Pride and Prejudice

  • Jan Fergus


Pride and Prejudice (1813) is perhaps the most difficult of Austen’s works, partly because it is so popular and so memorable. For some readers it is the first and most often read of the six novels, and for most its plot is so vivid and definite that it is unforgettable. This creates a special problem: the text is likely to be over-familiar, making a fresh or even an attentive response difficult. For example, modern critics are unanimous in claiming that the novel tends toward union of opposites,1 toward a kind of wholeness and perfection. Yet a close examination of the first six chapters reveals surprising discontinuities, beginning with an unusual delay in presenting the themes implied by the title (only in Persuasion does Austen similarly defer this presentation). The first four chapters deal with the problem of ‘first impressions’, reminding us of Grandison. Chapters I and II are well-known for their entertaining exchanges exposing Mrs Bennet’s foolishness and Mr Bennet’s wit. These characters expose themselves by dwelling not simply on the subject of marriage but also on the conventions which control social introductions, a subject kept in view for some time. Mr Bennet takes an anti-conventional stance in the first chapter; when his wife insists that ‘Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him, if you do not,’ he replies, making fun of this confusion of an introduction with a marriage: ‘You are over scrupulous surely.


Social Form Polite Behaviour Social Convention Revealing Character Chapter Versus 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    A few examples suffice. The novel is said to reconcile, variously, the opposing claims of ‘wit and drama’; ‘local complexity’ and ‘general clarity of design’; ‘social restraint and the individual will’; ‘the two extremes of “art” and “nature”’; ‘civilized convention and economic primitivism’; ‘morality’ and ‘style’ (Reuben Brower, ‘Light and Bright and Sparkling: Irony and Fiction in Pride and Prejudice, ‘The Fields of Light: An Experiment in Critical Reading [London, 1951] rpt in Critical Essays, p. 63; Litz, p. 106; ibid., p. 105; Samuel Kliger, ‘Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the Eighteenth-Century Mode,’ UTQ, 16 [1947],Google Scholar
  2. rpt in E. Rubenstein (ed.) Twentieth Century Interpretations of Pride and Prejudice [Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1969] p. 54;Google Scholar
  3. Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function [1953; rpt New York 1961] p. 105; Trilling, ‘Mansfield Park,’ rpt in Critical Essays, p. 134). The apparent differences between these sets of terms begin to disappear when they are compared to the more generalized antithetic formulae with which critics define Austen’s concerns throughout her work, for these terms correspond to or else refine such familiar balanced oppositions as head and heart, reason and feeling, judgment and fancy, society and the individual, culture and personality.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    R. MacKinnon, cited by Chapman in ‘Chronology of Pride and Prejudice’, appendix, PP, pp. 400–8.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and her Art, p. 163.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    E. M. Forster makes nearly the same observation when he declares that all Austen’s characters, even apparently ‘flat’ ones, ‘are ready for an extended life,’ in answer to his own acute question, ‘Why do the characters in Jane Austen give us a slightly new pleasure each time they come in, as opposed to the merely repetitive pleasure that is caused by a character in Dickens? Why do they combine so well in a conversation, and draw one another out without seeming to do so, and never perform?’ (Aspects of the Novel [1927; rpt New York, 1963] p. 75).Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (New York, 1957) p. 13.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Jane Nardin, Elegant Decorums, pp. 22 and 23.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    Fanny Burney, Memoirs of Doctor Burney (London, 1832) II, 156.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    Much evidence exists to show that Richardson’s audience considered absolute accuracy essential in representing social conventions, and any failure in accuracy ludicrous. Elizabeth Carter, for example, congratulates her friend Catherine Talbot on having apparently made the language of Grandison more correct than that of Clarissa (Carter Letters, II, p. 142), but regrets that Richardson has included ‘the grievous old-fashioned word kinswoman’ (II, p. 158).Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Samuel Richardson, ‘Appendix’, Grandison, III, p. 469.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    S.v. ‘Miss Byron’, in the last volume of later contemporary editions.Google Scholar
  13. 11.
    Quoted by McKillop, Samuel Richardson, p. 159.Google Scholar
  14. 12.
    Alastair Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate (Baltimore, 1971) p. 140.Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    Lascelles writes of this distinction that ‘incongruity may be so presented to the reason as to satisfy in itself, so presented to the emotions (through sympathy) as to stir a desire which can be satisfied only by resolution of its discord’ (Jane Austen and her Art, p. 141). The former sort of incongruity I have called comic, the latter sort emotional.Google Scholar
  16. 14.
    Whether or not Darcy’s manners are polite is a central question for critics as well as for the characters in the novel. I believe that Austen intends that Darcy’s manners in the first part of the novel should bear three interpretations. First, Elizabeth’s: his manners are proud, unpleasant and rude. Second, an interpretation available to a candid reader even on the first reading: his manners are correct and forbearing but haughty, particularly to those he considers beneath him. Third, Darcy’s own accurate estimation of them, reached at the end: his manners, however polite and correct on the surface, have lacked genuine politeness, that is, real consideration for others’ feelings. Ideally, good manners prescribe and express sensitive, considerate behaviour, but Darcy’s early manners are divorced from good feeling. As a result, he can be guilty of an ‘unpardonable’ breach of manners when he proposes to Elizabeth (367).Google Scholar
  17. 15.
    Chapman’s notes to his edition ofPride and Prejudice suggest Boswell’s Life of Johnson (25 April 1778) as a source for this distinction: ‘All censure of a man’s self is oblique praise’ (PP, p. 392).Google Scholar
  18. 16.
    W. J. Harvey, ‘The Plot of Emma’, rpt in Casebook, p. 241.Google Scholar
  19. 17.
    Norman Page, Language of Jane Austen, p. 26. For alternative analyses of the dialogue in Pride and Prejudice, see especially Babb, pp. 113–44, and Brower, ‘Light and Bright’, pp. 62–75.Google Scholar
  20. 18.
    Austen’s manuscript, Two Chapters of Persuasion (British Library Egerton MS. 3038), contains the first draft of Volume II, Chapter XI, which became, with a few alterations, the last chapter in the final version of the novel. This chapter is the only one in all Austen’s novels for which we possess both a rough draft and the final version. Erasures in fol. 14 of the manuscript show Austen making three attempts to end the novel on July 16, 1816, by asserting that Mrs Smith finds Captain Wentworth perfect. Austen writes successively that his aid in recovering Mrs Smith’s property ‘convinced her of his being much nearer Perfection than her intercourse with the World had’; ‘And having done so much for her, scarcely could his wife even think him nearer perfection’; ‘and having received such a benefit from him, Mrs Smith’s estimate of his Perfection could be surpassed only by that Wife’s’. This ending was crossed out and a new ending, substantially like the last paragraph in the final version, was added July 18. No assertion of perfection is to be found in the last pages of Persuasion, whereas Emma ends with a declaration of ‘the perfect happiness of the union’ (484) and Mansfield Park with Fanny Price living at the parsonage and finding it ‘as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as every thing else, within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park, had long been’ (473). That Austen wished to strike this note in the last sentence of Persuasion and decided against it fully accords with one’s sense of the novel’s differences from its two great predecessors.Google Scholar

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© Jan Fergus 1983

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  • Jan Fergus

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