Pride and Prejudice is an extremely funny novel, but most students miss the humor because of difficulty with the language. Close examination of Austen’s ironic and scathing treatment of specific characters and scenes in the novel not only helps to clarify the novel’s major themes, but also makes Pride and Prejudice an enjoyable experience.
The novel is sarcastic from its opening 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). This is obviously not true—as any major movie star or rock singer can attest. Austen is ironically stating that when a young, rich, single man is in the neighborhood, people are always trying to set him up with a girl, whether or not he wants to be. This is because, as Austen notes, once he moves into a neighborhood, he becomes the "rightful property” of the girls of the area. This idea of targeting available young men for marriage is the central topic of the novel, as every family in Hertfordshire is attempting to hitch up Mr. Bingley to their daughters. This line also shows the desperation of the families in attempting to attain wealth and connections at all costs.
The first declared victim of this targeting mentality, Mrs. Bennet, is one of the funniest (and the stupidest) characters in Pride and Prejudice. In Chapter 1, Mrs. Bennet is completely oblivious to Mr. Bennet’s sarcasm because she is incapable of understanding anything remotely intelligent, and she is completely fixated on the idea of Mr. Bingley, the latest rich and available young man to move into the neighborhood. Mr. Bennett teases Mrs. Bennet by telling her that there is no need for him to introduce himself to Bingley, which there really is, as the societal rules of the time dictated that the father of a family must first introduce themselves to a new neighbor (especially a male) before the rest of the family was permitted to visit. The teasing comes to a head when Mrs. Bennet exclaims that Mr. Bennet has no regard for her delicate nerves, to which he replies: “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 twenty years at least” (2). In reality, Mr. Bennet has no respect for his wife’s feelings at all because she is so ridiculous. Austen clarifies this shortly hereafter, when she describes the Bennets as a couple:
Mr. Bennet was odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news (3).
In other words, Mr. Bennet is a smart aleck and Mrs. Bennet is a whiny hypochondriac whose only goals in life are getting her daughters married and gossip. This is indicative of both characters throughout the novel: anything that comes out of Mr. Bennet’s mouth is sarcastic and/or insulting, and whatever Mrs. Bennet says is idiotic and loud. This mismatch of tempers and abilities highlights one of the novel’s most significant themes, the concept of a good match as a unity of similar characters and temperaments as opposed to marriage for the sake of attraction.
Unfortunately, the Bennet marriage also exemplifies another warning from Austen—the ramifications of a bad match on children. The Bennets’ inability to understand each other and get along results in Mr. Bennet’s neglect of his three youngest daughters: Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. He leaves them to his wife to raise because after his patience has worn out after Jane and Elizabeth, and this neglect is what makes these three girls so “silly.” Lydia is an airheaded flirt whose selfishness nearly ruins everything for all of...
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As Mary says in Chapter 5, "human nature is particularly prone to [pride]." Throughout Pride and Prejudice, pride prevents the characters from seeing the truth of a situation. Most notably, it is one of the two primary barriers in the way of a union between Elizabeth and Darcy. Darcy's pride in his social position leads him to scorn anyone outside of his own social circle. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's pride in her powers of discernment cloud her judgment. These two find happiness by helping each other overcome his/her pride. Outside of Elizabeth and Darcy, however, Austen seems pessimistic about the human ability to conquer this character flaw. A slew of secondary characters, like Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins, and Caroline Bingley, remain deluded by personal pride throughout the novel.
Critic A. Walton Litz comments, "in Pride and Prejudice one cannot equate Darcy with Pride, or Elizabeth with Prejudice; Darcy's pride of place is founded on social prejudice, while Elizabeth's initial prejudice against him is rooted in pride of her own quick perceptions." Ultimately, both characters' egos drive them towards personal prejudice. Darcy has been taught to scorn anyone outside his own social circle and must overcome his prejudice in order to endear himself to Elizabeth. Similarly, Elizabeth's excessive pride in her discernment leads her write Darcy off too quickly. Ultimately, they find happiness by recognizing the barriers that prejudice creates.
