"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
In the first line of the novel, Austen reveals two of its primary themes: marriage and class (particularly as indicated by money). In the world of Pride and Prejudice, individuals are defined by their marital opportunities and financial holdings. However, the irony in this line conceals an implicit criticism. The line's grammatical focus is on "a single man . . . in want of a wife," but Austen's novel is centered on her female characters as they struggle to succeed within this oppressive patriarchy. Each Miss Bennet knows that without a husband of decent means and status, she risks living a life as a powerless and potentially destitute spinster. That Austen can imply such a desperate reality in a superficially breezy and straightforward line is evidence of her mastery.
"Pride...is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us."
Mary gives the reader a lens through which to understand one of the novel's central conceits. On the surface, Mary offers simple definitions of pride and vanity. Her speech also indicates that these attributes are "very common." Therefore, she implies that it is best to acknowledge one's tendency towards such behavior. However, at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, both Elizabeth and Darcy believe that they are above pride and vanity. They think they can exist outside these cultural norms, but are ultimately forced to accept that they do in fact exist in the context of a greater society. They have responsibilities to others, and should consider to some extent how their family and friends perceive them.
"It is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely—a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten a women had better show more affection than she feels."
On one hand, Charlotte's pragmatic view of love, stands in stark contrast to the more romantic worldview that Elizabeth (and presumably, Austen herself) possesses. However, Charlotte's philosophy reflects the unfortunate reality that the women in Pride and Prejudice must face. They live in a patriarchal society. If a man remains single, his greatest risk is loneliness. However, an unmarried woman faces a potential lack of financial security. In Charlotte's eyes, this social inequality means that a woman must consider employing manipulation for the sake of her future. Charlotte follows her own advice when she shows "more affection than she feels" towards Mr. Collins in order to secure a proposal. Though Elizabeth's happy ending suggests that it is not always necessary for a woman to be as pragmatic as Charlotte, her philosophy nevertheless serves as a criticism of a world that so limits a woman's agency.
"Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life."
Charlotte's pragmatic view of love and marriage actually conceals her fear and desperation. She sees love as irrelevant to a marriage and believes that a woman ought to limit her intimacy with her husband in order to avoid the inevitable disappointments. This indicates that Charlotte sees a husband as a commodity or means to an end. Even though Elizabeth criticizes Charlotte's recommendation, there was sadly a great deal of truth to it in Jane Austen's time. Charlotte is aware that if her expectations for a mate are too high, she risks becoming a struggling spinster. If she lowers her standards, though, she may not find love but at least she will be comfortable.
"She was shown into the breakfast-parlour, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a great deal of surprise. That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. She was received, however, very politely by them; and in their brother's manners there was something better than politeness; there was good humour and kindness. Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion's justifying her coming so far alone. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast."
Elizabeth is worried about Jane and has no carriage, so she walks alone through the muddy fields to Netherfield. While society considers this kind of behavior to be 'unladylike,' Elizabeth's concern for her sister trumps these social graces. The Bingley sisters describe Elizabeth's behavior as "dirty" and "incredible" behind her back. However, the Bingley women treat Elizabeth "politely," revealing the dishonesty inherent in adhering to social convention. Meanwhile, the uncomplicated Mr. Bingley enjoys the simple fun of Elizabeth's adventure. Darcy's mixed reaction reveals his confusion about his feelings for Elizabeth. His "doubt" reflects his acknowledgment of social expectations, but he cannot help but feel "admiration" for Elizabeth's individuality.
"No, I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. It is, I believe, too little yielding—certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offenses against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost, is lost forever."
If Pride and Prejudice is largely about Darcy and Elizabeth gaining self-awareness, then this statement - which Darcy delivers to Elizabeth during her stay at Netherfield - embodies the way Darcy initially sees himself. There is a certain irony in Darcy's honesty. While he seems to exhibit complete self-awareness, he is somewhat oblivious. His pride is so great that he openly refuses to question his own self-perception. Therefore, he actually lacks self-awareness. Elizabeth is shocked by Darcy's arrogant dismissal here, but she has similar pride in her own disposition. Later, Darcy will realize that his pride has concealed the limits of his first impressions (as in the case of Jane), while Elizabeth will realize that she harbors a great deal of prejudice as well.
"She had dressed with more than usual care, and prepared in the highest spirits for the conquest of all that remained unsubdued of his heart, trusting that it was not more than might be won in the course of the evening. But in an instant arose the dreadful suspicion of his being purposely omitted for Mr. Darcy's pleasure in the Bingleys' invitation to the officers; and though this was not exactly the case, the absolute fact of his absence was pronounced by his friend Denny, to whom Lydia eagerly applied, and who told them that Wickham had been obliged to go to town on business the day before, and was not yet returned; adding, with a significant smile, 'I do not imagine his business would have called him away just now, if he had not wanted to avoid a certain gentleman here.'"
This passage reveals that Elizabeth is far more affected by her pride and prejudice than she realizes. She openly criticizes Darcy for these faults, not understanding that she suffers from them as well. Her prejudice blinds her to the fact that Wickham's claims might not be entirely truthful. The opening part of the passage reveals the cause of Elizabeth's unyielding prejudice against Darcy: her pride. Wickham has flattered her, which clouds her usual discernment. Although she usually cares little for social expectations, Elizabeth betrays her vanity by dressing "with more than usual care."
"You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner."
When Elizabeth refuses Darcy's first proposal, she attacks his pride. Darcy clearly expects a positive response, which reveals his arrogance. However, Elizabeth's claim that Darcy's manner is not "gentlemanlike" shows that she judges him based on his behavior rather than his aristocratic standing. He can wear the label of a gentleman, but that doesn't necessarily mean that his behavior is always appropriate. This particular statement causes Darcy great consternation. Elizabeth therefore forces him to reevaluate how he sees himself and consider his personality separate from his social position.
"How despicably I have acted! 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 mistrust! 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."
In this moment, Elizabeth realizes how much her pride and prejudice have affected her judgement, even though she has criticized Darcy for the same narrow-mindedness. She believed Wickham's story despite the obvious signs of his dishonesty - and she also wanted to believe the worst about Darcy. Once Elizabeth recognizes her faults, she does not wallow in them. Instead, she takes the opportunity to improve her attitude and finally admit her feelings for Darcy.
"I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased."
This passage is the climax of Darcy's journey to self-discovery. By admitting that he proposed to Elizabeth "without a doubt of [his] reception," Darcy acknowledges that his class prejudice clouded his judgement. After Elizabeth's rebuke, Darcy came to realize that a person's manner is more important than his or her social status. He has since achieved a level of self-awareness that will enable his future happiness. Finally, this statement reflects the importance that Austen places on the family unit educating its children, since Darcy sees his shortcomings in the context of his upbringing.
Pride and Prejudice Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Pride and Prejudice is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.