Pride and Prejudice

Major themes

Many critics take the novel's title as a starting point when analysing the major themes of Pride and Prejudice; however, Robert Fox cautions against reading too much into the title because commercial factors may have played a role in its selection. "After the success of Sense and Sensibility, nothing would have seemed more natural than to bring out another novel of the same author using again the formula of antithesis and alliteration for the title. It should be pointed out that the qualities of the title are not exclusively assigned to one or the other of the protagonists; both Elizabeth and Darcy display pride and prejudice."[7] The title is very likely taken from a passage in Fanny Burney's popular 1782 novel Cecilia, a novel Austen is known to have admired:[8]

"The whole of this unfortunate business," said Dr. Lyster, "has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. ... Yet this, however, remember: 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 ..."[8][9] (Capitalization as in the original.)

A major theme in much of Austen's work is the importance of environment and upbringing on the development of young people's character and morality.[10] Social standing and wealth are not necessarily advantages in her world, and a further theme common to Austen's work is ineffectual parents. In Pride and Prejudice, the failure of Mr and Mrs Bennet as parents is blamed for Lydia's lack of moral judgment; Darcy, on the other hand, has been taught to be principled and scrupulously honourable, but he is also proud and overbearing.[10] Kitty, rescued from Lydia's bad influence and spending more time with her older sisters after they marry, is said to improve greatly in their superior society.[11]

Pride and Prejudice is also about that thing that all great novels consider, the search for self. And it is the first great novel that teaches us this search is as surely undertaken in the drawing room making small talk as in the pursuit of a great white whale or the public punishment of adultery.[12]

Marriage

The opening line of the novel announces: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."[13] This sets the marriage motif of the novel. It turns out that rather than the man being in want of a wife, the woman is in want of a husband who is "in possession of good fortune". Charlotte Lucas, Lydia Bennet, Jane Bennet and Elizabeth Bennet get married to men who are sufficiently appropriate for each of them. Marriage becomes an economic rather than social activity. In the case of Charlotte, the seeming success of the marriage lies in the comfortable economy of their household. The relationship of Mr and Mrs Bennet serves to illustrate all that a marriage relationship should not be. Elizabeth and Darcy marry each other on equal terms after breaking each other's 'pride' and 'prejudice' and Austen clearly leaves the reader with the impression that the two will be the happiest.

Wealth

Money plays a key role in the marriage market, not only for the young ladies seeking a well-off husband, but also for men who wish to marry a woman of means. Two examples are George Wickham, who tried to elope with Georgiana Darcy, and Colonel Fitzwilliam. Marrying a woman of a rich family also ensured a linkage to a high family as is visible in the desires of Bingley's sisters to have their brother married to Georgiana Darcy.

Inheritance was governed by laws of entailment. When there was no heir to the estate, the family had to entail its fortune to a distant cousin. In the case of the Bennet family, Mr Collins was to inherit and his proposal to Elizabeth would have allowed her to have a share. Nevertheless, she refused his offer. Inheritance laws benefited males because most women did not have independent legal rights until the second half of the 19th century. As a consequence, women's financial security at the time the novel is set depended on men. For the upper middle and aristocratic classes, marriage to a man with a reliable income was almost the only route to security for the woman and her future children.[14]

Class

Much of the pride and prejudice in the novel exists because of class divisions. Darcy's first impressions on Elizabeth are coloured by his snobbery. He cannot bring himself to love Elizabeth or at least acknowledge his love for her even in his own heart because of his pride. His first proposal clearly reflects this attitude: "In vain have I 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." [15] Also, Elizabeth quickly believes Wickham's account of Darcy because of her prejudice against him. Lady Catherine and the Bingley sisters belong to the snobbish category. Mr Bingley shows complete disregard to class. Because Mr Bingley's fortune comes from trade, it would actually be a benefit socially to marry a gentleman's daughter, such as Jane.

Self knowledge

Elizabeth and Darcy were not born a great match. It is through their interactions and their critiques of each other that they recognize their faults and work to correct them. Elizabeth meditates on her own mistakes thoroughly in chapter 36: "How despicably have I acted!" she cried; "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself."


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