misjudging) Darcy, is flawed because both her pride and prejudice need tempering with a more nuanced understanding of the man she will marry.
The opening line of Pride and Prejudice is arguably the most famous opening line of any novel: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ But what is less widely known is that the tone of this opening line is clearly ironic. Far from being Austen the detached, impartial narrator, this is actually Austen ventriloquising her characters’ thoughts – specifically, those of Mrs Bennet, whose views in the novel are often derided by Austen’s narrator – using a narrative technique which Austen did so much to pioneer.
This technique is known as free indirect speech, and it is what makes Austen’s prose so full of wit and surprise, so we always have to keep an ear out for her narrators’ arch commentary on the characters and situations being described. (The clue in this opening line is in the phrase ‘universally acknowledged’, since how many things in life really are truly universally acknowledged?)
Pride and Prejudice was originally titled First Impressions, but that eventual title, Pride and Prejudice, was a cliché even when Austen used it for her novel. The phrase is found in two important works of the 1770s, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But the most important precursor to Austen’s novel by a long way is Fanny Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia, in which that phrase, ‘pride and prejudice’, appears three times in rapid succession, with the words ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice’ capitalised: ‘The whole of this unfortunate business, said Dr Lyster, has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. […] if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination.’ Austen learned a great deal from Burney, and refined the comedy of manners which Burney had helped to pioneer several decades earlier.
Pride and Prejudice is, in the last analysis, one of the great comedies in the English language, because in its construction it takes the hallmarks of romantic comedy and refines them, making subtle and abstract what was literal and physical in earlier stage comedies. It is also a novel about how true love needs to be founded on empirical fact: we need to know the person we’re marrying, to see them with our own eyes, rather than rely on others’ opinion or let ourselves be blinded by romantic notions and delusions.