Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice is a classic that you might have heard about, but might not have read yet. If this is the case, then you are really missing out on a wonderful story. On the surface, the major plotline may sound a bit frivolous: a woman constantly schemes to marry off her five daughters. But the themes of the novel and its underlying messages, the most important of which is that appearances and first impressions can be deceiving, make it worth reading.

Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, so it contains many references to social customs that the modern reader might not be familiar with. As a result, it's sometimes difficult to discern why certain characters' actions are regarded as so shocking by other characters in the book. But after a while, the reader will come to get a better understanding of what was considered acceptable behavior for polite society at that time.

The book opens with the news that a rich, handsome, eligible bachelor will be moving into the area. His name is Charles Bingley, and Mrs. Bennet immediately starts thinking about how the man would make the perfect match for her eldest daughter, Jane. Soon Bingley hosts a ball, which the entire Bennet clan, and indeed most of the other residents of the countryside attend.

Just as Mrs. Bennet had hoped, Bingley is immediately taken in by Jane's charm and looks. They hit it off, and though Bingley dances with many other young women at the ball, gives Jane a bit of distinction by dancing with her twice. Mrs. Bennet notices this, and is quite ecstatic with the prospect that Jane will be able to marry so rich and handsome a man.

Another person present at the ball is Bingley's good friend Fitzwilliam Darcy. Mr. Darcy is not half so friendly as Bingley, and in fact doesn't deign to dance with any of the women outside of the small group of people that he arrived with. Elizabeth, the second of the Bennet daughters, notices Mr. Darcy's behavior, and decides that he is a cold, haughty social snob. She further resolves not to pay any attention to him because he doesn't appear to be the kind of person that she could ever like or respect. Mr. Darcy makes Elizabeth's resolve easy to stick to, especially when she overhears him telling Bingley that he won't dance with Elizabeth because she is not good-looking enough for his tastes.

A little while after Bingley's first ball, Jane is invited back to his estate to dine with his sisters. Mrs. Bennet, ever the schemer, takes advantage of the weather (of all things) to try to thrust Jane and Bingley even closer. Mrs. Bennet sees that the day will bring rain. So instead of sending Jane to Bingley's estate in a covered carriage, she makes her daughter go there on horseback. Her reasoning is that no gentleman would force a member of the "delicate sex" out into inclement weather, so Jane would be invited to stay at the estate. However, Jane gets caught in the storm on her way to Bingley's, and falls ill.

Jane's condition is such that she can't come home. So the next day, Elizabeth walks to the Bingley estate in order to tend to her sister. Bingley's sisters notice the mud on Elizabeth's shoes and the lower part of her dress, and they openly show their disdain for Elizabeth's lack of grace. They make it a point to remark on the differences in social standing between the Bingleys and the Bennets whenever possible.

Elizabeth must stay at the Bingley estate for a few days in order to nurse Jane back to health. While the Bennet sisters are there, Mr. Darcy comes to stay with Bingley. He is then thrown into Elizabeth's company in the evenings, and finds that he must socialize with her in the evenings. This stay at the Bingley estate is the a turning point in the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship because it is at this time that Darcy starts to reevaluate his initial impressions of Elizabeth. In other words, he starts to fall in love with her.

The rest of the novel deals with the relationships of the other characters in the novel, as well as with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Some of the more interesting relationships include that of Mr. Tom Collins, the Bennet sisters' bore of a cousin, and Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth's best friend; Mr. Wickham, the dashing but morally bankrupt army officer, and Lydia Bennet, the youngest of the Bennet sisters; and of course the resolution of the Jane and Bingley affair.

I have to say that the first time I read the book as a high school student, a lot of the nuances in the character interactions went right over my head. Instead, I chose to focus on the developing relationship between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. As a result, I missed a great deal of the richness and charm of the novel. However, upon a second (and even a third) reading, I started picking up on many things that had previously gone unnoticed by me. So if you've only read Pride and Prejudice once, or if you are planning to read it for the first time in the near future, then I would advise you to bear this point in mind. It might take a couple of readings to figure out what all the fuss over the novel is about.

Because so many movie versions of Pride and Prejudice have been made, including the most recent one starring Keira Knightley in the role of Elizabeth, I feel that I must make some comments about these adaptations. For the most part, the movies can't really do the novel justice because time constraints dictate that a large portion of the story must be left out. So if your only experience with Pride and Prejudice is through film, then I have to once again tell you that you are missing out on quite a lot. The one possible exception that I can think of is the BBC miniseries version starring Colin Firth in the role of Mr. Darcy. The miniseries was close to 10 hours long, if I recall correctly, which allowed it to deal with a majority of the scenes that were in the novel.

Overall, Pride and Prejudice is a novel that might, at first glance, seem to be a bit dated because so many of the misunderstandings that take place are due to class distinctions that no longer apply. However, the larger themes about pride and prejudice still hold true, and for that reason make this a literary work that is still worth reading nearly two hundred years after its original publication.

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