Pride and Prejudice
General Critique of Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice continues to be popular today not only because of its memorable characters and the general appeal of the story, but also because of the skill with which it is told. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen displays a masterful use of irony, dialogue, and realism that support the character development and heighten the experience of reading the novel.
Jane Austen's irony is devastating in its exposure of foolishness and hypocrisy. Self-delusion or the attempt to fool other people is almost always the object of her wit; note how she has Elizabeth say that she hopes she will never laugh at what is wise or good.
The reader finds various forms of exquisite irony in Pride and Prejudice: Sometimes the characters are unconsciously ironic, as when Mrs. Bennet seriously asserts that she would never accept any entailed property, though Mr. Collins is willing to; other times, Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth serve to directly express the author's ironic opinion. When Mary Bennet is the only daughter at home and doesn't have to be compared to her prettier sisters, the author observes that "it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much reluctance." Mr. Bennet turns his wit on himself during the crisis with Wickham and Lydia — "let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough."
Elizabeth's irony is lighthearted when Jane asks when she began to love Mr. Darcy. "It has been coming on so gradually that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley." She can be bitterly cutting, however, in her remark on Darcy's role in separating Bingley and Jane. "Mr. Darcy is uncommonly kind to Mr. Bingley, and takes a prodigious deal of care of him."
The author, independent of any character, uses irony in the narrative parts for some of her sharpest — but often unnoticed — judgments. The Meryton community is glad that Lydia is marrying such a worthless man as Wickham: "and the good-natured wishes for her well-doing, which had proceeded before from all the spiteful old ladies in Meryton, lost but little of their spirit in this change of circumstances, because with such a husband, her misery was certain."
Austen uses irony to both provoke whimsical laughter and to make veiled, bitter observations. In her hands — and few others are more capable and discriminating — irony is an extremely effective device for moral evaluation.
Dialogue also plays an important role in Pride and Prejudice. The novel opens with a talk between Mrs. Bennet and her husband: "'My dear Mr. Bennet,' said his lady to him one day, 'have you heard that Netherfield is let at last?'" In the conversation that follows, we learn a great deal — about Mrs. Bennet's preoccupation with marrying off her daughters, Mr. Bennet's ironic and sarcastic attitude toward his wife, and her self-pitying nature. The stage is effortlessly set for the family's introduction to the Bingley group, and the dialogue has given us information on both incidents of plot and the attitudes which drive the characters.
The pieces of dialogue are consistently the most vivid and important parts of the novel. This is natural because novels were mostly read aloud in Austen's time, so good dialogue was extremely important. We learn of the major turning points through the dialogue, and even intense inner change like Elizabeth's famous self-recognition scene ("How despicably have I acted!") is related as a person talking to herself.
Each character's speeches are individually appropriate and the most telling way of revealing what each is like. Elizabeth's talk is forthright and sparkling, her father's is sarcastic, Mr. Collin's speeches are tedious and silly, and Lydia's fountain of words is all frivolity and no substance.
The things that happen in Pride and Prejudice happen to nearly all readers — embarrassment at the foolishness of relatives, the unsteady feelings of falling in love, and the chagrin of suddenly realizing a big mistake. The psychological realism of the novel is revealed in the quick recognition we have of how the key characters feel.
It is very natural for Elizabeth and Darcy to be angry at each other after she first turns him down, and it is very natural for them to feel twinges of regret, and then have a complete change of mind with the passage of time. Every step in their progress toward each other is described with a sensitivity to how people feel and act. In the subtle and beautiful description of Elizabeth's self-realization is a convincing view of how an intelligent, feeling person changes.
When considering Austen's realism, however, readers should recognize that her major weakness as a writer is related to her greatest strength. She writes about what she knows — and this means that great areas of human experience are never touched on. We never see that much of the male characters, and they are rough sketches compared with her heroines. Extreme passions are usually avoided in her writing, and this becomes noticeable when, for example, she moves to a very impersonal, abstract voice when Elizabeth accepts Darcy: Elizabeth "immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change . . . as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances." People who dislike Austen's works often cite this lack of extreme emotions as their main reason. Even so, no one can deny her ability to create unforgettable characters, build well-structured plots, or deliver assessments of society with a razor-sharp wit. Austen's works possess a timeless quality, which makes her stories and themes as relevant today as they were two hundred years ago.
When Charles Bingley, a rich single man, moves to the Netherfield estate, the neighborhood residents are thrilled, especially Mrs. Bennet, who hopes to marry one of her five daughters to him. When the Bennet daughters meet him at a local ball, they are impressed by his outgoing personality and friendly disposition. They are less impressed, however, by Bingley's friend Fitzwilliam Darcy, a landowning aristocrat who is too proud to speak to any of the locals and whom Elizabeth Bennet overhears refusing to dance with her.
