Reading this novel is kind of like having a conversation with someone who says snarky things in a deadpan voice while constantly raising her eyebrow. Like Daria. Or Ellen Page. (Not that we're saying Jane Austen writes like a teenager—although, hm, on second thought ...)
But really, Austen is just clearly amused by her characters and their nonsense and committed to discretely pointing out their foibles. It's not that she hates them, but her narrator definitely keeps a distance and functions as an observer who is always elbowing the reader to look at the next funny thing. Check out this description of the aftermath of Mr. Collins proposing to Charlotte:
In as short a time as Mr. Collins's long speeches would allow, everything was settled between them to the satisfaction of both; and as they entered the house he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men; and though such a solicitation must be waived for the present, the lady felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness. The stupidity with which he was favoured by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance; and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained. (22.2)
First, we've got the overhead view, meaning the narrator takes in the scene and shows us the ridiculous in all its glory: it's funny to try to picture just how not "short" Mr. Collins' "long speech" would be. There's also that great joke in the idea that the proposal is "settled to the satisfaction of both" (because the satisfaction is kind of pragmatic since Charlotte is Mr. Collins' third choice and he's her choice only because he's got a job and a house and it beats living at mom and dad's).
Next, we get to laugh at Mr. Collins more from Charlotte's point of view. Even though they aren't in quotes, the words about his "stupidity" and the lack of "charm" in his "courtship" are clearly her thoughts as he goes on and on in his pompous way.
Finally, we circle back around to the narrator mocking the characters again, as we check out how Charlotte is going to deal with the fact that she can see how awful Mr. Collins is. (Answer: she's going to deal with things on a purely matter-of-fact basis.) You can have your Seth MacFarlane: this right here is comedy gold.
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.
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.
You know how nowadays, the book jackets for novels written by the same author are usually really similar—same font, same general layout, and so on? (Think about those endless John Grisham novels.) That's because publishers are going for an if-you-liked-that-you'll-also-love-this approach.
Pride and Prejudice is basically the result of the same kind of thing, turn of the 19th century-style. Originally, the novel was going to be called First Impressions, but after Austen hit the big time with the blockbuster sales of Sense and Sensibility, her publisher asked if they could try for a little branding magic by sticking to the same title formula: noun-and-noun. Sure enough, this new novel went over like gangbusters.
But titles matter. With First Impressions, readers are thrown into the characters' point of view immediately. We experience those first impressions right along with Darcy and Elizabeth. Also, first impressions are all about people interacting with each other, so a novel called First Impressions puts the idea of people meeting with and reacting to other people front and center. The focus is on manners, behavior, and outward appearance.
Pride and Prejudice? Not so much.We're no longer looking at things through the characters' eyes. Instead, it sounds like people are being called names—and it's up to the reader to try to figure out who's who. The reader isn't buddy-buddy with the characters any more, but is instead all judgy and superior from the get-go. Our novel BFFs aren't Darcy or Elizabeth at all. Instead, our main pal is the narrator, who knows ahead of time that someone's full of pride and someone else is probably full of prejudice.
Also, we've now moved into some deep psychological territory here. Feeling prideful and being prejudicial are things we do in the privacy of our thoughts, not things we wear on our sleeve. A novel named in this way immediately puts readers all up in the characters' thoughts, seeing how they make decisions and what their value systems are all about.
Which title do you prefer? Why?
Okay, so Austen is awesome, right? Right. Because of that, many people who read her novels want to see in them some confirmation of their own ideas and values and moral certainties. They want her to preach to the choir—and they want to be part of that choir.
What does that have to do with the ending? Well, traditionally, the ending is where the moral of the story or the object lesson goes. It's not always spelled out, but the general theory goes that whoever wins the prize at the end is supposed to be a shining example to us all, while whoever gets a comeuppance is supposed to be a cautionary tale.
