Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is one of the most successful love stories in print. It has been adored by readers and lauded by critics from its publication through today. It is continuously appealing, a beautiful Cinderella story, with more substance to it than most. The main characters are memorable, and the supporting cast is extensive, allowing the reader to be engaged through multiple readings. Austen’s novel is a victory for the written word, describing places, situations and people that are thoroughly accurate, while simultaneously telling a transcending, accessible love story. Especially important to its success is the unassuming realism of the text: the reader can appreciate an era long over, while still finding passages to relate to in a modern way. At heart, Pride and Prejudice is a moving romance, but in large part the eventual triumph of love is so satisfying because of the deep progression the characters experience along the way. The supporting sentiments, such as dislike, resentment and shame, signify the growth of the characters as they endeavor to achieve a perfect love. Through her superb narration, Austen captures the struggles of self-improvement, and this work remains the standard of the genre.
Upon writing Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen inherited an established legacy of realism, and in her novel of manners she capably unites many of the strengths distinctive to the authors preceding her, resulting in a work that surpassed them all in quality and popularity. Ian Watt’s literary critique, The Rise of the Novel (1967), catalogs the relative successes of three eminent eighteenth-century novelists, Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, in their efforts to define the English realist novel. He articulates their task in terms of accuracy: “particularization of time, place and person; …a natural and lifelike sequence of action; …style which gives the most exact verbal and rhythmical equivalent of the object described” (Watt, 291). Moreover, the exercise is about chronicling the lives of multi-dimensional characters. The heroes and villains alike have flaws and temptations as well as virtues and triumphs, and replace the stock characters that populated romances, morality tales, epics, and other established genres of fiction. The plots are liberated from conventional heroic cycles or supernatural influences. Watt particularly appreciates the style of Richardson, for his insights on individuals, and Fielding, for his story lines. The two exemplify a tension between a story driven by relationships and one driven by events; the difference between narrating from an inner or outer perspective. Watt clearly values the contributions by both authors to modern literary techniques, and concludes his long reflections and analyses with the declaration that Jane Austen, a few generations later, united their strengths to achieve “the full maturity of the genre” (Watt, 296).
The bulk of the credit for Austen’s success must go to her usage of the narrator. Watt offers no shortage of praise for her talents on that particular, declaring that her narrative voice is able to observe tender reflections as well as biting irony, and still “not seem to come from an intrusive author but rather from some august and impersonal spirit of social and psychological understanding” (Watt, 297). Watt has a fondness for Austen’s narrator in Emma, but accedes that it is surely executed to the best of her abilities in Pride and Prejudice. Austen seamlessly switches between earnest character revelations, amusingly honest descriptions, and sharp irony in her narration of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s treasured love story. The narrative voice is an indispensable tool in Pride and Prejudice’s stunning depictions of a wide spectrum of sentiments, and validates the work as a rich commentary on human nature. The narrator’s insights are honest and humorous, but always contain a sense of care; its effectiveness is apparent by how dear the book is to so many readers. Among the main characters as well as the supporting ones, there is a sense of intimacy, since the narrator discloses so much about the proclivities, faults and merits of the people in Elizabeth’s world.
There are multiple instances of the union of impeccable narration and memorable events in the course of the famous story. One of the most beautiful and articulate passages of close narration within this novel is arguably Volume the Second, Chapter 13, in which Elizabeth Bennet digests the information in Mr. Darcy’s letter. Before receiving the letter, Elizabeth has proven herself to be playful, observant, and confident in her own opinions. Even with the apparent shortage of respectable role models, she exudes ladylike manners and genuine affability. She particularly delights in discerning her companions’ characters, and considers herself accomplished at it. Due to this assuredness, Elizabeth is thoroughly surprised by Mr. Darcy’s marriage proposal, but it is his subsequent letter that truly shakes her self-awareness to the core. In his message, he touches on topics concerning many of Elizabeth’s favorite people, and though it takes her several attempts to read and understand the entirety of his missive, her opinion of the others and, more importantly, of herself is completely altered by the time she is finished.
The first portion of the letter regards Darcy’s scheme to separate Bingley before any regrettable engagement to Jane Bennet could be finalized. His words are callous and boastful. He explains that Bingley had often formed fleeting crushes on other women, but concedes that his friend had truly started to love Jane. He defends his actions with the inaccurate assertion that Jane’s “heart was not likely to be easily touched” (Austen, 195). Most hurtful of all, his bitterness builds to the declaration that the greatest impetus for their parting was “the total want of propriety” (Austen, 196) displayed by the other Bennets. Elizabeth’s patience for Darcy’s terse explanations is pushed to the breaking point, as “his account of the real, the worst objections to the match, made her too angry to have any wish of doing him justice” (Austen, 201). His description of her family passes discourteous and borders on cruel, and reinforces all of Elizabeth’s predispositions: namely, that he is a self-important man, whose words merit indignation and rejection. The narrative voice in this passage effectually portrays the urgency and tumult of Elizabeth’s reactions, as she processes the first portion of the letter.
