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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It is indeed a daunting task to review such an extraordinarily memorable book as Pride and Prejudice; where does one begin?
It is a tale of love centuries old, yet eternally fresh. Set in the early 1800s, it is a classic romantic comedy about the pride of a man and the prejudice of a woman. While beautifully illustrating the essence of true love through an idealistic approach, Austen make exemplary use of satire to highlight the narrow-mindedness and class-consciousness prevalent during the English Regency era society she belonged to. Class, status and wealth had far more value than actual emotion. A woman’s entire existence, her social and economic well-being and status were solely dependent upon marriage; her husband’s status and fortune with respect to her own were the determining factors of a woman’s merit. A sense of duty to fulfil social obligations is a theme that runs throughout the story and is set out by the opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Austen displays her admirably astute understanding of human nature and a shrewd presentation of the various vices that plague mankind even now. Mrs Bennet’s pettiness and avarice, Lydia’s coquettish insolence, Mr Collins’ excessive obsequiousness and even the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet’s harsh misjudgement are vividly displayed by the author. Strong characters keep the readers engaged, while ludicrous personalities keep us entertained throughout the book. Through her artful depiction of the drawbacks of ego and prejudice, Austen warns the reader against two of the most common failings in love. The passionate saga of love between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth is accompanied by sporadic bursts of humour that make this story perpetually delightful.
Despite her defiance of the usual social commentary, Austen follows many marked limitations and restrictions, whether conscious or not. She deliberately never talks about any kind of public issue – it is not at all clear what those militia are really doing, or preparing for, and she never gives the reader the slightest hint pertaining to the physical attributes of her characters; yet, in the most vivid way possible, Austen weaves a story of unconditional love between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet that is heartwarming, moving and truly gladdening.
One of the many inspirational aspects of Pride and Prejudice, is that, despite living in an extremely patriarchal and backward society, Elizabeth Bennet was not afraid to stand up for herself and her loved ones, neither was she reluctant to voice her views with that sparkling and teasing wit that is unique to Eliza. She was not hesitant in denying Mr Darcy’s romantic overtures and Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s patronising advice, regardless of their position and status. Even today, after more than two centuries in an era where we supposedly are no longer as patriarchal as before, it is indeed hard for a woman, especially one lacking in rank and wealth, to question the authority of a social superior, and yet this was done by Elizabeth during much worse times. I find her courage and her rebellious spirit that charmed Mr Darcy and earned the wrath of Lady de Bourgh exceptionally moving.
Back in 1813, when Pride and Prejudice was written, times were different, social pressures were different, yet what the author illustrates is that the human condition endures. Her realism, free indirect speech and blatant disregard of the social expectations of those times while weaving a passionate, endearing, all-consuming and eternally memorable love story of two people poles apart in terms of status, wealth and demeanour filled with ardour make this story an everlasting literary masterpiece.
Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist, is a character one cannot help but fall in love with. Headstrong, intelligent, feisty and brimming with alacrity, she is undoubtedly one of the most beloved characters in British literature. Mr Darcy describes her eyes as especially expressive, her figure "light and pleasing”, and is particularly attracted to the "easy playfulness" of her manners, mind and personality.
Her keen observation and critical nature make her especially prone to cynicism, which can be seen in many of her statements, my personal favourite being, “The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.”
A particularly outstanding trait demonstrated by Elizabeth is her ability to stand up for her loved ones and her beliefs. This is displayed by her outright rejection of Mr Darcy when he first proposed to her, and how she called him out for his role in breaking apart Jane Bennet and Mr Bingley, despite him being a man of such power, fortune and influence. Then again, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh tried to warn Elizabeth away from her nephew, Elizabeth was unperturbed by the great accounts she had heard of Lady de Bourgh’s affluence and puissance; these did not deter her from exhibiting her sparkling wit in front of Lady de Bourgh.
The one trait in Elizabeth that I admire the most was that she was not perfect. Nowadays, despite our claims on having significantly improved the status of women, the typical female protagonist, especially one belonging to the romantic genre, is portrayed as a virtuous damsel in distress, whose persona is the epitome of perfection. Eliza Bennet did not embody any such flawlessness and was certainly not a damsel in distress, and this imperfection is what adds that touch of realism which elevates the story above most others in its category.
Over the first half of the book, Elizabeth shows many undesirable traits, such as a feeling of superiority over others belonging to her sex, and more importantly, prejudice and a penchant for forming opinions about people based on hearsay, without attempting to discern the other side of the story. Despite these flaws, what makes her character even more special was that when the extent of her own vices was revealed to her, she repented her misguided actions most sorrowfully. She felt that she “had been blind, partial, prejudiced, and absurd.” After reading Mr Darcy’s letter to her, she very critically described her character and attributed to herself flaws such as vanity, prepossession, ignorance, and most notably, her blindness to her own folly while disdaining others’. Her deep regret and shame at her impropriety of conduct is seen in her actions for most of the remaining half of the story.
Another significant instance is the day she visited Mr Darcy’s residence, Pemberley, and found herself wondering what it would have been like to be the mistress of such an elegant home. But she was quick to chide herself on her materialism and selfishness and banish such thoughts from her mind. This critical understanding of her own nature, deep vexation about her past behaviour and eventual efforts to ameliorate her imprudent conduct are what inspire me the most.
Fitzwilliam Darcy was the personification of all the vices and virtues of a typical English aristocrat. His arrogant, proud and overbearing nature, further highlighted by his discomfort with strangers, became notorious in the whole county surrounding Netherfield Park, Mr Bingley’s residence. While not actually a titled nobleman, he was one of the wealthiest members of the landed gentry, and fully aware of this fact and its implications; likewise, he was very aware of his statuesque and attractive countenance. Though he was widely disliked by the residents of the Bennets’ neighbourhood, those who knew him more intimately considered him perhaps the finest specimen of a philanthropic, benevolent and amiable gentleman, as we see in the housekeeper at Pemberley, Mrs Reynolds’, generous description of her master. He was also an exemplary brother to his younger and deeply loved sister, Georgiana. As Mrs Reynolds puts it, “Whatever can give his sister any pleasure is sure to be done in a moment. There is nothing he would not do for her.”
In the beginning, Darcy considered himself far superior to the occupants of Hertfordshire. A very decisive example is his particularly egotistic comment made to Mr Bingley about Elizabeth, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me, and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”
When he first proposed to Elizabeth, “his sense of her inferiority - of it being a degradation” was very prevalent in his confession of affection towards her. Though he spoke of apprehension and anxiety, his countenance revealed his doubtless certainty of her accepting his hand. His very tone and demeanour expressed his deep sense of condescension in asking her to marry him. However, after Elizabeth’s outright rejection as well as her speech about his ungentlemanly manner of proposing and pompous conduct, his character underwent a great transformation. He soon realised how supercilious and conceited he had been. The letter that he wrote to Eliza days after her repudiation exhibited how ruefully he viewed his imperious conduct.
Following his letter, we see a completely different side of Mr Darcy, one that is the picture of humble sensitivity. He not only ameliorates his mistakes by bringing Jane Bennet and Mr Bingley back together, but also selflessly helps save the Bennets from everlasting notoriety by paying and coaxing Wickham to marry Lydia, despite his deep rooted antipathy towards Wickham. These actions show the degree to which Darcy’s nature was altered. The way the power of true love helps him learn, grow as a person, and rectify his flaws, shows us that one never ‘falls’ in love, but rather ‘rises’ in love.
In the end, Fitzwilliam Darcy was a humble, unassuming man irrevocably and unconditionally in love with Elizabeth Bennet and wanting nothing more than to redeem himself in her eyes and win her heart.