Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen
Trade Paperback, 325 pages
Wordsworth Editions
May 5, 1995
Classics, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Romance

Book Synopsis: Few readers have failed to be charmed by the witty and independent spirit of Elizabeth Bennet. Her early determination to dislike Mr Darcy - who is quite the most handsome and eligible bachelor in the whole of English literature - is a misjudgement only matched in folly by Darcy's arrogant pride. Their first impressions give way to truer feelings in a comedy profoundly concerned with happiness and how it might be achieved.


This novel is a standard part of every high school English Literature course, and that's when I first read it -- when I was a high school student.  Actually, I never quite finished it; at the time, I thought it was boring.  I now think my reaction was due to the fact that I had finished Jane Eyre shortly before I started Pride and Prejudice, and was comparing the two novels.  However, after a second, recent reading, I was feeling pretty much the same way I did when I read it the first time.  So I prepared to write a negative review, with much trepidation, since this novel is a beloved classic.  I wrote an entire, mostly negative review, but was not satisfied with it.   In fact, I had the gnawing doubt that I was somehow missing something.

I decided to go back and read the novel one more time.  For some reason, this second re-reading experience was, surprisingly, a very refreshing one.  What seemed to me dull and tedious the first time, now sparkled with wit and ironic humor.   Austen is a very sharp observer of the foibles of human nature, and this is very apparent in the dialogues between the various characters.  Somehow, it didn't strike me that way during my first re-reading. 

I think the difference this time around was that I totally relegated Jane Eyre to the background, and read Pride and Prejudice on its own terms.  They are two very different novels, after all, with different aims, and written years apart from each other. 

Chapter One of Pride and Prejudice opens with one of the most well-known, and humorous, sentences in literary history: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."  The rest of the chapter introduces the reader to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, who reside at the Longbourn estate.  They are members of what is known as the landed gentry.  All of Austen's novels revolve around the lives of this British social class.

Mrs. Bennet is the epitome of the shallow, silly type of woman who thrives on gossip, and whose opinion of people, especially men, hinges on how rich they are.  Her life-long ambition is to see all of her five daughters married off to wealthy men, which will then raise her status in the society of the time. 

Mr. Bennet, meanwhile, has resigned himself to being married to such a frivolous woman, expressing his discontent through subtly sarcastic comments that his empty-minded wife always fails to understand.  My impression of his character is that he would prefer to be left alone as much as possible, spending most of his time in his library.  He is therefore not a very active husband or parent, preferring to observe from the sidelines, make some sharp, witty, comment, and go back to his books.

This opening chapter is indeed quite humorous, and the dialogues between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet display Austen's sharp wit in all its glory.

As we meet the rest of the family, we see more contrasts, especially between Jane and Elizabeth, the two oldest Bennet daughters.  Whereas Elizabeth shares her father's mordant wit and keen intelligence, Jane, although no less intelligent, is more predisposed to compassion and giving people the benefit of the doubt. 

The other three Bennet girls are more sketchily drawn, except for Lydia, who is shown to be as shallow as her mother, although it seems that she does have a well of passion that Austen obviously frowned upon, characterizing it as 'vulgar'.  Mary is a bookworm, so not much is said about her, while Kitty pretty much follows wherever Lydia will lead.

As for the two main love interests, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, they are contrasted, as well.  Darcy is initially seen, through Elizabeth's eyes, as a rather proud and 'disagreeable' man, while she considers Bingley sweet-tempered and more 'amiable'.  Elizabeth greatly dislikes Darcy, who actually snubs her at a dance given at Netherfield, the beautiful mansion being rented by Bingley, where he resides with his two sisters, one of whom is married.  Darcy is also staying with them.  Jane and Bingley are immediately attracted to each other, and this attraction grows stronger, surviving a separation of months, at one point in the novel.

Since I remembered next to nothing about the plot, from my first incomplete reading of the novel, I was prepared to plunge in and be rewarded with a great romantic story, along with wit and humor.  Again, as I have said above, I found it dull and very disappointing during my second reading.  I was thus very pleasantly surprised by the change in my feelings the third time around!  Not that I would say this novel is my favorite classic (that honor belongs to Jane Eyre, of course!), but I certainly appreciated it more during my most recent re-reading.

Austen's main goal in this novel is to poke fun at the complicated social manners of the landed gentry of the time, and she succeeds admirably.  I would have wanted more descriptions of the countryside, but I realize that this would probably have interfered with her focus on dialogue.  Her intention is to display all the nuances of the society of the time, with all its silly, manipulative conventions, all its ridiculous posturing.  Therefore, although this is a light-hearted story, it is seriously and meticulously written, based as it is on keen observation.

Austen most especially shines in her funny portrayal of the clergyman, Mr. Collins, who, even at the age of twenty-five, displays all the pomposity and obsequiousness of churchmen twice his age.  He delights in long speeches that are full of hyperbole and adulation, and are excessively polite.  His specialty is to tell practically everyone he meets about his patron (or patroness, as she would have been called at the time) -- Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  To hear him describe her, she is the very epitome of kindness, good judgment, and benevolence.  The reality is very far from the truth, as becomes apparent in one of the novel's most dramatic scenes -- the spirited argument between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth Bennet, in which the supposedly magnanimous aristocrat attempts to intimidate someone she considers an inferior into giving up marrying her nephew, Fitzwilliam Darcy.  (By this time, Elizabeth no longer disliked Mr. Darcy.)  Elizabeth stands up to her, refusing to be intimidated.  I really enjoyed this part of the novel immensely!

