“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Thus begins Jane Austen’s immortal masterpiece. A classic tale of satire, Pride and Prejudice is a humorous satire, which exists solely to poke fun at the shallow approach that upper-class Americans had and still have to relationships.
Or is it?
As most of my readers hopefully know, Pride and Prejudice surrounds the family of the Bennetts, and their mother’s ridiculous and desperate attempts to get all of her daughters married off to rich men as quickly as is humanly possible (if they had speed dating at this time in English history, no doubt she would have signed her daughters up). The story focuses especially on Elizabeth, as well as her closest sister Jane. It’s a story told mostly through conversation, and for that reason has a distinctly stage feeling to it, which is probably not at all out of place in the time she is writing.
But what of the writing? Without a doubt, Jane Austen is one of the funniest female writers I’ve read. Mrs. Bennett is a fantastic laughingstock and Mr. Collins (a suitor who comes along later in the story) even more so. But it’s a mixture of love and impatience for me, for while Austen’s prose is witty, funny, and charming, the setting is repetitive and unchanging. At times I was pouring through the book like a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, other times it seemed more of a chore.
But to those of you who right now are cheering and bemoaning how you had to endure this torture chamber in high school, I have something to say that might surprise you: suck it up buttercup, and plant your whiny tush in the chair, because Miss Austen has important things to say, and you’d better listen.
Here’s why. From the opening chapters it’s clear that Mrs. Bennett is a ludicrous caricature (or is she?) and the rest of their surroundings right in step with her. From their families to the social events even to their would-be suitors, Elizabeth is a woman who sticks out like a beard in a barber shop. It’s not that she’s at all opposed to marriage, but what she is opposed to is the shallow nature of her mother’s approach to these relationships. And with each passing ball, and each ridiculous exaggeration of her mother’s, she becomes more cynical and more doubtful.
Does that sound like a satire to you?
This is where a lot of people get Pride and Prejudice wrong. It is satire, it is most definitely satire, but it isn’t only satire. What starts as just a comical dysfunctional family soon turns into a critique of shallow mothers and passive, non-confrontational fathers. Even more important to the core story, Mr. Darcy’s arrogance morphs into a challenge of hasty assumptions and misplaced trust, as well as a reminder to be careful to whom you open up your heart.
That last part sounds like cheeky paperback romance drivel. It isn’t. It becomes abundantly clear as this story progresses that this is exactly the kind of nonsense that burns bridges, alienates friends, and in general will make your life a pretty terrible thing, at least when it comes to relating with people.
Alas, five hundred words and I haven’t even talked about the couple themselves yet. That in and of itself is a testament to the varied themes of this book, but I digress. Into the foray of romance we go.
The arrival of Mr. Darcy into the narrative is a rather curious affair. His best friend, Mr. Bingley, is the kindest, most personable sort of man you could ever find. So much so that it’s almost tempting to suspect him of being a disingenuous predator because people just aren’t that genuinely nice! But his best friend? He’s something of a grouch. And by ‘something like’ I mean he could have his own trash can and grow a thick set of green fur. Making matters even worse, he’s a rich grouch. When Elizabeth hears him complaining to his friend that none of the women at the ball are attractive, and implies that they’re all beneath him, Elizabeth’s opinion of him is solidified: he’s a rich pompous grouch of a jerk. The worst part about it: she’s half-right.
Only half, mind you. But herein lies the point: Darcy is anything but a strapping Prince Charming devoid of character flaws. Even as some of his supposed vices are cleared up as misunderstandings, it remains clear that Darcy has a problem with pride, as well as its cousin stubbornness, and could very well use someone to help him be less of an all-around grumpy prick. Bingley has been that for him, but as he becomes more and more interested in Jane, and they spend more time around Darcy as a result, it’s clear that he’s done a, ah, less than complete job of it.
But here lies the rub: Elizabeth is no more perfect than he. Her flaws are not as immediately apparent, and to most readers, it probably comes to their realization slowly. But her prejudiced first impression of the proud Mr. Darcy (see what I did there?) so influences her that she runs after the first new acquaintance who has a saucy gossip story about him. It’s all quite reasonable to her view, of course, but she does it nonetheless.
I’m rambling. I could ramble more. But here’s the point: I’m not crazy about the writing style as a whole in this book. Some of that is just personal preference, which I admit to be entirely subjective. Some of that is also my views on what effective writing is, which of course is objective to me, though others will undoubtedly have a difference of opinion. But even with that stated, here is what is practically undeniable about this book and its value: Pride and Prejudice embodies a nuanced critique of passive parenting, a realistic portrayal of romance between flawed human beings, and a raw reminder of the untold damages pride does in relationships. What squabbles I have with the message are scarce, petty, and hardly worth mentioning. So even if literary fiction isn’t your thing, and especially if romance isn’t your thing, I repeat myself at the risk of being redundant.
Sit your whiny tush down and listen, boy.