This is easy enough with fables or afterschool specials, but with a novel like this? Let's just say there are some disagreements about what this ending is supposed to teach us all.
On the one hand, there is the conservative argument. Now, we're not talking about conservatism as in right-wing American politicians. Here, we mean more basically the idea of conserving and preserving the status quo. Things are good now, and they were even better a little while ago, so let's all go back to that time, shall we? This line of thought reads Austen as very conservative. After all, the end of the novel, everyone is married and settled and happy ever after. No loose ends, everything packed away into neat little boxes and squared away. Men are still superior to women, women aren't agitating for rights and whatnot, and everything is hunky-dory.
Then again, there's a way to see the ending as progressive. After all, Darcy and Bingley are totally upper class, what with the estate-owning and the not-having-to-work-for-a-living. The Bennets are strictly middle class, with uncles who work and daughters who won't inherit the house they live in. Still, despite this huge class barrier, the Bennet girls end up married to Darcy and Bingley. No one is scandalized by this! (Aside from Lady Catherine de Bourgh.)
More than that, Darcy, Bingley, and Elizabeth all totally throw away marriage matches based on socio-economic equality (with Miss de Bourgh, Miss Darcy, and Mr. Collins, respectively) and instead hold out for spouses for whom they have feeeeeeeelings. Youth today! So disrespectful of their elders and the traditional way of doing things!
Gather 'round, everyone. It's time to tell the story of the days of yore. Which yore, you ask? Good question.
It's easy, from way over here in the future, to just lump all that stuff that happened 100 years ago with the stuff that happened 150 years ago with whatever else was going on 200 years ago. So you see Austen, you think "19th century," and you might think stuffy Victorians with their prudish manners and their uptightness about the human body and their froofy décor. Well, we're here to tell you—think again.
Austen was writing just as the 18th century was turning into the 19th, way before Queen Victoria gets on the throne and buttons the whole country up to the neck (even though, let's be honest, those Victorians could be super wacky), and Austen certainly has no way of knowing that this is what's coming up next. Instead, let's think about her time period: the Regency.
Basically, we're coming off the high that was the 18th century: the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the philosophical ideas that brought you democracy and the rights of man, and the rise of science and secularism. At the same time, we're also riding the wave of horror that was the French Revolution—a people's revolt that turned in on itself with a wave of violence and state terrorism, and ended with the rise of Napoleon, who England spent a lot of time fighting in Jane Austen's lifetime.
In England, the guy on the throne is the Prince Regent (who later becomes George IV). He's a fun-loving, spendthrift kind of guy, and it's good times for the aristocracy who go a little nuts with the luxury. It's a stressful time for them as well, though, since England is at war in America on one side, and Napoleon is rampaging through Europe on the other. Everyone (well, all the aristocrats anyway) is really, really keeping their fingers crossed that England doesn't go the way of France.
How does this context play out in the novel? For example, all those massing soldiers? They're about to ship out to fight. That really puts a damper on the whole "sexy men in uniform" thing.
In every single one of her novels, Austen is always letting readers follow the money trail. Say what you will about whether it makes sense that Darcy goes for Elizabeth, there's never any doubt that the transfer and flow of wealth is being described flawlessly.
In Pride and Prejudice, money means land ownership. Most of the plot happens because people either own or don't own the place where they live. The whole thing starts because Bingley randomly decides to rent Netherfield. This means that he's rich (because he can afford that sucker, baby), but that he's not staying long (since he's gotta go buy an estate of his own sometime).
Meanwhile, the Bennets are hustling to get the girls married off because their house is going straight into Mr. Collins' pocket as soon as daddy dearest kicks the bucket, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. This is why it's so awkward when Mr. Collins visits (because it just looks like he's measuring for new drapes) and why he proposes to Elizabeth (he feels bad that he's going to get the house and wants to make it up to them).
