A critical appreciation and a literary analysis involving plot, point of view, character, setting, time and style in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is one of the most popular novels in English literature. It continues to remain as popular today as it was upon its release in the United Kingdom in 1813. At a time when women novelists were beginning to take tentative steps for acceptance and recognition, the quality of Pride and Prejudice made a statement on behalf of all women novelists of the time. Set at the turn of the 19th century, the novel is quintessentially British, as it constructs a family drama around the personal manners and social norms of pre-Victorian England.
At the centre of Pride and Prejudice are a few recurrent themes – social status, money and marriage. Since women had little individual rights at the turn of the 19th century, their happiness and identity largely depended on whom they married. Women of Austen’s era were either dependent on their fathers or their husbands for economic livelihood. Hence the wealth and social status of suitors were of paramount importance for a young lady to assent to marriage. This is a very materialistic and superficial way of looking at marriage, yet it is true in Austen’s time as it is now. Perhaps the criteria might have shifted slightly with women’s emancipation and relative economic independence achieved over the last two centuries. Hence, the novel is constructed upon the centrality of marriage and its consequences to a young lady’s future prospects. The criteria for selecting the groom might have gotten modified over the years, but still the game of courtship plays out in all its intrigue and passion across eras. Being a ‘novel of manners’ that it is, the work “evokes the courtesy and restraint of socially proscribed courtship among 19th century English gentry.” (Berggren, 2003, p. 19) This element contributes to the ‘living organism’ of the novel and also explains why Pride and Prejudice is still read by so many contemporary readers. That it is more popular among women than men gives away the authorial personal perspective.
It is fair to say that Pride and Prejudice showcases courtship in two opposing dimensions – the thrill of romance and love, the convenience and comfort of social status. One can also see nascent feminist thought in Austen’s narrative, as the norms of courtship of her time reflect inequality between the sexes. This thread of feminism also contributes to the ‘living organism’ in the novel. For example, Austen’s subtext is
“class and gender injustice characteristic of her time. Women with no family wealth or social connection to offer a prospective suitor often backed into a corner of reluctant consent to a semi-arranged age that least promised a home to keep and social status as somebody’s wife. Whether or not she cared for the man or found him attractive–or even knew him well–could be irrelevant; men and women alike felt the personal unhappiness of such loveless if socially convenient relationships. A widow and her unmarried daughters could be turned out of their home if the husband died and the property was entailed to the closest male relative as was the common practice.” (Berggren, 2003, p. 19)