Study Guide

Pride and Prejudice Themes

  • Love

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    No matter what Stephenie Meyer wants to believe, Austen is much more Married with Children than Twilight. There are a lot of marriages, but not much love to go around. That's because most marriages are based either on economic necessity or on lust—and economic necessity might be a slightly better reason for marrying than lust, but it's still mediocre at best. And the idea that you'd leave your entire family to run off with an impoverished soldier/handsome vegetarian vampire? Pure idiocy. Romantic love is a privilege that most people never earn. And we do mean earn: love is an emotion available only to intelligent, mature adults. It's the crowning achievement of a good character.

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    Questions About Love

    1. What does "love" mean in this novel? Is it the same emotion we talk about today?
    2. When does Darcy begin to love Elizabeth rather than just think she's cute and bewitching?
    3. There are at least two marriages of convenience made during the course of the novel (Charlotte and Mr. Collins; Lydia and Wickham). Do we get a sense that everyone assumes love will eventually develop? Why or why not?
    4. Which characters think that love is a necessary part of adult life? Which don't? What does that say about them?

    Chew on This

    Of the entire Bennet family, only Jane and Elizabeth are capable of true romantic love.

    Love is a relationship bonus, but it's not entirely necessary. Charlotte is happy because she has low expectations.

  • Marriage

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    From our 21st century perspective, the concerns of Pride and Prejudice might seem trivial. Who cares if the Bennet girls ever get married? Can't they just go on living their fabulous single lives as unaccountably wealthy journalists or gallery owners?

    Well, no. In the early nineteenth century (and in most parts of most centuries in most parts of the world), marriage was the only option for respectable young women. There was no such thing as moving out of your parents' house, no such thing as building a career in your twenties and worrying about marriage later, and (importantly) no such thing as divorce, except in really extreme, unusual circumstances. (How extreme? Divorce required an act of Parliament—like having the Senate vote on whether or not you could break up.) Marriage was literally the most important decision a woman could make. It could ruin you (Lydia, Mrs. Bennet); set you up for life (Jane, Lizzy); or condemn you to a mediocre but independent existence (Charlotte). It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, except you might accidentally end up with Mr. Collins instead of falling into a pit full of venomous vipers.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Mrs. Bennet's and Lydia's marriages seem to have some elements in common. What are they? Would there be any way for Lydia to make a good marriage, or is she just constitutionally incapable of having a happy marriage? (In other words, is marriage more about the individuals than about the couple?)
    2. What good marriages do we see in the novel? What seems to make them good?
    3. Did Charlotte make the right decision in marrying Mr. Collins? Why did she make it? What was she giving up? What was she getting in return? Would you have made the same decision?
    4. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Why does the first sentence begin this way?


    Chew on This

    Pride and Prejudice argues against the idea of love at first sight and suggests that the better kind of love develops slowly.

    Although both Jane and Elizabeth have happy marriages, the narrator approves more of Elizabeth's.

  • Wealth

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    Money makes the world go 'round, especially if you're a young woman trying to get married in Regency England. The five Bennet daughters have almost no money, which means no way to entice men to marry them and no way to support themselves after their father dies and their house in handed over to Mr. Collins. So, was everyone in the early nineteenth century just out for money? Well, kind of. But can you blame them? For men, there were very, very few paths to financial independence without either (1) inheriting or (2) marrying money. Some got rich in the army or through business, but that was super rare. For women, the options were even more limited: inherit or marry. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet girls aren't trying to marry for money because they want to buy a Lexus and vacation in St. Barts; they're trying to marry for money because they don't want to live on the early nineteenth-century equivalent of the streets.

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    Questions About Wealth

    1. Can you think of a single plot element in the novel that doesn't have to do with some kind of monetary transaction? Why or why not?
    2. Why hasn't Mr. Bennet made any kind of provisions for his wife and daughters after his death? Do other characters blame him for this? What do you make of that?
    3. Which characters think the most about money when it comes to marriage? Which think about it the least? Does it make a difference if the characters are male or female?
    4. How much does Mr. Darcy's fat estate impact Elizabeth's interest in him, really?

    Chew on This

    Pride and Prejudice's detailed treatment of money adds to the novel's realism—like when Lydia wants to treat her sisters but has to borrow money from them instead.

    Austen criticizes the idea that women belong purely to a domestic sphere by showing that they have to continually appraise their suitors on economic, business-like grounds.

  • Society and Class

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    We hear you: if everyone in this novel is so concerned about money, why don't any of them have jobs? Because we're talking about a specific class: the gentry. Austen never (or almost never) writes about aristocrats (people with titles), and she never writes about the middle class, people who made money from having jobs. Her main characters are landowners, meaning they get their money primarily from rents. To keep their class status, they have to hang on to their land (or marry men with land). But in Pride and Prejudice, the gentry ranges from the just-hanging-on Bennets to Mr. Darcy and his 10,000 a year. To Lizzy, she and Mr. Darcy are the same; to the Bingley sisters and to Lady Catherine, they might as well belong to different worlds. What does Austen think?