Finally, there's Pemberley. Now, that one—that's owned outright by Darcy, without the stress of anyone coming to take it away, and it is just heavenly and perfect in every way. Check out the novel's other houses—the Collinses' small house, Lady de Bourgh's house, the place where Lydia goes off with Wickham. How does their ownership work in the novel?
Austen doesn't take us on a tour of busy London. In fact, her novels sometimes get criticized for being too "small"—for not taking into account wider social realities. (To which we have to say: how much more socially realistic do you want, than a bunch of girls trying to get married and preserve your reputations?)
The point is, in the teeny-tiny social world that we're working with here, where everyone knows everyone else and is all up in their neighbors' business, there's an enormous difference between what people do in private when around people they know well, and how they act in public. It's a lot harder to reveal anything about yourself when every small detail of your actions is going to be micro-analyzed by everyone around you, right?
Take Darcy for example. In public, he's a snappy, rude jerk: "We neither of us perform to strangers" (32.26), he tells Lizzy. But when he writes Elizabeth that letter—or should we say That Letter—he's totally transformed. Alone, in the privacy of his desk, he is generous, open, and caring. In the same way, Elizabeth falls in love with him in complete privacy, when she is alone and able to concentrate on Darcy the letter-writing Pemberley-owner, not Darcy the annoying guy frustrating everyone around him.
Check out the novel's other characters. What are they like in public? In private? Is anyone the same in both settings? Why or why not?
The main thing you need when you read any of Austen's novels in general—and this one in particular—is a fine-toothed comb. (Not literally. Although who knows? Maybe you brush your hair while you read, and it's really not any of our business.) But you certainly need a metaphoric comb, because Pride and Prejudice depends on nuance. Every tiny turn of phrase, every slightly raised narratorial eyebrow, and every throwaway aside are crucial.
For example, check out the very first line: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" (1.1). Major sarcasm alert, Shmoopers. Austen doesn't believe this At All, which you find out the next sentence, when we learn that a new single neighbor "is considered the rightful property of some one or other of [the local] daughters" (1.2).
That snide little "property" upends the typical relationship of in which the man has all the financial power and gives it to the woman and her family, who consider the man their "property." And hearing the sarcasm in that line lets you go back and reassess the first line, to realize that we're being set up for a whole novel that questions the standard quo attitudes toward marriage and money. But see how subtle it is? A summary doesn't really do it justice: Austen is one writer where form (the how) and content (the what) can't be separated. (Of course, we're still going to summarize it anyway. But you should definitely read it for yourself!)
Other than that, there are a few of the usual suspects when it comes to reading something written long ago and far away: (1) getting used to the different quantitative systems—money and distances are really different when you're pre-industrial revolution and pre-railway travel; (2) adjusting to the different social norms and values—back in the day, an unmarried woman is considered a parasitic waste of life, basically, so getting married is more about life or death than picking out a color scheme.
Austen is the total master of the slow, subtle burn. Let's watch and learn how a pro does it in this paragraph that introduces Sir William Lucas, Charlotte's dad:
Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune, and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the king during his mayoralty. The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly. It had given him a disgust to his business, and to his residence in a small market town; and, in quitting them both, he had removed with his family to a house about a mile from Meryton, denominated from that period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance, and, unshackled by business, occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world. For, though elated by his rank, it did not render him supercilious; on the contrary, he was all attention to everybody. By nature inoffensive, friendly, and obliging, his presentation at St. James's had made him courteous. (5.1)
We start off well. Sir William is a well-off guy who even gets to make a speech in front of the king. But check out the long third sentence, as the narrator masterfully goes from Sir William's point of view (he now finds actually working for a living "disgusting" and moves to a house in the country) to an outside perspective on Sir William's growing egotism (all he does now is "think with pleasure of his own importance"), and then, finally, rounds it off with an amazing judgment on the way climbing the social ladder creates a useless man out of an industrious one (Sir William is free from the "shackles" of his work and now just spends his time being "civil").