Though she hesitates, Elizabeth resigns to continue reading the rest of the letter, which is composed with a marked difference in tone and sincerity. The glib superiority abundant in Darcy’s account of Bingley and Jane is replaced by the guarded, pained narration of Wickham’s bad conduct and the danger once posed to Georgiana. As Elizabeth moves to that part of the note, the narrator describes that “her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition… astonishment, apprehension, even horror oppressed her” (Austen, 201). Elizabeth’s struggle to process the revelation of Wickham’s evil character is manifested physically as well, as she banishes the letter to her pocket only to unfold it hastily again. Soon after, she endeavors to fashion reasonable arguments against Darcy’s assertions. The more thought she pays to the allegations, however, the more fault she finds in Wickham’s behavior: his complete lack of long-term acquaintances, the paucity of actual good deeds besides his friendly manner, and his rushed intimacy upon first meeting her. “She saw the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done, and the inconsistency of his professions with his conduct” (Austen, 203).
The narrator perfectly captures the spectrum of emotions Elizabeth moves through, once her doubt of Wickham begins. She feels heartsick over his history with Miss Darcy, and grows thoroughly embarrassed of all her interactions with and feelings towards him. It dawns on her, how capriciously she allowed herself to esteem Mr. Wickham and hate Mr. Darcy, “pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance” (Austen, 205). Elizabeth realizes her failure as a judge of character, the particular trait that she most liked about herself. She takes stock of her behavior, soberly regretting how often she discounted Jane’s generous forbearance, and admitting, “vanity, not love, has been my folly” (Austen, 205). These revelations, unexpected in themselves and from the most surprising source, rush upon her, and she burns with humiliation. It is one thing to have unwittingly given Mr. Darcy hope of an attachment, but quite another to discover the total impropriety of her actions over so many months. This moment of awareness is seminal for Elizabeth, a swift and private instance of reckoning.
When she rallies, she resolves to discard her impudent prejudices, and returns to the beginning the letter with a fresh eye. In this penitent and honest state of reflection, she recants her previous stubbornness, and acquiesces to the shameful truth:
as she considered that Jane’s disappointment had, in fact, been the work of her nearest relations, and reflected how materially the credit of both must be hurt by such impropriety of conduct, she felt depressed beyond anything she had ever known before. (Austen 205)
This insight, adeptly simple, is an incredibly formative moment for Elizabeth. It is absolutely true that she has never known such a degree of sadness or turmoil before. Elizabeth’s family is intact; there is no hint of any bereavement in her past. She has always lived within the comfortable security of Longbourne, with her flawed yet loving family and the colorful friends in the neighborhood. She has never actually known loss, deprivation, or severe disappointment. Now, appraising herself and her relations with objectivity, she is able to understand the full scope of last six months’ failures; most especially, she feels the cruelty inflicted on Jane, the most virtuous of all, by the others’ vices and shortcomings. The emotion of the preceding speech about misjudging Wickham and Darcy is surpassed by the understated, effectual narrative voice.
This small chapter bears so much consequence because it is the turning point in her relationship with Darcy. From the moment they met, they had been misinterpreting each other abominably, creating an unwarranted dislike in one and an unwanted attraction in the other. In the disastrous proposal at Hunsford, and soon after in Darcy’s letter, both of them say honest yet hurtful things. Darcy realizes his mistake about Jane, and reels from the biting appraisal of his incivility and haughty pride. Likewise, Elizabeth learns the truth about Wickham, and feels for the first time disappointment and shame over her own conduct, as well as her hopes for the future. They both depart from Kent cowed by the unpleasant reflections on character and behavior. It is from this event, the conflagration of love and animosity and errors and honesty, that Darcy and Elizabeth are able to improve themselves, and finally deserve each other when they are united in the end. The greater fanfare may belong to Darcy’s transformation, but it is important to acknowledge that Elizabeth learned from him as well, and went through a corresponding progression of self-awareness. With the inclusion of this moment of heartache, the eventual victory of sentimental love is truly perfect.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Carol Howard. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. London, UK: Chatto & Windus LTD, 1967.
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