Austen portrays the family unit as primarily responsible for the intellectual and moral education of children. Throughout the novel, the younger characters either benefit from or suffer from their family values. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet's failure to provide their daughters with a proper education leads to Lydia's utter foolishness and immorality. Elizabeth and Jane manage to develop virtue and discernment in spite of their parents' negligence, though it is notable that they have other role models (like the Gardiners). Darcy shares his father's aristocratic nature and tendency towards generosity, while Lady Catherine's formidable parenting style has rendered her daughter too frightened to speak.
Austen is certainly critical of the gender injustices present in 19th century English society, particularly as perpetrated by the institution of marriage. In Pride and Prejudice, many women (such as Charlotte) must marry solely for the sake of financial security. However, in her portrayal of Elizabeth, Austen shows that women are just as intelligent and capable as their male counterparts. Jane Austen herself went against convention by remaining single and earning a living through her novels. In her personal letters, Austen advised friends only to marry for love. In the novel, Elizabeth's happy ending reveals Austen's beliefs that woman has the right to remain independent until she meets the right man (if she meets him).
On the other hand, most contemporary readers will find the Longbourn entailment to be unjust. And yet the heroines - Jane and Elizabeth - refrain from speaking out against it. Instead, the only two characters who openly criticize the entailment - Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine - are ridiculous caricatures. Furthermore, the fact that Elizabeth seems to share her father's distrust frivolous women suggests Austen's uneasy relationship with her own gender.
Class issues are everywhere in Pride and Prejudice. While the novel never posits an egalitarian ideology nor supports the leveling of all social classes, it does criticize an over-emphasis on class, especially in terms of judging a person's character. Ultimately, the novel accepts Elizabeth's view that the trappings of wealth are not a virtue in and of themselves. Darcy's initial pride is based on his extreme class-consciousness, but he eventually comes to accept Elizabeth's perspective, most notably evidenced through his admiration of the Gardiners. Likewise, he joins Elizabeth in rejecting the upper-class characters who are idle, mean-spirited, closed-minded, like Lady Catherine and Bingley's sisters.
Austen clearly finds rigid class boundaries to be occasionally absurd. Mr. Collins's comic formality and obsequious relationship with Lady Catherine form a satire of class consciousness and social formalities. In the end, the novel's verdict on class differences is moderate. Austen seems to accept the existence of class hierarchy, but she also criticizes the way it can poison society. Critic Samuel Kliger notes, "If the conclusion of the novel makes it clear that Elizabeth accepts class relationships as valid, it becomes equally clear that Darcy, through Elizabeth's genius for treating all people with respect for their natural dignity, is reminded that institutions are not an end in themselves but are intended to serve the end of human happiness."
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen portrays a world in which society is actively involved in the private lives of individuals. Characters often face questions about their responsibility to the world around them. A prime example is Darcy's guilt for not having publicly shamed Wickham before he was able to elope with Lydia. After all, Lydia's sin threatens to besmirch not only her family, but the community at large. And yet Austen seems quite well aware of how easily public opinion can change, as evidenced by the town's easily shifting opinions on Wickham.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, is proudly independent and individualistic. She possesses the ability to transcend her limitations - the negligence of her parents, the frivolity of Meryton, the pragmatic nature of Charlotte - because she is confident enough to go after what she wants. However, her individualistic nature misleads her as she works through her feelings for Darcy - but thankfully, Mrs. Gardiner is there to guide her towards him. Ultimately, Austen is critical of the power public opinion has on individual action, but she also believes that society has a crucial role in promoting virtue and therefore, engendering individual happiness. According to critic Richard Simpson, Austen portrays a "thorough consciousness that man is a social being, and that apart from society there is not even the individual."
Austen's novels unite Aristotelian and Christian conceptions of virtue. She sees human life as purposeful and believes that human beings must guide their appetites and desires through their use of reason. For instance, Elizabeth almost loses her chance at happiness because her vanity overcomes her pragmatism. Lydia's lack of virtue is linked with her inability to control her passion and desire.
Most of these examples emphasize the importance of self-awareness. Without knowing oneself, it is difficult to develop virtue. Darcy and Elizabeth, two of the only characters who actually change in the novel, can only see past their pride and prejudice with each other's help. In the end, Austen links happiness to virtue and virtue to self-awareness.