Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, had initially donned the title of First Impressions. Inspired by its mention in Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia, Jane Austen, perhaps after deeper contemplation during the course of writing the novel, thought best to replace it by one subtler yet more relevant to the novel’s essence. Pride and prejudice: words which encase the phenomenon of social interlocution via appearances, either portrayed by ourselves or inferred from others, are scarcely asunder in meaning. Pride relates to slightly contrasting dispositions – either of self-dignity which rein in our weaknesses, as aptly described by George Eliot in Middlemarch: “Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts – not to hurt others.”, or which is abounded by self-vanity, as also mentioned by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice: “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” Prejudice, similarly, is the formation of opinions usually based on unfounded means and which let us either blinded by vanity to be critical, or by awe to be servile.
The story is centered upon Elizabeth Bennet, who struggles with fending off prejudice against her first acquaintance with Mr. Darcy; gradually, in the course of meandering circumstances, dismantles her own pride which eventually interweaves their lives with moral affinity. Elizabeth, born second in the family of five daughters, has “a lively, playful disposition” but is easily piqued into forming hasty impressions. Her first opinion marred by prejudice renders Darcy frigid and too proud of his social standing. Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy has, no doubt, noble acquisition both fiscally and physically – “…fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; …having ten thousand a year.” This does authorize him to be proud in all forms, but Darcy has had his history eclipsed by dramatic turns which makes him use pride to conceal his mistrust in people and to be wary of society, in general.
However, the elements of pride and prejudice seems not only contained around these two protagonists, but sweeps panoramically among other characters delineated in the story. Mrs. Bennet being one such character of provincial mentality has diminished her life’s resolution to one principal aim of securing a husband for each of her maiden daughters. Her garrulous nature and simpleton foresight only hampers her designs of procuring Mr. Bingley – a man of amiable personality and good fortune but lacking stronger resolve of mind – for her daughter Jane, let alone the rest, who are usually in danger of mortification from her senseless prattle. Her husband Mr. Bennet is a man resigned from worldly bustle to a life in seclusion of his library; where, perhaps, his conscience isn’t impeded by the guilt of shunning domestic obligations. Here too prejudice plays its part in him having high devotedness for Elizabeth against his other girls. Even prejudice is sometimes justly applied; with the exception of Elizabeth’s wit and Jane’s possession of beauty and humility not much can be recommended about other siblings. Mary has a disposition of affecting talents she’s worked hard to obtain but only affords herself much distaste. Kitty (Catherine) and Lydia show even more recklessness, disregard for any moral chastisement and exult in vanity sprouting from absence of maturity. Lydia’s consequential elopement with Mr. Wickham – a militia officer of a dissolute nature who tries best to malign Darcy – is only testament of her loose character. The superciliousness of Bingley sisters is another facet of pride. Especially Miss. Caroline Bingley, who leaves no opportunity to disgrace the Bennets infront of Darcy in hope to acquire his regard. A similar example of obsequiousness is also engendered by Mr. Collins to his patron Lady Catherine de Bourgh. A clergyman, by profession, it is him to whom the property of Mr.Bennet is entailed. In his quest to make appeasement with the Bennet’s Daughters, he offers marriage to Elizabeth but is blatantly rejected to much distress of Mrs. Bennet.
In defining human nature as shrouded by either pride or prejudice, Jane Austen pursues the lives of Bennets and Bingleys through the devious plots of Miss. Bingley, Darcy’s acts of compensation and Elizabeth’s eventual relinquish of her prejudice, all leading to demystifying imperfect first impressions. In accordance to her norm, she has made us realize the importance of upbringing and strength of character. She has also shed light on the fallibility of judgement, claiming no one is more erroneous than to deem themselves above another based on class; we can only be set on equal footing by our measure of mental aptitude and not by the accumulation of wealth.
He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.
Pride and Prejudice has not only elicited sheer delight from its readers but Jane Austen herself. She preferred it above her other works, calling it ‘My own darling Child’¹. Generally known for displaying light social ambiance in her literary style, Pride and Prejudice is no exception; yet amid the casual banter and social gaiety she has remarkably peeled off each stratum of human psyche which dictates it either morally or unscrupulously. It is, thereby, equally edifying in substance as heartwarming in story.
1. Gail Cunningham (1992) Introduction to Pride and Prejudice. Hertfordshire: WordsWorth Editions Ltd.