There are other memorable characters, such as the Gardiners (Mr. Gardiner is Mrs. Bennet's brother), who show themselves to be very loving and supportive to their nieces.  They obviously adore them, and are adored in return. 

As for Mr. Bingley's sisters, I don't like them at all.  Caroline, the unmarried sister, doesn't like Elizabeth, criticizing her behind her back every chance she gets.  This is because she wants Darcy for herself, and has noticed his interest in Elizabeth, which the latter initially does not reciprocate.  The other sister, Mrs. Hurst, goes along with Caroline, for the most part, just as Kitty does with Lydia.

George Wickham is at first presented as a very charming, well-mannered young man who joins the militia, and seems interested in Elizabeth, nearly as much as Darcy is.  He manages to convince her that Mr. Darcy has wronged him terribly.

The reason I found this novel boring during my first and second readings is that Austen didn't write much of a plot.  The action is subtle, hinging on social interactions.  I wanted excitement, passion, wild romance.  None of that is to be found here.  This novel presents the machinations of the society of the time through dialogue, to the near exclusion of all else.  There are no dramatic twists and turns, although Lydia's escapade, toward the end of the book, does create some drama, as does Elizabeth's heated exchange with Lady Catherine.  Still, this is not the type of story dealing with great, unrestrained emotions.  There's no passionate romance involved.  Instead, there is the very cool, civilized interchange of people who know very well that their reputations in society are linked to their skillful ability to navigate the sometimes rough waters of social interactions.  Wit and sarcasm, as well as crystal-clear intellectual acuity, abound.

In spite of the fact that my temperament thrives on reading romance novels abundant in passion and high drama, I was, during the third reading, able to appreciate Austen's cooler approach to romantic fiction.  Her goal, after all, is satire and humor, more than anything else.  Thus, rapier-sharp dialogues were the best vehicles for the attainment of her goal.  Besides, it seems that hers was indeed a rather cool temperament.  She definitely disapproved of Lydia's actions in the latter part of the novel, apparently not understanding the lengths that people in love are willing to go to.  After all, she never married herself, and  is known to have received only one proposal of marriage during her life.  She did, however, caution her niece, Fanny Knight, not to marry someone unless she really loved him. 

In short, while definitely not my favorite classic, I have been able to enjoy Pride and Prejudice as a brilliant satire on the social customs of the time.  While the relationships of Darcy and Elizabeth, Bingley and Jane, are by no means handled quite to my satisfaction (their development is not very realistically depicted), I can truly say that this novel gives the reader an enjoyable reading experience.  However, I wouldn't recommend reading it as a teenager, but at a later date, when life has provided plenty of examples of the types of games played by people in different settings, such as the office, parties, and, of course, at the beginning and during the course of romantic relationships. 


Jane Austen


  1. Great commentary Maria. You know I never read this. We were never assigned this in school. It is on my list of books to get to however.

    It is striking how often rereading brings out things that we did not get the first time. At least for me, anything that I read when really young went over my head in a lot of ways. Even with books I read now a second go around opens up entire new dimensions. If only there was time to read everything!

    1. Hey, Brian!

      Thank you! You are absolutely right -- there are books that one can appreciate more the second time, or even the third time around.

      Interestingly, this did not happen with "Jane Eyre". I loved this novel the very first time I read it!! It's a very intense, passionate novel. Jane Eyre is akin to Elizabeth Bennet in one important way -= she is very intelligent and outspoken. However, her emotions run deeper. Edward Rochester, in spite of his flaws, is also a much more interesting character than Fitzwiliam Darcy.

      As I stated at the end of this review, I think it's a matter of temperament. "Jane Eyre" is definitely right up my alley! Besides, the plot is totally mesmerizing!

      So "Pride and Prejudice" will never be a favorite of mine, but I'm glad that I was able to better appreciate it after the third reading! And the two novels are completely different, with different literary goals. Again, it's a matter of temperament. "Jane Eyre" is a much better fit for me!

      Thanks for another great comment!! : )

  2. My heart is just bursting with happiness over the fact that you gave this book another chance (more than one!) and that you were able to appreciate it! I just love that! I read this book for the first time a few years ago; and while I'm not a die-hard fan like many, I did thoroughly enjoy it -- especially the wit and snark! This review is simply stunning, Maria, and I thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

    ~ Michele

    1. Hi, Michele!

      Sorry for the late reply....I greatly appreciate your compliment on my review, and am happy that you're happy I gave the book another chance! Yes, there's a lot of wit and snark in this novel.

      You're welcome for my thoughts, and thanks for the super nice comment!1 : )

  3. I confess that I haven't read this one yet, but I have the book... Yeah I know, so late! I saw the movies and love them, so I need to read it now! great review!

    1. Hi, Melliane!

      Oh, I'm so sorry for the late reply! I just noticed your comment....

      I need to see the movies, now that I've read the book. I especially want to see the version with that Colin guy playing Darcy. YUM, YUM!!!

      Thanks for the nice comment!! : )

  4. Great review! This is my mothers favorite book. The classic are always the best. <3

    1. Hi, Cali!!

      Thank you SO much for your compliment!! Yes, the classics are most definitely always the best!! That's why they're classics -- people love them, and they've stood the test of time!

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting!! : )


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