Pride and Prejudice (Bantam Classics)
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Pride and Prejudice Themes

by Jane Austen

Major Themes

Pride

As Mary says in Chapter 5, "human nature is particularly prone to [pride]." As the novel's title makes clear, pride is one of its central themes. In most cases, pride prevents the characters from seeing the truth of a situation and from achieving happiness. Most notably, it is one of the two primary barriers towards the eventual union between Elizabeth and Darcy. Darcy's pride in his social position leads him initially to scorn anyone outside of his own social circle, while Elizabeth's vanity, both in her powers of discernment and in her positive feelings when praised by Wickham, clouds her judgment. They find happiness only through helping one another overcome this pride. Austen is not so optimistic that this human vice is so easily conquered, however - a slew of other characters, including Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins and more, continue to delude themselves through pride even when the story is complete.

Prejudice

As the novel's title makes clear, prejudice is one of its central themes, especially as it relates to pride; the two are interrelated. As critic A. Walton Litz comments, "in Pride and Prejudice one cannot equate Darcy with Pride, or Elizabeth with Prejudice; Darcy's pride of place is founded on social prejudice, while Elizabeth's initial prejudice against him is rooted in pride of her own quick perceptions." In other words, they are driven towards personal prejudice because of their own self-admiration. Darcy, having been brought up to scorn all those outside his own social circle, must overcome his prejudice in order to both accept and win Elizabeth. Similarly, Elizabeth's excessive pride in her discernment leads her to too-quickly write Darcy off. Ultimately, they find happiness by recognizing the limits of their prejudices. Austen is not so optimistic that this human vice is so easily conquered, however - a slew of other characters, including Lady Catherine, Charlotte, Mr. Collins and more, continue to exhibit undue prejudice even when the story is complete.

Family

Austen portrays the family unit as primarily responsible for the intellectual and moral education of children. In almost every case in the novel, the child either benefits from or suffers from the character of the family overall. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet's failure to provide a proper education for their daughters leads to Lydia's utter shamelessness, foolishness, frivolity, and immorality. Elizabeth and Jane manage to develop virtue and discernment in spite of their parents' negligence, though it is notable that they have other role models like the Gardiners. Darcy shares both his father's aristocratic nature and the man's tendency towards generosity, while Lady Catherine has turned her daughter into a timid girl too frightened to speak. For all the complexity of the psychologies that Austen creates, she seems to believe that the integrity of the family unit is central towards a person's success.

Women

Though one of the most notable qualities in her work, Austen's attitude towards women is quite complicated.

In the most basic sense, Austen is critical of the gender injustices present in 19th century English society, particularly as represented through marriage expectations. The novel demonstrates how many women (such as Charlotte) must marry men solely for the sake of financial security. Clearly, Austen believes that woman can be at least as intelligent and capable as men are. She herself went against convention by remaining single and earning a living through her novels. In her personal letters, Austen advises friends only to marry for love. And finally, Elizabeth's happy ending reveals Austen's sentiment: a woman can find happiness by insisting on her independence until she meets the right match.

And yet Austen also seems to take certain injustices for granted. Likely, a contemporary reader will find the details of the Longbourn entailment unjust. And yet the heroines - Jane and Elizabeth - hardly rail against it. Instead, the only two characters who openly criticize the entailment - Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine - are ridiculous characters. Further, the fact that Elizabeth seems to share her father's distrust in a woman's frivolity suggests Austen's uneasy relationship with her own sex. Perhaps it is safe to say that while Austen recognized the injustice of gender limitations, she also accepted them as possessing a touch of legitimacy.

Class

Class issues are everywhere in Pride and Prejudice. While the novel never posits an egalitarian ideology nor supports the leveling of all social classes, it does criticize an over-emphasis on class, especially in terms of judging a person's character.

Ultimately, the novel accepts Elizabeth's view, that the trappings of wealth are not virtue in themselves. Instead, a person should be judged on his or her personality. Darcy's initial pride is based on his extreme class-consciousness, but he eventually comes to accept Elizabeth's perspective, most notably evidenced through his admiration of the Gardiners. Likewise, he joins us in disliking those upper-class characters who are idle, mean-spirited, and annoying, like Lady Catherine or Bingley's sisters.

Similarly, Austen finds the trappings of class occasionally absurd. Mr. Collins's comic formality and obsequious relationship with Lady Catherine serve as a satire of class consciousness and social formalities.

In the end, the novel's verdict on class differences is moderate. As is the case with the theme of women, Austen seems to take for granted, and even appreciate, the existence of class hierarchy, while also criticizing the way it can poison society. As critic Samuel Kliger notes, "If the conclusion of the novel makes it clear that Elizabeth accepts class relationships as valid, it becomes equally clear that Darcy, through Elizabeth's genius for treating all people with respect for their natural dignity, is reminded that institutions are not an end in themselves but are intended to serve the end of human happiness."

Individuality and Society

The novel portrays a world in which society is actively involved in the private virtue of its members. Characters often face questions of their responsibility to the world around them. A prime example is Darcy's guilt over not having publicly shamed Wickham before he eloped with Lydia. After all, Lydia's sin threatens to besmirch not only her family, but the community at large. And yet Austen seems quite well aware of how easily society can be twisted, as evidenced by the town's easily shifting opinions on Wickham.

That world stands in rather stark contrast to Elizabeth, who is proudly independent and individualistic. Elizabeth is marked by her ability to transcend her limitations - the negligence of her parents, the frivolity of Meryton, the pragmatic nature of Charlotte - because she is willing to go after what she wants. Of course, this individualistic nature misleads her in terms of her own happiness, as she has nobody except Mrs. Gardiner to help guide her towards the union with Darcy that the reader can so easily identify as ideal.

Austen ultimately comes down on both sides. She is critical of how social pressures can be too easily swayed, but does believe that society has a crucial role in promoting virtue and engendering individual happiness. Austen has a profound sense that individuals are social beings, and that their happiness is found through relationships with others. According to critic Richard Simpson, Austen has a "thorough consciousness that man is a social being, and that apart from society there is not even the individual."

Virtue

Despite the innovation of Austen's novels and their content, she is ultimately a moralist. Austen's novels unite Aristotelian and Christian conceptions of virtue. She sees human life as purposeful, and believes that human beings must guide their appetites and desires through their use of reason. For instance, Elizabeth almost loses her chance at happiness because her vanity overcomes her reason. Lydia's lack of virtue is linked with her over-emphasis on passion and desire.

What most of the examples have in common is the importance of self-knowledge. Without this, it is difficult to develop virtue. Darcy and Elizabeth, two of the only characters who actually change in the novel, are only freed of their pride and prejudice when their dealings with one another help them to see their faults and then spur them to improve. In the end, Austen unites happiness with virtue, and virtue with self-knowledge.

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