Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen
Comedy, Coming-of-Age, Literary Fiction,
Before we start, Shmoop's going to let you in on a Formal Genre Description Secret. As a genre, comedy has less to do with funny-ha-ha and much more to do with the kind of ending a work has. If, at the end of a work, it's all marriage and happily-ever-after and yay-the-princess-found-her-prince? Well, you've got yourself a comedy, even if you're not busting a gut at any point. Need some examples? How about the French fairytale "Beauty and the Beast" or Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream or that movie Love Actually)?
What do we have here? Lots of weddings at the end? Check. A light tone? Check. Not too many suggestions that the world is a dark and horrible place where nothing good can ever happen? Check. Comedy it is.
Romantic Comedy (Not Really)
People like to say that Austen invented the contemporary romantic comedy. We'd like to say that too—it sounds catchy—but we don't really think it's true. In all of Austen's novels, the reason the hero and heroine don't get together right from the beginning is that they don't necessarily belong together, and they both have some serious growing up to do. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Darcy has to give up some of his presumptions about himself and other people, and Elizabeth has to learn to give people the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile, we're not even convinced they belong together—or wouldn't have been reading the book for the first time.
In modern romantic comedies, on the other hand, the hero and heroine are already obviously perfect people who are perfect for each other. It's the outside world that is keeping them apart through all sorts of wacky contrivance, and when they do finally get together, it's not because they learned to be better, more suitable people, but just because they jumped through whatever hoops were standing in their way. So, yeah, maybe not quite so deep or realistic as Austen.
Fair enough: Pride and Prejudice may not look like your typical coming-of-age novel. Still, Shmoopsters, we want you to really register it because it'll pop up again and again in Austen's writing. The idea is this: love really only works when the people getting together are grownups. It's not about looks, and it's not about wealth—although for sure those things help also—because what really connects two people is a level of empathy and understanding for other people's points of view.
Think about how it plays out for Darcy and Elizabeth. At first, he thinks "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me" (3.13): i.e., he's not about to ask for her digits. Meanwhile, she thinks he's so rude that she refuses to acknowledge he might have some other positive character traits. They both have some major growing up to do. Darcy has to get over himself, which he just starts to do when he sees how far Elizabeth is willing to go for her sick sister (literally, tramping through the muck and mud without worrying about her heinous appearance).
And Elizabeth needs to learn to give the benefit of the doubt, which she starts doing when she reads Darcy's letter, first from her own point of view, and then, crucially, from his. Turns out he's not really a total jerk so much as an awkward but well-meaning clod. And we all love an awkward but well-meaning clod, right, ladies?
You guys, this is a major work, right up there with all the big ones as a foundational piece of art for Western literature. Actually, a lot of people argue that Austen is the first modern novelist—meaning, she's the first to stop writing about crazy adventures and unlikely derring-do, and instead focus on the inner lives of regular people going about their everyday lives. That makes Pride and Prejudice literary fiction.