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Pride and Prejudice stands out as one of the most cherished English love stories. In this novel, Jane Austen takes the reader through the journey of Darcy and Elizabeth's love. Like all good love stories, the lovers have to overcome various challenges such as tensions arising from their attributes, social status, among others. Just like the title suggests, the prejudiced Elizabeth is juxtaposed against the proud Darcy. In the course of the story, various themes, including love and marriage, the high cost of pride and prejudice, as well as social stratification, are explored. Set in the 18th century, the novel satirizes the themes making it a classic comedy. This paper seeks to explore the various themes presented in the book in detail.
The historical climate and the social issues prevalent during the author's life have a significant effect on the themes present in the novel. The novel was set in rural England in the 19th century (Austen). Jane Austen began working on the book in 1797 (JASNA). The novel was published in 1813 (JASNA). This period is commonly known as the Georgian era. The French Revolution was on, and Napoleon had conquered most of Western Europe. Other notable events that took place around Austen's home include the joining of Great Britain with Ireland to form the United Kingdom, the abolishment of the slave trade, and the replacement of King George III by Prince Regent who later became King George IV. Other than the constant warfare abroad that Britain was involved in, this era ushered in the industrial revolution and marked the transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism. Abolitionist, as well as feminist concerns also started spreading across Western Europe (Lu and Zhao). Familiarity with these events is essential in understanding Austen's work. The events give details of Austen's daily life, which are also mirrored in most of her fictional characters.
Land ownership was the primary means of accumulating wealth in England between the 16th and 19th century (Mills 56). Domestic matters regarding property and status are intricately embedded in the novel. Landowners were the wealthiest members of society and held higher social ranks. Below this class were the landed gentry. In the book, the Bennets fall into this class (Austen). They are well-educated upper middle class but not as wealthy as the landowners. However, they were allowed to interact with the landowning aristocracy. This was also the social strata in which Jane Austen's family fell into. Below these strata were the laboring classes made up of merchants, tenant farmers, household servants, among others. It is in such a historical setting that the novel is created.
For the landowners and the gentry classes, all financial matters were left to the men. "By law and by custom, a woman was granted very little control over money, even money that we would today consider her own" (Chicago Public Library). On the other hand, a man's income was usually reported as the number of pounds per year. For instance, according to the novel, Mr Bingley's income was four to five thousand while Mr Darcy's was ten thousand a year. Estates were also left to the male children as seen when Mr Bennet's land is given to Mr Collins instead of Elizabeth or her sisters (Austen 44).
As seen in the novel, ownership and inheritance are closely linked to courtship and marriage. Marriage was seen as an essential role of a woman. This theme is extensively explored in the novel. Women who went beyond their youth without getting married were given no formal roles and were frequently viewed as a burden to their families (Chicago Public Library). Towards the end of the 18th century, the perception of marriage changed as families ought to increase wealth. More families sought to marry their daughters into wealthy families to attain more wealth. The conception of women's rights was also changing. Elizabeth Bennett's life mirrors the conflicting transformations in the roles of women. Though disinherited and financially dependent, she epitomizes moral and intellectual independence fuelled by the Wollstoncraftian conception of gender (Aschkenes). She seems to be heeding Mary Wollstonecraft's call, "virtue can only flourish among equals" (India Today).
Jane Austen's Biography
She was born on the 16th of December 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire (Fergus and Wood 1). She had six brothers and a sister. Her father was an ordained minister of the Church of England, a path that two of her brothers followed. She is said to have led a quiet life. Just a handful of her manuscripts are in existence - most were either burnt or extensively edited by her sister, Cassandra, after Austen's death. Resultantly, details of her life are rare and inconsistent. However, from the surviving letters as well as personal acquaintances, she comes across as a highly intelligent and humorous woman (Capiello 195). Her brother, Henry, served as her agent and biographer. At the age of 7, Austen and Cassandra went to Oxford for school but were brought back after suffering from typhus. She was enrolled, together with her sister, at the Abbey School in Reading but later withdrawn due to lack of tuition fees. However, they were educated at home with the help of their father and brothers. They often read out to one another, a practice that evolved into theatrical performances. These performances influenced her composing. "Her family are all fond of reading books, which influenced her very much" (Pei, Fu and Huang 147). By the time she hit twelve years, she was writing both for herself and the family. She wrote parodies and poems which she titled, Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third (Capiello 194).