Bingley and the oldest Bennet daughter, Jane, soon form an attachment. Any serious relationship between the two, however, is opposed by Bingley's sisters (who do not approve of Jane as a wife for Bingley because of her mother's lower status) and by Darcy (who believes that Jane is indifferent to Bingley). Meanwhile, Darcy finds himself attracted to Elizabeth despite his objections to her family. He is drawn to her spirited wit and expressive eyes, and Caroline Bingley's jealous criticisms of Elizabeth can do nothing to lessen Darcy's admiration.
As Darcy grows more interested in Elizabeth, Elizabeth continues to despise him and is instead attracted to George Wickham, a handsome and personable militia officer. Wickham tells Elizabeth that his father worked for Darcy's father and that he and Darcy grew up together. Stating that he was favored by Darcy's father, Wickham claims that Darcy disobeyed his father's bequest of a clergyman's revenue to Wickham out of selfish resentment. Wickham's tale makes Darcy appear not only proud but cruel, and Elizabeth accepts Wickham's account without question, disliking Darcy even more because of it.
In the midst of Jane and Elizabeth's developing relationships, the Bennet family is visited by Mr. Bennet's cousin, William Collins, a clergyman who will inherit Mr. Bennet's estate when he dies because of a legal stricture known as an entail. Full of apologies for the entail and praises for his patroness, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, Mr. Collins informs the Mrs. Bennet that Lady Catherine has instructed him to marry and that he plans to choose a wife from the Bennet daughters. He settles on Elizabeth, but is stunned and offended when she refuses him. He quickly turns his attention to Elizabeth's friend, Charlotte Lucas, who wants to marry for security rather than love, and the two are soon engaged and married.
At the same time, Jane is dismayed to find out that Bingley and the entire Netherfield party have unexpectedly left for London. Caroline Bingley writes to Jane that they do not intend to return, and she predicts a match between Bingley and Darcy's sister, Georgiana, who is also in London. Although Jane quietly resigns herself to a life without Bingley, Elizabeth is angry for her sister and suspects that Bingley's sisters and Darcy are trying to keep him from Jane.
Elizabeth visits Charlotte at her new home in Hunsford, Kent, and meets Mr. Collins' patroness and Darcy's aunt, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, an overbearing woman who thrives on meddling in other people's lives. Soon after Elizabeth's arrival in Kent, Darcy visits his aunt with his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Darcy puzzles Elizabeth with his behavior; he seems to seek out her company, but he never says much. One day, he surprises Elizabeth by proposing to her. Still repelled by his pride and believing Darcy is responsible for Bingley's separation from Jane and for Wickham's misfortune, Elizabeth refuses him. The next day, Darcy gives her a letter explaining his role in influencing Bingley away from Jane and details the facts of Wickham's situation. A careful examination of the facts reveals that Darcy, while proud, is innocent of wrongdoing, leaving Elizabeth mortified at her discovery of how her own pride prejudiced her against Darcy.
After returning home for a month, Elizabeth goes on a trip with her aunt and uncle Gardiner to Derbyshire county, where they visit Darcy's estate of Pemberley. There they meet Darcy unexpectedly and are all surprised at how graciously he treats them. He calls on Elizabeth at her inn, introduces her to his sister, and invites her to Pemberley for dinner. Darcy is still in love with Elizabeth, and Elizabeth begins to have similar feelings for him.
In the midst of this promising situation, Elizabeth receives two letters from Jane telling her that Lydia has eloped with Wickham, causing Elizabeth and the Gardiners to leave for home immediately. Elizabeth fears that Lydia and the Bennet family are permanently disgraced and that her newly-discovered love for Darcy is hopeless. When Lydia is found, however, she and Wickham marry. After the wedding, Elizabeth discovers that Darcy was instrumental in orchestrating the marriage, thereby saving the reputation and marriageability of the other Bennet daughters.
Bingley returns to Netherfield and soon asks Jane to marry him. Jane, of course, accepts, and Mrs. Bennet's exultation is only lessened by her irritation at Darcy's occasional presence. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's happiness for her sister is interrupted by a visit from Lady Catherine De Bourgh, who has heard a rumor that Darcy and Elizabeth are engaged, which they are not. She lectures Elizabeth on the imprudence of such a match, and then demands that Elizabeth promise not to accept any proposal from Darcy. Elizabeth refuses, causing Lady Catherine to tell Darcy about Elizabeth's impertinence and to scold him about the folly of an engagement between them. Lady Catherine's description of Elizabeth's response to her demands gives Darcy hope that Elizabeth has had a change of heart. He proposes again and Elizabeth happily accepts.
Money in Pride and Prejudice
Money plays a central role to the plot of Pride and Prejudice. Because of the entail, the Bennet women will have a bleak financial future after Mr. Bennet dies. When readers recognize this, Mrs. Bennet's pursuit of husbands for her daughters takes on a sense of urgency that supersedes her foolish behavior. Translating the monetary realities that the characters of Pride and Prejudice face into modern equivalents helps readers to better understand the characters' motivations and the significance of their actions.