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    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Check out the scenes where Miss Bingley is gossiping about the Bennets. Compare the way she does this with the way Mrs. Bennet trash-talks whoever is in her way (Mr. Collins, Darcy, etc.). What is the same about their remarks? What is different? How can we tell one is from a higher and the other from a lower class?
    2. Who in the novel is described as being a gentleman? What does that mean? Does it appear to mean different things to different people?
    3. Which characters take great pride in their social standing? Which don't? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Pride and Prejudice, class determines the characters' social situation but it doesn't mean anything about their behavior.

    The novel suggests that class is an arbitrary—and ultimately less meaningful—distinction between people.

  • Women and Femininity

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    Pride and Prejudice may start off with the anonymous figure of a rich, single man, but the novel is actually concerned with the plight of the poor, single woman. Most of the women we see here (the Bennet girls, Charlotte Lucas) are in a bind. They're too high class to get jobs (jobs aren't really an option for proper young ladies in early 19th-century England), but not high class enough to inherit wealth. That leaves them with options: wedding bells or penny-pinching old maidhood. It may not be as glamorous as the expensive shoes and fabulous apartments of today's chick lit, but it's a much more realistic look at what it meant to be a woman.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. How are the lives of the poor gentry (the Bennet girls, Charlotte) different than the lives of the rich gentry (Miss Bingley, Miss Darcy, etc.)? How do their options in life compare? How might their approaches to courtship and marriage compare?
    2. How are the male and female worlds separate in Pride and Prejudice? What do women have control over?
    3. Some people point out that Austen never has a scene in which two men talk to each other alone. That's not true for all of her novels, but it is true in this one. Does it matter? Did you even notice, until we pointed it out?
    4. What are the various ways that women relate to each other in this novel? Does the novel give us examples of female friendship, or does it mostly set women up as competitors? What is the difference between sisterhood and friendship?

    Chew on This

    The novel offers a much wider range of female characters than it does of male characters.

    By writing about a female character who is bold, independent, honest, and forthright, Jane Austen is critiquing female identity in early nineteenth-century England.

  • Family

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    If you think your family is embarrassing, try having a satirical father, an idiot mother, two hopeless flirts for youngest sisters, and a nerd for a middle sister (and not the cool kind of nerd). Yeah. Lizzy's motto is basically "mo' sisters, mo' problems."

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    And in the world of Pride and Prejudice, your family's behavior reflects on you. If your sister runs off with the high school dropout who owes money to some really unsavory characters, it reflects badly on you. But if she dates the all-star quarterback, you're in for some reflected glory—and you might even end up dating on the b-string.

    Questions About Family

    1. Is Mrs. Bennet a good mother? Yes? No? Sort of? Why? What are her responsibilities toward her children?
    2. Is Mr. Bennet a good father? What does "good father" mean in this context? What are his responsibilities toward his children?
    3. Compare the Bennets to other parenting models in the novel. How do they stack up against the Lucases? Against Lady de Bourgh? Against what we know of Darcy's parents?
    4. How much do the actions of parents ripple through the lives of their children? How much do the characters expect them to? Do young characters think about the effects their parents are having on them? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Austen doesn't care how much Mr. and Mrs. Bennet love their kids; they're still bad parents.

    In the novel, young people are influenced by their friends much more than by their parents.

  • Deceit

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    Sure, Wickham fools everyone. But Pride and Prejudice is really interested in self-deceit: the lies we all tell ourselves. You know, like, "I'm totally going to start dieting tomorrow"; or, "From now on, I'm only going to date nice guys," or "This school year, I'm going to neatly organize all of my homework." Motivated by pride and vanity (not to mention prejudice), these kinds of lies are the hardest to let go. It's worth it, though: the reward is a happy marriage.

    Questions About Deceit

    1. Why is Elizabeth so shocked to learn about Charlotte's practicality, Darcy's honor, Wickham's deceit, etc.? Does this mean she's been deceiving herself a little about how she's such a good judge of character?
    2. There isn't much (or any) outright aggression in the novel, but there sure is a lot of passive-aggression (think Miss Bingley's letter to Jane, or Mrs. Bennet's side-swipes at Darcy). What would happen if these characters would just put their anger cards on the table? What prevents them from doing so?
    3. Is "good manners" just a nice name for deceit?

    Chew on This

    The novel's characters are so conditioned to accept good manners at face value that they make natural victims for conmen like Wickham.

    Charlotte Lucas is the only character in the entire novel who isn't deceiving herself and isn't deceived by others.

