Jane Austen occupies an ambivalent position in literary history. She is too little a writer of the nineteenth century to be called ‘ Romantic’, too much a person of her time to be called classical. Her contemporaries like Wordsworth and Charlotte Bronte found in her works a want of feeling, passion and imagination. Edward Fitzgerald complains that:
“She never goes out of the Parlour”
The twentieth century however, has seen Jane Austen elevated by critics of diverse hues, to being one of the best female novelists and of the six novels she wrote, all are deemed classics, with at least three of them being counted among the best in English fiction. Among all the novels of Jane Austen “PRIDE & PREJUDICE” & is the greatest work. It shows her greatness, limitations and aesthetical view on different colours and aspects of human life. The novel takes readers to an abstract idea, the idea of pride in one character and that of prejudice in another. So the novel is primarily concerned with ideas. The characters of novel show different kinds of humour, various traits of human behaviour.Mr.Bennet’s a cynic; Lydia a flirt, Mary a pedant, Darcy a character, swollen with pride, Collins a potential conceit, Sir William Lucas a feeble dullard and so on. “PRIDE & PREJUDICE” is the love story of a man and a woman and the man being held back by unconquerable pride and the woman blinded by prejudice. Moreover, it’s a satire upon life in a small village called Longbourn in
the southern England. So, the novel’s important in more than one-way. It’s important both historically and critically. Historically, it introduced a new kind of fiction. Eighteenth century was an age of picturesque romances with splendid places, high towers, and underground passages. It was an age of the stories of terror, horror and mystery. As opposed to such romances, sentimental novels full of tears and sorrow were written. Austen’s “PRIDE & PREJUDICE” struck a middle path between the two. This novel was written after “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and “NORTHANGER ABBEY”. This is therefore symmetry, a well-knit form and a unified structure. It may be said to be the first English novel in the real sense of the term. Jane follows none of the traditions of her predecessors. She rightly started her own tradition of fiction, which was followed by other succeeding novelists of England. The very first chapter of the novel contains a note of orchestration. Diverse elements have been subordinated to a well-defined pattern. The chapter opens with the statement:
“It’s a truth universally acknowledged,
That a single man in possession of a
Good fortune must be in want of wife “
And then follows the talk between Mr. and Mrs.Bennet. The sole concern of Mrs.
Bennet in her life is to get her daughters married. The entire novel’s based on the domestic theme. A reader trying to approach for action, quick movement, drama or crises, would be disappointed. The characters seem to take the philosopher’s walk. “Action trivial; movement limited” that’s all we find in the novel.
Hence the characters look devitalized and anaemic, at times devoid of flesh and blood. There’s no firework or dynamics in the story. Jane is a spectator of characters. She puts men and women in a certain environment and continues to study them in detail. She gives alternative readings of her characters, compares them and ultimately finds out the correct method of approach to human personality. This method has been followed in this novel. There’s plenty of contemporary element in the novel. Description of dances, balls and parties is scattered throughout the story. The key point in the book is the study of human behaviour. Jane’s almost like Shakespeare in this respect. There’s evident exclusion of death, coincidence or destiny. None of the characters dies in the course of the story. Elizabeth, Lydia, Jane, Mary, and Catherine all the Bennet sisters are preoccupied with their own personal, domestic problems. None of them is touched by physical agony or ailment.
Similar is the case with Darcy, Bingley, Collins or sir William Lucas. Besides, there’s complete absence of mob, or menace of organized society. It’s a placid atmosphere of quiet country houses and drawing rooms that we find in the novel from the beginning to the end. Longbourn, Hansford or Pemberley has no hurry or busy excitement about it.
“PRIDE & PREJUDICE” was first written in 1797 under the title “First Impressions”. It was later revised and published under the title in 1823. In the novel, first impressions do play an important part, Elizabeth, the protagonist, is misled in her judgment and estimate of both Darcy and Wickham. Her regard and sympathy for the latter and her hostility and prejudice against Darcy are due to first impressions. But when we study the novel deeply and seriously, we can easily see that the title is more apt and more befitting to it. The novel is more about the ‘Pride’ of Darcy and the ‘Prejudice’ of Elizabeth and the change of attitude in Darcy and Elizabeth’s correction of her first impressions.
As far as theme is concerned, Austen’s focal point is marriage and courtship. Marriage was an important social concern in Austen’s time and she was fully aware of the disadvantages of remaining single. In a letter to fanny knight she wrote:
“Single women have a dreadful propensity
For being poor which is one very strong
Argument in favour of matrimony”
Charlotte lucas , an important character of this novel, gives reasons for accepting Mr. Collins, says to Elizabeth:
I am not romantic you know. I never was,
I ask only a comfortable home, and considering
Mr. Collins’ character, connections and situation
In life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness
With him is as fair, as most people can boast on
Entering the marriage state.”
