“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
So begins Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of the most famous love stories in the English language. A stunning combination of wisdom and judgment, humor and earnestness, Austen’s tale has shaped the romance genre for over two centuries.
Set in England at the turn of the nineteenth century, the novel follows the story of the Bennets, a middle-class family with five unmarried daughters. After two wealthy, eligible men, Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, move into their neighborhood, the Bennets are pulled into the world of the upper class: a world of gossip, snobbery, and disdain. Mr. Bingley takes an immediate interest in Jane, the eldest of the daughters. Meanwhile, Elizabeth, the second eldest, finds herself clashing with Mr. Darcy and his seemingly endless arrogance.
The novel explores several different themes through their impacts on the lives of the main cast. One of the most prominent is that of marriage. Marriage in the time of Pride and Prejudice often served as a working partnership, rather than the vision of domestic joy many envision today. Besides being used to secure financial stability, it also offered an opportunity for those in lower classes to reach new social heights. The contrast between security and happiness, specifically within marriages, is explored particularly in depth; while several of the characters marry during the course of the novel, it is clear that they hold little real affection for their partners.
Austen also makes particular use of scene. Much of it is conveyed through social events and dialogue, giving it a life-like feel. The central plot is almost entirely told through these moments, which reveal key aspects of characterization conflict. The use of scene also immerses the reader in the emotions of each character; the disgust or suprise experienced by Elizabeth feels just as potent in the mind of the reader.
One of the more impressive parts of Pride and Prejudice is how Austen paints a picture of each character. During each character’s first introduction, Austen only describes a few specific features of his or her identity. It is only through their interactions between other characters that the reader learns new details about the character in question.
Perhaps Pride and Prejudice’s most famous element is its shrewd humor. Told from the perspective of the clever Elizabeth Bennet, the novel is infused with her brilliant wit and unadulterated honesty. Her blunt tone, particularly memorable through her descriptions of human behavior, informs much of Pride and Prejudice’s satirical style.
Admittedly, the plot of Pride and Prejudice may be unappealing to some readers. Rather than being built through direct confrontation, tension is created through social situations and their repercussions. The conflicts between characters are often subtle, hidden behind layers of sharp, biting dialogue. Rarely do physical events drive the plot of the novel.
However, much of the novel’s charm lies precisely in this lack of direct confrontation. Coupled with Elizabeth’s wit, it creates a thoroughly unique reading experience not dependent on constant tension or high stakes. Rather, Austen chooses to progress at her own, carefree tempo. This gives the novel the luxury of time. The reader can explore luscious landscapes, amuse themself with games of cards, and attend elegant balls. In this way, Pride and Prejudice crafts an atmosphere of luxury and ease so difficult to find among contemporary novels.
Even when Austen deviates away from the main plot in favor of world-building or a detailed exploration of domesticity, she always leaves tidbits of intrigue that tie back to the plot and have the reader eager to read on. In this way, Pride and Prejudice is able to progress at a unique tempo while simultaneously maintaining a connection to the main plot.
Through its exploration of social customs and marriage, unique storytelling, and unmatched wit, Pride and Prejudice has cemented itself as one of the masterpieces of the English language. A must-read for all.