The novel begins at Longbourn, at the Bennet family estate. The Bennets are immersed in an in-depth conversation about Mr. Bingley, "a single man of large fortune" who is soon to inhabit the nearby estate of Netherfield Park.
Mrs. Bennet hopes that Mr. Bingley will be a potential suitor for one of her daughters. She desperately wants her husband to visit him, hoping that will spark an acquaintance. Mr. Bennet remains aloof, however, and refuses to commit. His attitude infuriates his wife, whose primary life concern is finding husbands for her daughters.
There are five daughters in the Bennet family (from oldest to youngest): Jane, Elizabeth Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. It is clear from the beginning of the novel that Mr. Bennet prefers Elizabeth because of her practical nature. Mrs. Bennet, on the other hand, appears to be more fond of Jane because of her beauty, and of Lydia because of her good humor.
Mr. Bennet visits Mr. Bingley without telling his family and only mentions it nonchalantly a few days later. He had always intended to visit, but kept refusing in order to irk Mrs. Bennet. After his revelation, Mr. Bennet continues to annoy his wife - and their younger daughters, too - by refusing to answer any of their questions about the mysterious Bingley.
Mr. Bingley returns Mr. Bennet's visit a few days later, but the women do not meet him at that point. Mrs. Bennet's only information about Bingley comes from her neighbor, Mrs. Lucas. After hearing about him, Mrs. Bennet becomes convinced that she will be able to snatch Bingley for one of her daughters. She invites Bingley to dinner. Unfortunately, he is forced to decline because of his commitment to fetch a party from London to attend a ball he is throwing at nearby Meryton.
On the night of the Meryton ball, the Bennet ladies finally meet Mr. Bingley, his sisters (Caroline and Mrs. Hurst), and Mr. Darcy, his friend from London. The Bennet girls quickly judge Mr. Darcy to be "the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world" because of his reserve and his unwillingness to dance with anyone outside of his own party. At one point, Bingley encourages Darcy to dance with Elizabeth, who is not dancing either, but he refuses. Elizabeth overhears Darcy describe her as "tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me." She is understandably outraged, and the encounter solidifies her ill opinion of him.
On the other hand, the Bennet girls find Mr. Bingley to be entirely amiable. He dances the first dance with Charlotte Lucas, the Bennets's neighbor and Elizabeth's best friend, but he seems to be most interested in Jane, with whom he dances twice and talks frequently. Upon returning home, Mrs. Bennet attempts to describe the ball to Mr. Bennet, but he is indifferent to the news and becomes quickly irritated with everything his wife says.
When they are alone, Jane admits her feelings for Bingley to Elizabeth. It is clear that the sisters are quite close. Elizabeth approves of Bingley, but cautions Jane to be certain of the nature of her feelings because the older Bennet daughter never sees fault in anyone. They also discuss Caroline and Bingley's other sisters. Elizabeth found them to be snobbish, but Jane describes them as charming.
The narrator then reveals some important personal information about Bingley and Darcy. Bingley is extraordinarily wealthy because of a large inheritance from his late father. He has been friends with Darcy for a long time, despite their opposite personalities. Bingley is easy-going and open, while Darcy is haughty and reserved. While Bingley found the company at the Meryton ball to be quite amiable, Darcy saw no one with whom he wished to associate. Darcy even finds fault with the beautiful Jane; she smiles too much for his taste. Bingley's sisters approve of Jane, though, which makes their brother happy.
The narrator describes the Lucas family, who live near Longbourn. Sir William Lucas was once a merchant, but he has become overly proud after being knighted. His wife, Mrs. Lucas, is a close confidant of Mrs. Bennet, and their daughter Charlotte is Elizabeth's closest friend.
The day after the ball, Charlotte and Mrs. Lucas visit the Bennet ladies to share their experiences. They all voice their general admiration for Jane and share the belief that Bingley is attracted to her. They also criticize Darcy because of his pride. Mary remarks that pride is universal to human nature, and articulates the difference between pride and vanity. She comments, "Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us."
Though they do not care for Mrs. Bennet or the younger Bennet sisters, Bingley's sisters become acquainted with Jane and Elizabeth over the course of several visits. Jane is pleased by their attention, while Elizabeth remains critical of them. The Bennet sisters also see Bingley and Darcy on occasion.
When Elizabeth speaks to Charlotte about Bingley's affection for Jane, Charlotte tells Elizabeth that Jane must be more obvious about her affection, lest the "uniform cheerfulness of [her] manner" discourage Bingley. Charlotte believes that a woman should show more affection than she feels in order to attract a man, commenting that "happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance." Elizabeth is skeptical of both assertions.
During this period, Mr. Darcy grows interested in Elizabeth. He is attracted to her dark, intelligent eyes and the "easy playfulness" of her manner. At a dinner held by Sir William Lucas, Darcy eavesdrops on a conversation between Elizabeth and Sir William Lucas. Sir William, unaware of Darcy's affections, begs Elizabeth to dance with Darcy - but she steadfastly refuses. Darcy mentions his admiration for Elizabeth to Caroline Bingley. Caroline responds to his revelation by criticizing the Bennet family, but Darcy does not partake her the mockery.
