Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen, 1813
~250-300 pp. (varies by publisher)
Book Review by Molly Lundquist
Some time ago, I received an email from someone struggling through Pride and Prejudice. Why, she wondered, is it considered a great classic? It's wordy and dense, making it difficult to cut through the pile of verbiage to get to the meaning.
It's an excellent question!—and all the more interesting because of the vital role Jane Austen played in the development of the young novel.
First, though—the emailer was right: there's the wordiness, making it hard to catch Jane Austen's dazzling wit, which is on display right from the famous first line. ("It is a truth universally acknowledged....") The best way to handle it? Take it slowly and stick with it: eventually, you'll find your rhythm—along with the humor.
In spite of its humor, there's serious stuff going on here. Austen pins her sights on society's mercenary marriage market. Poor Mrs. Bennett—she may be foolish, but she's not stupid. She understands quite well that the only security for her daughters lies in getting them married off. A single woman's prospects are bleak indeed—the reason 27-year-old, plain-faced Charlotte Lucas jumps at the chance to marry "one of the stupidest men in England." *
Then there is Elizabeth Bennett, surely literature's most delightful heroine: smart, perceptive, witty, and self-possessed. She stands up under Lady Catherine de Bourgh's scouring tongue and throws off Mr. Darcy's "not pretty enough to tempt me" insult as more indicative of his sour nature than her own appearance. (Who among us wouldn't obsess over that remark for...what, two, three months...years?)
The character of Elizabeth brings us to the work's place in the history of the novel, at that time still a new art form (see LitCourse 2). With Pride and Prejudice, Austen achieved a major breakthrough in one of the most devilsh problems facing the young novel—point of view, who tells the story.
Austen was able to resolve a nasty and very public dispute between two literary giants during the 18th century—over how a story should be told (see Bridget Jones). She placed the point-of-view not in Elizabeth (as in the 1st-person "I") but perched on her shoulder. Thus, we have a narrator who makes us privy to Lizzie's inner thoughts yet who also stands outside of her—a stunning innovation at the time, allowing readers to see Lizzie's willful misperceptions regarding Darcy and Wickham. It was a brilliant compromise between a self-absorbed 1st-person account and a totally objective 3rd-person narrator.
The full answer to "why is Pride and Prejudice considered a classic?" could take (and has) an entire book or full week of classes to cover. Most of us, though, simply revel in the story: a wonderful young heroine attains fulfillment without compromising her integrity. And in the end she wins a prince, transforming him from a priggish frog into a devoted husband. Hard not to love it.
Don't miss our Reading Guide for Pride and Prejudice.
* I'm cheating: that quotation is from the 1995 BCC production (with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth), not the novel. It's just too good not to use.
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