Austen describes people's financial situations throughout Pride and Prejudice in terms of actual monetary amounts. Darcy is not simply rich, he has 10,000 pounds a year. When Elizabeth's father dies, she will not only be poor, she will have a mere 40 pounds a year. But what do these figures mean in modern U.S. dollars? Critic Edward Copeland has calculated the value of one pound in Austen's day to be roughly equivalent to 80 dollars now. While he emphasizes that his estimate is not scientific and is probably conservative, such an equivalency helps to put the sums Austen scatters throughout the novel into perspective.
According to Austen, Mr. Bennet's annual income is 2,000 pounds, or 160,000 dollars. Compare that to Darcy's 10,000 pounds or 800,000 dollars. Additionally, the sums Austen gives are often discussed in terms of 4 or 5 percents. These percents refer to the fact that the income the landed gentry earned came from investing their money in secure government bonds. Therefore, Bingley is described as having "four or five thousand a year" because Mrs. Bennet is not sure of what his 100,000 pound inheritance is earning. Similarly, Mr. Collins assumes the lesser amount when he condescendingly informs Elizabeth that he will not reproach her for bringing only "one thousand pounds in the 4 per cents" to their marriage. In other words, Elizabeth will only have a 40 or 50 pound annual income to live off of after her father dies, which translates into 3,200 or 4,000 dollars.
This comparison of Austen's pound with the modern dollar not only clarifies characters' annual incomes, but also exposes the magnitude of certain financial transactions, such as Darcy's dealings with Wickham. First, Wickham inherited 1,000 pounds, or 80,000 dollars from Darcy's father. After dissolving his claim to the clergyman position, Wickham received 3,000 more pounds (240,000 dollars) from Darcy. Within three years, he was again asking Darcy for money, which Darcy refused to give him. Wickham then attempts to elope with Miss Darcy, whose inheritance totals 30,000 pounds (2.4 million dollars). Wickham then runs off with Lydia, whose portion equals Elizabeth's — 40 pounds a year, 1,000 pounds overall. He tells Darcy that he has no intention of marrying Lydia and still plans to marry an heiress. To persuade Wickham to marry Lydia, Darcy must then pay Wickham's debts, totaling 1,000 pounds, or 80,000 dollars in addition to buying his commission at about 450 pounds or 36,000 dollars. Mr. Bennet also conjectures that "Wickham's a fool if he takes her for less than ten thousand pounds," meaning that Darcy probably also paid Wickham an additional 800,000 dollars. Elizabeth's overwhelming gratitude toward Darcy and the debt of her family to him become much clearer in light of these figures in U.S. dollars.
Even in her blindest moments, Elizabeth Bennet is an unfailing attractive character. She is described as a beauty and has especially expressive eyes, but what everybody notices about her is her spirited wit and her good sense. Mainly because of that good sense, Elizabeth is her father's favorite child and her mother's least favorite. Her self-assurance comes from a keen critical mind and is expressed through her quick-witted dialogue.
Elizabeth's sparkling and teasing wit brings on Lady Catherine's disapproval and Darcy's admiration. She is always interesting to listen to and always ready to laugh at foolishness, stating, "I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can." Because of her exceptional powers of observation, Elizabeth's sense of the difference between the wise and foolish, for the most part, is very good.
In spite of her mistake in misjudging Wickham and Darcy, and her more blamable fault of sticking stubbornly to that judgment until forced to see her error, Elizabeth is usually right about people. For example, she painfully recognizes the inappropriate behavior of most of her family, and she quickly identifies Mr. Collins as a fool and Lady Catherine as a tyrant. However, this ability to size people up leads her too far at times. She proceeds from reasonable first impressions of Darcy and Wickham to definite and wrong conclusions about their characters. Her confidence in her own discernment — a combination of both pride and prejudice — is what leads her into her worst errors.
Darcy exhibits all the good and bad qualities of the ideal English aristocrat — snobbish and arrogant, he is also completely honest and sure of himself. Darcy is not actually a titled nobleman, but he is one of the wealthiest members of the landed gentry — the same legal class that Elizabeth's much poorer family belongs to. While Darcy's sense of social superiority offends people, it also promotes some of his better traits. As Wickham notes in his sly assessment, "His pride never deserts him; but with the rich, he is liberal-minded, just, sincere, rational, honorable, and perhaps agreeable — allowing for fortune and figure."
It is, in fact, his ideal of nobility that makes Darcy truly change in the novel. When Elizabeth flatly turns down his marriage proposal and tells him that it was ungentlemanly, Darcy is startled into realizing just how arrogant and assuming he has been. He reflects later on why he was that way: "I was spoiled by my parents, who though good themselves . . . allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing . . . to think meanly of all the rest of the world." Darcy's humbling makes him more sensitive to what other people feel. In the end, he is willing to marry into a family with three silly daughters, an embarrassing mother, and Wickham as a brother-in-law. It may be that he becomes more easygoing about other people's faults because he is now aware of his own.