This statement reflects charlotte’s helplessness, owing to her economic inequality, she was compelled to accept undesirable suitor like Collins, through this we can peep into the social life of that age in England, showing miserable plight of female in male dominated society. Marriage was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune. The only option for unmarried woman in Austen’s time was to care for someone else’s children as Jane Austen herself did, as there were no outlets for women in industry, commerce, business or education. The novel comprises of seven marriages, all of them intended to reveal the requirements of a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ marriage. Three couples that of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, charlotte and Collins, Lydia and Wickham reveal the bad marriages and the importance of good judgment and proper feeling in determining a couple’s future happiness. Mutual respect, the basis of a sound marriage is lacking in the Bennet’s marriage. Prudence alone should not dictate, as it does in charlotte’s case, nor should it be disregarded, which is what Lydia does. Esteem, good sense and mutual affections are the right ingredients for a successful marriage as the Darcy Elizabeth marriage indicates. Austen firmly believed that to form a right judgment, one must have a right principles and perception of the nature of other people. One must be able to see through affectation, deception and hypocrisy; one must not be a victim of flattery, must not be carried away by the opinions of other people. Austen’s fiction is steeped in irony both in language and situation. As Prof.Chevalier remarks that:
“The basic feature of every irony is
A contrast between a reality and
Here, in this novel we recurrently find irony of situation, which provides a twist to the story. Darcy remarks about Elizabeth that:
“She is not handsome enough to tempt me”
We relish the ironic flavour of this statement much later when we reflect, that the woman who was not handsome enough to dance with was really good enough to marry. Regarding this novel, irony of character is even more prominent than irony of situation. It’s ironical that Elizabeth who prides herself on her perception is quite blinded by her own prejudices and errs badly in judging intricate characters. Wickham appears suave and charming but is ironically an unprincipled rogue. Darcy appears proud and haughty but ironically proves to be a true gentleman. The Bingley sisters hate the bennets for their vulgarity but are themselves vulgar in their behaviour. Darcy too is critical of the ill-bred Bennet family but ironically his aunt lady Catherine is equally vulgar and ill bred. Thus the novel abounds in irony of situations.
Austen was a moralist, an eighteenth century moralist; in some respects she was the last and finest flower of that century. She was born a few years later than Wordsworth, Coleridge and Scott. When she died, Byron was famous and Shelley and Keats had already published. She belongs to the period known as the Romantic revival or revival of imagination, yet these titles do not suit her the least. Her novels belong essentially to the age of Johnson and Cowper. She is indeed a classic novelist. There’s no unrestrained emotion or excess of passion as in the romanticists. All these are disciplined by reason and intellect. This elegance is as much seen in her dialogues as in the structure. But there’s hardly any description of nature in, Jane Austen unlike in Wordsworth and Coleridge who deified nature. Jane Austen’s novels are also marked by a total concern with upper middle class, which may be attributed to the fact that this was the class she knew intimately. A reading of Austen’s novels shows that her materials are extremely limited in themselves. Her subject matter is limited to the manners of a small section of country gentry, who apparently never have been worried about death or sex, hunger or war, guilt or God.
However the exclusion and limitations are deliberate. Austen herself referred to her work as “Two inches of ivory” this novel like other Austen’s novels has a narrow physical setting. The story revolves around Netherfield Park, Longbourn, Hansford Parsonage, Meryton and Pemberley. There’s no reference to nature itself. It’s one of the ironies of English literary history that at a time when the English romantic writers Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats and others were discovering external nature, austen manages to keep her characters imprisoned indoors. Since her settings are the drawings rooms, ballrooms, parks and gardens of a civilized leisure class, she was unlikely to introduce lunatics, villains or ghostly figures. The greatest villainy that disrupts the evenness of a Jane Austen novel is an elopement of Wickham with Lydia. Austen’s theme was also limited to love and marriage. In all of six novels, there are beautiful girls waiting for really eligible bachelors to get married to. It was the period of the American war of independence, of the French revolution and of the Napoleonic wars. But Jane Austen’s characters are blissfully unaware of these tumultuous events.
In brief, we can say that within her limited range Jane Austen’s art is perfect. She handles, characters and events, dialogue and plot with an exquisite and masterly touch, fusing all the elements of novel into one, weaving and interweaving them so fine, that no strand can be separated. On her “Two inches of ivory” Jane carves with a miniature delicacy to present a polished and refined work of art.