Pride and Prejudice
Approx. 121,000 words
An engagement that endures
Pride and Prejudice has one of the most skilful beginnings in literature. It opens of course with that famous "truth universally acknowledged" and its equally delicious corollary (see "First lines"). These could introduce almost any Jane Austen novel—delivered with the slightest hint of snarkiness to show Austen herself is in on the joke.
But it's not just those two sentences that ably launch Jane Austen's greatest novel. Following directly, we are thrown into the discussion by the two heads of the Bennet family of the project that is to occupy them and their five marriageable girls. Immediately, in their back-and-forth discussion, the shrill caricature of Mrs. Bennet is set, alongside the subtly benevolent character of her husband.
"Mr. Bennet.... You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion for my poor nerves."
"You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least."
There, and in their ongoing exchange, is a humorous picture of a marriage of different if complementary dispositions. And the stage is quickly set for the romantic endeavours of the as-yet barely mentioned daughters.
You need not be a romance reader or a fan of what's become known as chick lit to be drawn into Pride and Prejudice, especially as the characters of daughter Elizabeth and seemingly snobbish neighbour Mr. Darcy start squaring off. As indicated by the title, Austen is after larger targets than the love affairs of silly, spoiled young men and women. (Unlike in some other Austen novels—yes, Emma, I'm talking about you, popular as you are.)
At times, Pride and Prejudice is like Austen's most playful book. At other times it's her most serious work. Most exasperating, or most uplifting. And most endearing. Enduringly so.
That's partly due to the plot. Stories of misunderstandings eventually understood are always grabby, as any sitcom writer could tell you. Especially misunderstandings involving the heart.
Pride and Prejudice delivers one of the best. There's the whole buildup of tension in the central conflict of the story as two parties construct impressions of each other based on scant and unreliable information—the reader may or may not get an inkling of the truth in the politely reserved give-and-take. Then there's the anticipation as they appear to be approaching the point where an explosion seems inevitable and one side or the other must get their comeuppance—though it keeps getting delayed. Then, finally, the release...the confused combination of joy and misgivings...as everything one or both characters, and possibly the reader, has believed is swept aside and new possibilities are sighted.
But not "finally" after all. Austen doesn't leave it there. It's not settled at that point, it's just setup for the last quarter of the story in which the relationship is barely stitched back together, new plot twists appear, more misunderstandings arise, and we're all uncertain how far our central twosome can go in overcoming the damage done.
Behind the pride and the prejudice
But it's not just this story arc, which can be found in other works by her and by hosts of writers before and after her, that enmeshes. The entangled characters in Pride and Prejudice are particularly absorbing. Unlike some of the one-note caricatures in their circles, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are conflicted, conflicting characters.
Though much of the story is delivered from Elizabeth's perspective in Austen's free indirect style, the second-eldest Bennet sibling is not immune from criticism and self-criticism, continually being forced to revise her self-regard. Nor is Darcy ever a completely despicable or completely admirable figure, either before or after his resurrection. While it's easy to see the novel's double-barrelled title as assigning one quality to Elizabeth and the other to Darcy, the deeper truth is that both are prideful in their own way and both are guilty of prejudging at times.
Indeed, pride and prejudice are rife in their social circles. It is difficult to find anyone in the novel not so afflicted to some degree.
Elizabeth, mediated by the author, is continually commenting on every person's "character" and "disposition"—two words that run throughout Pride and Prejudice. They seem to indicate Austen's philosophy of human nature, that everyone's nature is set in certain patterns. Whether it is set by upbringing and social status, or by some inner chemistry, may be an open question (though Austen seems to accept the former). But only extraordinary efforts by extraordinary people can change it.
For most people, finding a compatible life-mate thus means finding someone whose character and predispositions (not to mention affluence and social status) already suit one's own. Eldest sister Jane is a sweet, placid character, suited perfectly for the attentions of good-natured, pliant Bingley. Mr. Collins is a pompous, obsequious ass with a wealthy patron and is lucky to find a mate in Elizabeth's friend Charlotte who cares naught for love, only for security. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have, as mentioned, well-matched complementary characters. The frivolous, flirtatious rascals Lydia and Wickham are peas in a pod (though perhaps too similarly self-centred to last as a couple, it is hinted). And so on.
Only Elizabeth and Darcy struggle to overcome their deficiencies and illusions, in order to finally be able to come together. It may be pointed out though that their struggles are really to wipe away false impressions to get at their real characters, as they have been set and as first drew them together.
Much is said of love in Jane Austen novels—and of the need for love and understanding in the conjoining of people. But in Pride and Prejudice it seems this is just the emotional outburst that comes when two eligible people recognize their pre-established compatibility of character.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the institution of marriage, but it does make for an engaging novel.