Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen

by

Sharon Fleming

Themes
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
Love

The courtship between Darcy and Elizabeth is among the most well-known love stories in the English literary canon. As in most love stories, the two young people must overcome numerous obstacles, starting with the conflicts caused by their own personal characteristics. Both Elizabeth and Darcy are guilty of prejudice and pride. Elizabeth shows pride when she first meets Darcy and feels prejudice for him when she sees his behavior and interprets is meaning, and Darcy is overly proud of his social status and feels prejudice towards those who have lesser standing. There are other many smaller obstacles that are placed between the lovers and realization of their relationship, including Wickham’s lies, Mrs. Bennet’s stupidity, Miss Bingley’s snobbery, and Lady Catherine’s attempts at interference. In all of these cases, anxieties related to social class and connections, or the wish to gain better connections, get tin the way of the workings of love. There is indication that Austen sees love as something independent of social and economic forces in the fact that Darcy and Elizabeth eventually fall in love and marry. She shows that if individuals are able to transcend the distortions of hierarchical society, they have the hope of finding real love. It is true, however, that Austen does sound a bit more of a realist (or perhaps even cynical) in her depiction of Charlotte Lucas and the decision to marry Mr. Collins for financial security. This shows that love is not always the motivator for marriage. With the novel’s main characters, Darcy and Elizabeth, however, Austen suggests that real love is able to overcome the most challenging of circumstances.

Reputation

The world of Pride and Prejudice is that of Regency England, in which a woman’s reputation is so important that losing it can destroy her life. It is expected that women will behave within certain constraints. If she fails to do so and ventures outside of social norms, she is likely to be ostracized.  We see this in practice many times in the novel. When Elizabeth walks through the muddy fields to walk to Netherfield and appears in a disheveled state, Miss Bingley and her friends are shocked and scathing in their criticism. In another area, Mrs. Bennet’s ridiculous and impolite behavior causes her to have a bad reputation with the Darcys and Bingleys. Austen pokes fun at the snobbishness seen here, but later in the novel when Lydia runs away with Wickham and is known to live with him out of wedlock, we see that Austen takes this very seriously. In living with Wickham without being married to him, Lydia finds herself outside of the social pale. She disgraces the entire Bennet family, and without her marriage to Wickham that disgrace would become public and continue. It seems terribly unfair that the other Bennet sisters would have been condemned to never marry as a result of Lydia’s behavior. Why is it necessary for Elizabeth’s reputation to be hurt by what Lydia does? We see just how generous Darcy’s assistance to Lydia is, although some readers might resent the fact it was necessary for him to intervene at all. Would Darcy still have married Elizabeth if he had not been able to convince Wickham to marry Lydia? Would he have been able to transcend his pride and prejudice to this extent? In several ways, Pride and Prejudice fails to fully explore the theme of reputation and the importance placed upon it. Many readers may wonder how much the novel really critiques social structures. Does it accept that they are inevitable, in some respects? 

Class

Class and reputation are linked in Pride and Prejudice, as both areas were strictly regulated in the middle and upper classes of Regency England. We see that class lines are inflexibly drawn. While it’s true that the middle-class Bennets may socialize with the Bingleys and Darcys, who are upper class, they are always treated as social inferiors. This type of class-consciousness is satirized by Austen. We see Mr. Collins’ ridiculous behavior in toadying up to Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It’s clear that while he is an extreme example of this kind of fawning over the upper-classes, he is certainly not alone in his general views. His overall view of the importance of class is shared by many, including Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy is a strong believer in the dignity of lineage, and Miss Bingley has a strong dislike for anyone who is not as high in the social class system as herself. Wickham, too, will go to any lengths to obtain more money and status. Mr. Collins is only more obvious and extreme in this approach to these matters. It is because of this that the satire we see directed at Mr. Collins is also applicable to the hierarchical system as a whole and helps to criticize the tendency of many to ascribe more value to social status than moral virtue.     The power of happiness and love to overcome the boundaries of class and prejudice is evident in the marriages of Darcy and Elizabeth, and Jane and Bingley. It is clear that class prejudices are hollow and unfeeling. While the exploration of class in this novel is a significant one, we must however understand it in the context of the fact that Austen is herself sometimes criticized as being too complacent about the class system. She fails to really represent characters from the lower classes. When she does portray servants, they are generally depicted as being happy with their lot. Austen’s critique of the class system is useful but it is only limited in scope.

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