Funny—but we're not done yet. The problem isn't really just that Sir William himself has become totally purposeless ever since getting his knighthood and becoming too high class for his business. The narrator next expands the issue further, pointing to the culture at large, which is more than happy to go along with Sir William and his new attitude. Check out how, because he's all fancy and titled, in the eyes of his neighbors he gets a fancier adjective to describe his behavior: instead of simply "friendly" he's become "courteous," which also carries the pun of "court" (as in royal court) inside it—the place where Sir William has picked up his new status).
A man is king of his castle, as they say, and Pemberley reflects Darcy's true character. Everywhere Elizabeth looks, she is impressed by Darcy's good taste. She contrasts the estate with Rosings, where much of the furnishings and décor are deliberately ostentatious. So while Lady Catherine and Darcy may come across as similar – both haughty, cold, and proud – their essential characters are quite different.
In a novel where the spoken word rules the day, and where private thoughts don't have too much presence on the page, letters are basically a stand-in for the interior lives of the characters. Usually the letter doesn't reveal anything that can't be figured out from the way the letter-writer speaks. Instead, what happens is that it's the letter readers that get to react in a revealing way – since they aren't responding to someone's face, but are instead dealing with the words in relative privacy, or at least behind the person's back. For example, the letters Mr. Collins and Lydia send to the Bennets each get a family-wide reaction that is all the more honest because the letter-writers aren't there in person.
The narration typically stays with Elizabeth, although it occasionally offers us information that Elizabeth isn't aware of (like Charlotte's pursuit of Mr. Collins). This third person view lends a cold dimension to the novel, in the sense that dialogue, opinions, ideas, and events dominate the story rather than emotions. Elizabeth is the exception to this rule—Chapter 36, for example, is devoted entirely to her emotional transformation following her receipt of Darcy's letter. In contrast, even though we do often get to hear the thoughts of others, it's usually in shorter, less complex bursts.
One totally cool feature of the way the book is narrated is Austen's use of a tricky little doo-dad called "free indirect discourse." This is when a character's thoughts or spoken words are reported without quotation marks (or some other kind of indication, like the phrase "she thought" or "he said"). This lets Austen hook the reader into some of Elizabeth's bad judgment. (And the bad judgment of, well, everyone.) How long would we have gone along with Wickham's lies if it weren't for the way every time he gives some long rationalization, Elizabeth's voice pipes up through the narrator? For example, after Wickham spins his sob story, we get this passage:
Elizabeth allowed that he had given a very rational account of it, and they continued talking together, with mutual satisfaction till supper put an end to cards, and gave the rest of the ladies their share of Mr. Wickham's attentions. There could be no conversation in the noise of Mrs. Phillips's supper party, but his manners recommended him to everybody. Whatever he said, was said well; and whatever he did, done gracefully. (16.58)
It's easy to read this and feel like all the judgments come from straight from the narrator—but read it again and you'll see that all of the praise (that his story is "rational" and "satisfying," and that he's got the kind of face a defense attorney would love) comes straight from our girl Lizzy.
There's one other minor thing we have to mention. At the very end of the book, the narrator speaks in first-person:
I wish I could say, for the sake of her family, that the accomplishment of her earnest desire in the establishment of so many of her children produced so happy an effect as to make her a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life. (61.1)
Why do we have "third person (limited omniscient)" up there instead of "first person"? Is this the only time the narrator injects her own perspective—or does her third person turn out to be just as opinionated as her first person?
When the novel begins, things seem all right for our characters. Mr. Bingley and Jane appear to be falling in love, with all going well (except for a few minor embarrassing blips whenever Mrs. Bennet shows up), and Elizabeth knows her own mind well enough to save herself from the horrible mistake of marrying Mr. Collins. She enjoys putting Mr. Darcy in his place when she has a chance, and, except for Jane's sake, she doesn't care that the Bingleys and Darcy see themselves as superior to her family.