Her productive phase begun in earnest in 1795 (Capiello 195). She created the First Trilogy in this period. Increasing flirtations and social engagements prompted her to write Elinor and Marianne, which was retitled Sense and Sensibility. In 1796, she wrote First Impressions but was rejected by a publisher. It was the original version of Pride and Prejudice. Northanger Abbey was written in 1798 (Moseley 490). Though Jane attracted the attention of Tom Lefroy, he could not marry her since he was required to marry into wealth due to his social status. He later got married to an heiress. Therefore, it is correct to say that the social pressures and conflicts that Jane Austen faced in her life influenced her work, as seen in Pride and Prejudice.
In 1801, the family relocated to Bath. It was a difficult place for Jane Austen who had problems adjusting to the social demands of the town which majorly consisted of the nearly wealthy. Her father died in 1805, and the family had to relocate to a cottage in Chawton, Hampshire. It is here that Jane Austen lived the most productive phase of her life. She completed the Second Trilogy and had the final drafts of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility finished in 1811 (Moseley 490). Austin embarked on various other projects, and her popularity rose. However, she sought anonymity probably because women were not allowed to get into the public space during her time. She died on the 18th of July, 1817. Her legacy has lived on through her works. Though created centuries back, her books are still relevant in the modern world. The commercial success of the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is a testament of the timelessness of her work. According to Eudora Welty, her works have endured over time because, "they pertain not to the outside world but to the interior, to what goes on perpetually in the mind and heart" (The Eudora Welty Foundations).
As mentioned earlier, love and marriage, the cost of pride and prejudice, as well as social stratification are the major themes explored in the novel. Before delving into the themes, this section will give a synopsis of the book. Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are the main characters. Elizabeth is a country gentleman's daughter, while Darcy is a wealthy landowner. The novel follows their turbulent relationship. Since the family estate is bound to be inherited by Collins, Mrs Bennet is anxious to have all her daughters married (Austen 44). While Charles' interest in Jane, Elizabeth's sister, is genuine, Elizabeth and Darcy's encounter is less cordial. Though the author insinuates that the two are interested in each other, they excessively dwell on first impressions. Darcy is prejudiced against the social status of Elizabeth's family while Elizabeth thinks that there is an air of pride and self-respect around Darcy. The relationship takes various twists as the story progresses with Elizabeth turning down Darcy's proposal at one point. The relationships between Jane and Bingley and Wickham and Lydia are also explored. After all the intrigues and twists Darcy proposes for a second time, and Elizabeth accepts (Austen 264).
Love and Marriage
This is the central theme of the novel. The author presents the different ways in which love may grow or die. She also explores the willingness of society to embrace romantic love and marriage. While Jane and Bingley's relationship may be termed as love at first sight, that of Elizabeth and Darcy had to grow over time. On the other hand, the relationships between Lydia and Wickham as well as between Mr and Mrs Bennet show how love can fade over time. The author seems to be pushing the idea that ideal marriages are built on genuine compatibility. For instance, Jane and Bingley have compatible character and hence their love and marriage flourishes. Also, despite the initial misgivings, Darcy and Elizabeth come out as strong-willed, intelligent, and kind. The compatibility of character gives their love a chance to grow. Marriages of convenience fuelled by economic interests, as was common at the time, are painted in a bad light. She sees such marriages as unfair and outdated. The author also warns against infatuation in the book. Though Wickham appears as charming, he is selfish and deceitful. Love was not the basis for marriage in Austen's era. However, the book strongly recommends that marriage should be built on love. This shows that the author disagreed with some of the norms of her time, a trait that was growing among women in this period as abolitionist and feminist voices began growing (Capiello 194).
As suggested in the title of the book, pride is an essential theme in the novel. Though the author presents pride as a reasonable trait to some degree, its impact on one's happiness when untamed is also shown. Mary Bennet says, "Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us" (Austen 14). Her message is that when not controlled, pride can be costly. The book has various examples of proud characters, especially among the wealthy. Lady Catherine and Caroline Bingley believe that their status and wealth make them superior to the rest. Their obsession with the maintenance of their image shows that their pride is vain. On the hand, though Darcy is proud, he is not vain. However, his pride costs him Elizabeth, and it is not until he learns to tame it that he wins her over.
This is also a central theme in the novel. Snap judgments and preconceived notions, as well as their implications, are discussed. Most characters suffer from this flaw. Elizabeth's tendency to judge character makes her form quickly. She is prejudiced against Mr Darcy right from the start. Resultantly, she rejects him based on information that is not entirely correct (Austen 8). Just like pride, the author seems to be saying that prejudice is not a bad trait as long as it is reasonable. For instance, Jane's lack of prejudice compromises her happine...
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