The opening chapters of Pride and Prejudice serve to quickly introduce Austen's principal characters and outline the skeleton of the plot. Austen expediently establishes her primary themes and the stylistic devices through which she will explore the narrative. The very first line of the novel has become one of the most famous first lines in literature: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." This opening line establishes the novel's two major themes - marriage and class (particularly as as defined by money). Most of the characters in Pride and Prejudice are first and foremost defined by their financial background and marital status. In these the early chapters, Austen explores the stark contrast between Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth through their opinions on these issues. Mrs. Bennet only cares about marriage and money, while Elizabeth refuses to let these superficial measures control her.
The first line also introduces Austen's use of irony. While the first line focuses on "a single man . . . in want of a wife," Austen shows her readers over the course of the novel that in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, marriage was actually more crucial for young women. If a young woman of a certain class did not find a husband of decent means and status, she risked becoming a powerless and potentially destitute spinster. While Austen's choice of wording in this first line frames the man as the active force in seeking marriage, the plot of Pride and Prejudice emphasizes a woman's role in finding a suitable partner.
This irony leads to the central question surrounding Austen's intent in writing Pride and Prejudice. Was Austen conservative, poking fun at these institutions but ultimately approving of them, or was she progressive and subtly trying to upend those social restrictions? Neither answer has ever produced a scholarly consensus, largely because there is evidence in support of both interpretations. Austen attacks the purely economic, utilitarian motives for marriage as well as the societal constraints which leave many women with little choice but to marry. Yet the plot of Pride and Prejudice seems to suggest that happy unions can exist even within these strict cultural limitations.
In the conversation between Charlotte and Elizabeth in Chapter 5, Austen leads the reader to sympathize with Elizabeth, the novel's protagonist. She argues against the utilitarian motive for marriage and rejects the idea that a women must feign interest in order to secure a man. From a contemporary perspective, Charlotte's attitude is lamentable if not anti-feminist. She believes a woman should get married for the sake of security, which will then allow her the "leisure for falling in love as much as she chuses." Elizabeth speaks up in favor of individuality, refusing to consider that marriage should be founded on anything other than love and respect. While the reader naturally aligns with Elizabeth's opinion, Austen ultimately proves both of Charlotte's arguments to be true. As a result of rejecting Charlotte's advice, Jane almost loses Bingley. Additionally, many moments in Elizabeth's journey towards her relationship with Darcy suggest the importance of class in marriage, at least to some degree.
Critics have praised Austen's ability to bring her characters to life. Critic George Henry Lewes lauds Austen because "instead of description, the common and easy resource of novelists, she has the rare and difficult art of dramatic presentation instead of telling us what her characters are, and what they feel, she presents the people, and they reveal themselves." For example, the reader's first glimpse of the Bennets provides a fairly accurate sketch of their individual characters. Mrs. Bennett is chatty, frivolous, and obsessed with marrying off her daughters, while Mr. Bennett is rather detached. Jane is beautiful and amiable, always believing the best about people. Elizabeth, good-looking but not as beautiful as her sister, has a sharp wit and prides herself on her keen sense of perception. Lydia and Kitty are frivolous like their mother, and Mary is scholarly and humorless.
These initial characterizations motivate the novel's plot. Jane's good nature is partly responsible for her trouble with Bingley. Because Jane is so pleasant to everyone, Darcy is later able to convince his friend that Jane is not particularly interested in him. Throughout the novel, Mrs. Bennet remains "a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper," but as the girls lose their prospects of marriage, it becomes clear that her excessive insistence is not entirely unfounded. She knows that if her daughters do not marry, their lives could be ruined. Finally, Elizabeth's keen wit will ultimately be her own worst enemy, as it leads her to express a sense of pride that rivals Darcy's. This quality proves to both Elizabeth's strength and her weakness, and her struggle with her pride paves her character arc.
The Meryton ball introduces the novel's two main couples and foreshadows the distinct ways in which each relationship will develop. Jane and Bingley are attracted to each other from the outset, and they both have simple, amiable, and easy-going personalities. However, Bingley needs to wait for his sisters' approval before feeling "authorised" to like Jane. This shows that Bingley is easily influenced by others' opinions and foreshadows the difficulties he and Jane will face. Elizabeth and Darcy, on the other hand, each have unfavorable first impressions of each other. In fact, Austen originally titled the novel First Impressions because she wanted to explore the difficulty of changing one person's initial assessment of another. Because of his pride and extreme class-consciousness, Darcy refuses to even consider Elizabeth as a dancing partner. And yet, Elizabeth is equally quick to judge Darcy. Elizabeth is not even aware of the fact that she is overly confident about the accuracy of her perceptions. In fact, Darcy's refusal offends Elizabeth's vanity more than she admits. This incident is the first time that Mary's central argument from Chapter 5 becomes clear: pride is how we view ourselves, and vanity is how others view us.
Austen provides insight into the stony Darcy through his conversation with Caroline Bingley. While both characters are extremely class-conscious, only Caroline makes the tasteless statement that rural "society" is "insupportable." When Darcy comments that Elizabeth's "fine eyes" please him, he shows a willingness - however nascent - to see a person beyond her class limitations. Once Caroline realizes that Darcy is interested in Elizabeth, she insinuates that the Bennet family - especially Mrs. Bennet - would be embarrassing in society. Darcy does not fully disagree, revealing that he possesses more decency than Caroline. And yet, this conversation underlines the theme that personal prejudices are more difficult to transcend than class differences.