  • Language and Communication

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    In a society where you aren't really supposed to say what you're thinking—witness all the trouble Lydia gets into—it's no easy task to express feelings, correct mistakes, and give context for your decisions and actions. It's basically the early nineteenth-century equivalent of being required to communicate via vague Facebook statuses. In Pride and Prejudice, good manners and the rules of acceptable behavior tend to be obstacles that get in the way of meaningful discussion. But breaking these rules carries its own dangers. Only the characters who manage to walk the line between frankness and bluntness are the ones who get the narrator's grudging approval.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Who always says what he/she means? Who never says what he/she means? Which is more effective at getting others to do what the character wants?
    2. Compare the speaking voices to the writing voices of the characters who send letters. Does Mr. Collins sound like his letter? Does Jane? Darcy? Why or why not?
    3. Why are we shown some proposal scenes (Mr. Collins to Elizabeth, Darcy's first try to Elizabeth) and not shown others (Mr. Collins to Charlotte, Bingley to Jane, Darcy's second go)? Because rejection is funnier than acceptance?

    Chew on This

    A lot of the novel's humor comes from the way characters are totally unable to understand each other or to make themselves understood.

    The most powerful characters are able to shut others up when necessary.

  • Principles

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    In Pride and Prejudice, characters are divided into certain types. There are those who just regurgitate whatever principles they've been taught without much understanding of either the context or appropriateness of what they are saying. Then there are those who hold on as hard as possible to a few principles of behavior or belief and cannot be swayed from them. Finally, there are those who are entirely unprincipled, and whose moral and ethical beliefs are totally changeable depending on the situation.

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    Questions About Principles

    1. Which characters lack pride? Does that make them less interesting? More interesting?  Stronger or weaker characters?
    2. What works better in the novel—being adaptable (like Mrs. Bennet in regards to Lydia, for example) or being intractably principled (like Lady de Bourgh, for instance)? How do you know?
    3. Many of the principles that the novel holds up are then systematically disproved. Can you find a couple of examples of this? How are they shown to be false?

    Chew on This

    In the novel, Mary Bennet is a sort of walking "Greek chorus" who functions as a mouthpiece for the standard principles of the day. The novel mocks her as an efficient way to dispose of these principles.

    In the novel, even though Mary Bennet is satirized for being a very young girl with a very formal and ponderous way of speaking, she actually ends up saying a lot of the wisdom that the main characters have to come to learn and internalize before they can move ahead in life.

  • Pride

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    Pop quiz: in Pride and Prejudice, who represents pride, and who represents prejudice?

    Okay, we confess: it was a trick question. Turns out, almost everyone's guilty of pride, with maybe the exception of Jane and Bingley. From obvious candidate Darcy to Mr. Collins—who totally doesn't deserve to be proud about anything—to Mr. Darcy's servant, everyone we meet takes pride in something. The question for Lizzy and for us, as we all learn to be better judges of characters, is when is that pride deserved, and when is it just plain ego?

    Questions About Pride

    1. Which characters lack pride? Does that make them less interesting? More interesting? Stronger or weaker characters?
    2. What emotions are similar to pride in the novel? Vanity, conceit, arrogance—what else? Who has these, and how do we know the difference?
    3. When is pride warranted? When is it not?

    Chew on This

    In Pride and Prejudice, pride goes before a fall. Lizzy and Darcy both have to be humbled before they can get together.

    In the best-case scenario, pride can encourage people to behave better.

  • Prejudice

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    Let's get something straight: Pride and Prejudice has nothing to do with racial prejudice. (If you want to read about that, Shmoop has plenty of options.) Jane Austen is a white lady talking almost exclusively about white ladies. (Love ya, Jane!) But all forms of prejudice are based on the same principle: you pre-judge somebody based on one most likely irrelevant fact, and you refuse to change your opinion based on actual, observable fact. It's the opposite of rational, liberal-minded thinking—and we don't mean liberal in any political sense. We mean liberal in the way Austen (and other writers of her time) used it: open-minded, willing to change your ideas, and interested in facts rather than opinions. You know—exactly the opposite of prejudiced.

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. Which characters are prejudiced? What kind of prejudices do they have?
    2. Occasionally Austen uses "prejudiced" when it seems like actual good sense—like when she says that knowing Darcy separated her and Bingley would "prejudice" her against him, even though that actually sounds like a pretty good reaction to finding out that your brother-in-law tried to break you up. Why does Austen use that word here? Does "prejudiced" not have a fixed meaning?
    3. Are there any acceptable prejudices in Pride and Prejudice? We've suggested that "liberal" is Austen's antonym for "prejudiced"; does that seem right? Can you think of others?

    Chew on This

    In Pride and Prejudice, prejudice is a worse sin than pride.

    Austen associates prejudice with vulgarity. No matter how wealthy or how high-ranked someone is, prejudice lowers a person's character.