But the situation quickly goes sour for all involved. First, Mr. Wickham shows up and talks trash about Darcy. Elizabeth is only too ready to believe whatever Wickham says. Then when it seems like Bingley is ready to pop the question, he goes to London—and doesn't return. Things are looking bleak.
After Darcy declares his undying love for Elizabeth, she lets him have it and tells him exactly what she thinks of him. The next day, Darcy hands her a letter that answers the two accusations she flung at him the day before. In the first part of the letter, he explains that he really believed that Jane didn't care for Mr. Bingley, and he sought to save his friend from making a drastic mistake. In the second part of his letter, he makes it clear that Mr. Wickham is the bad guy. Elizabeth ponders the letter for a whole chapter, and realizes how blind she has been.
It seems like Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth may reconcile and unite after all when Elizabeth accompanies her aunt and uncle to the countryside near his estate. But then Elizabeth gets word that her silly little sister Lydia has done something awful—she's run away with Wickham, which could be social ruin for the entire family.
All is solved when Lydia and Wickham are married, through Mr. Darcy's heroic efforts. Bingley and Jane are reunited. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Darcy muddle through a few more obstacles but finally get engaged, to the shock of, well, everybody.
The Bennets have five single daughters, one very pushy mother, no money, no marriage prospects. Then a young, rich, single man moves into the neighborhood.
This is clearly an initial situation because there's way too much instability in this system. Anyone else predict that the pushy mother is going to be pushing her daughters on the single man?
Bingley starts falling for Jane, but his sisters and friend don't approve. An obstacle in the path of true love and familial happiness! To make matters worse, Darcy has developed a crush on Jane's sister Elizabeth, and all the objections he has to Bingley marrying Jane (her lower class, crazy family) also apply to the prospect of him marrying Elizabeth. It's cool, though: Lizzy hates Darcy so much that we're pretty sure they're never going to get together. Not.
Bingley's sisters and Darcy convince Bingley not to marry Jane, and Lizzy meets a cute, sexy guy named Wickham who drips (figurative) poison about Darcy in her ear. This is definitely complicated.
So many feels in this climax. Darcy finally proposes to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth essentially tells him that she wouldn't marry him if he was the last man on earth.
But! That's not the end of the climax! Darcy gives Elizabeth a letter that exonerates him from all the charges she leveled against him. Both of our heroes start to question themselves: can Elizabeth really be such a good judge of character if she was fooled by Darcy and Wickham's exterior masks? This is the climax of the novel because the greatest attitude shifts come here. It's smoother (not quite smooth) sailing from here on out for our two main characters.
Lydia runs off with Wickham, which potentially destroys any chance at happiness for Elizabeth and Jane. No respectable man will marry a woman whose sister lived in sin with some guy she never even ended up marrying. Don't know about you, but we're biting our nails.
Mr. Darcy uses money to force Wickham to marry Lydia. The Bennet family's reputation is saved, which means Bingley and Darcy can propose to their ladies. Whew! Here's the ending we've been waiting for.
Our two favorite married couples are happy and rich, but Lydia and Wickham's marriage unravels and they become broke. The two unmarried Bennet sisters are doing well, and Jane moves to an estate practically next door to Pemberley. Perfect.
The five Bennet sisters are trucking along being poor and single when three strangers start stirring up feelings: Mr. Bingley, who Jane falls in love with; Mr. Darcy, who Elizabeth falls in hate with; and Mr. Wickham, who is T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
Mr. Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth despite her embarrassing family and despite that fact that he totally broke up Mr. Bingley and Jane. After Elizabeth forcefully rejects him, he writes her a letter explaining that she's basically 100% wrong about him. Just when things look like they might be picking up, Lydia's ridiculous elopement puts everyone's reputation in danger.
Darcy fixes things between Lydia and Wickham so he and Bingley can finally propose to the older Bennet sisters. Sweet! It's all good from here on out.