Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is one of the most popular novels in English literature. It continues to remain as popular today as it was upon its release in the United Kingdom in 1813. At a time when women novelists were beginning to take tentative steps for acceptance and recognition, the quality of Pride and Prejudice made a statement on behalf of all women novelists of the time. Set at the turn of the 19th century, the novel is quintessentially British, as it constructs a family drama around the personal manners and social norms of pre-Victorian England.
At the centre of Pride and Prejudice are a few recurrent themes – social status, money and marriage. Since women had little individual rights at the turn of the 19th century, their happiness and identify largely depended on whom they married. Women of Austen’s era were either dependant on their fathers or their husbands for economic livelihood. Hence the wealth and social status of suitors were of paramount importance for a young lady to assent to marriage. This is a very materialistic and superficial way of looking at marriage, yet it is true in Austen’s time as it is now. Perhaps the criteria might have shifted slightly with women’s emancipation and relative economic independence achieved over the last two centuries. Hence, the novel is constructed upon the centrality of marriage and its consequences to a young lady’s future prospects. The criteria for selecting the groom might have gotten modified over the years, but still the game of courtship plays out in all its intrigue and passion across eras. Being a ‘novel of manners’ that it is, the work “evokes the courtesy and restraint of socially proscribed courtship among 19th century English gentry.” (Berggren, 2003, p. 19) This element contributes to the ‘living organism’ of the novel and also explains why Pride and Prejudice is still read by so many contemporary readers. That it is more popular among women than men gives away the authorial personal perspective.
It is fair to say that Pride and Prejudice showcases courtship in two opposing dimensions – the thrill of romance and love, the convenience and comfort of social status. One can also see nascent feminist thought in Austen’s narrative, as the norms of courtship of her time reflect inequality between the sexes. This thread of feminism also contributes to the ‘living organism’ in the novel. For example, Austen’s subtext is
“class and gender injustice characteristic of her time. Women with no family wealth or social connection to offer a prospective suitor often backed into a corner of reluctant consent to a semi-arranged age that least promised a home to keep and social status as somebody’s wife. Whether or not she cared for the man or found him attractive–or even knew him well–could be irrelevant; men and women alike felt the personal unhappiness of such loveless if socially convenient relationships. A widow and her unmarried daughters could be turned out of their home if the husband died and the property was entailed to the closest male relative as was the common practice.” (Berggren, 2003, p. 19)
The development of the relationship between Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy gives us insights into the psychology of courtship as well as the irrationality associated with romantic love. Their first few social encounters are rather cold, bordering between mutual dislike and indifference. Indeed, the characteristics making the title – pride and prejudice – are both so ingrained in Elizabeth’s mind that she misunderstands Mr. Darcy’s dignified and civilized advances towards her. At halfway in the novel Elizabeth receives a letter from Mr. Darcy, which she misreads the first time. It is only upon reading it again in a calmer frame of mind that she was able to “arrive at a closer estimation of the meaning of its words and the intention of its author. This letter functions not only as a turning point in the progress of events but as the focal point of a theme that is devoted only in part to the ways of courtship and marriage and-for it is important to note the incident Austen picks as her image-far more to the reading of texts.” (Bonaparte, 2005)
It would be easy to presume that Pride and Prejudice is a novel limited to interpretations of manners, mores, customs and interpersonal relationships. In other words, the question of what constitutes the ‘living organism’ of the novel can only be given a satisfactory answer by reading the novel in unconventional ways, through academic disciplines erstwhile thought of as unrelated to its content. Austen was not previously thought of as a novelist concerned with philosophical questions. Even critics like Gilbert Ryle, “who takes her to be a serious moralist and to be interested in the theory as well as the practical end of morality, begins his analysis of her views by stating that she is not a “philosopher”.” (Bonaparte, 2005) But recent research has challenged this ‘prejudice’ of older scholars and has attempted to set it right. For example, read with scrutiny, the work lends itself to philosophic and epistemological analysis. The epistolary nature of the narrative, where most of the communication between characters happens via the letters they write to each other, is an apt choice for Austen to present her philosophic point of view. Based on the discrepancies between what the characters actually write and what they actually mean, the novel offers scope for linguistic and psychological inquiry. Likewise the discrepancies between what receivers of letters read and what they actually understand is content for this line of inquiry. All these special qualities of the work constitute the ‘living organism’. Further,
“Austen is highly philosophical, alert both to ideas in general and to the currents of her time. What is deceptive is that rarely does she present these theoretically. Mostly her conceptual world is so fully dramatized in her characters and her plots that it can only be inferred from the nature of the action and the language of the narrative. But once in a while we do, in fact, find a moment so abstract as to convince us beyond doubt that Austen’s purpose is philosophical.” (Alavi, 2006, P.27)