Jane Austen

Jane Austen
16/12/1775- 18/08/1817
Jane Austen’s
Literary works
- Emma
- Pride and Prejudice
- Sense and sensibility
Jane Austen’s biography
Jane Austen was a major English novelist, whose brilliantly witty, elegantly
structured satirical fiction marks the transition in English literature from 18th
century neo-classicism to 19th century romanticism.
Jane Austen was born on 16 December, 1775, at the rectory in the village of
Steventon, near Basingstoke, in Hampshire. The seventh of eight children of the
Reverend George Austen and his wife, Cassandra, she was educated mainly at
home and never lived apart from her family. She had a happy childhood amongst
all her brothers and the other boys who lodged with the family and whom Mr
Austen tutored. From her older sister, Cassandra, she was inseparable. To amuse
themselves, the children wrote and performed plays and charades, and even as a
little girl Jane was encouraged to write. The reading that she did of the books in
her father's extensive library provided material for the short satirical sketches she
wrote as a girl.
At the age of 14 she wrote her first novel, Love and Freindship (sic) and then A
History of England by a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian, together with other
very amusing juvenilia. In her early twenties Jane Austen wrote the novels that
were later to be re-worked and published as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and
Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. She also began a novel called The Watsons which
was never completed.
As a young woman Jane enjoyed dancing (an activity which features frequently in
her novels) and she attended balls in many of the great houses of the
neighbourhood. She loved the country, enjoyed long country walks, and had many
Hampshire friends. It therefore came as a considerable shock when her parents
suddenly announced in 1801 that the family would be moving away to Bath. Mr
Austen gave the Steventon living to his son James and retired to Bath with his wife
and two daughters. The next four years were difficult ones for Jane Austen.
She disliked the confines of a busy town and missed her Steventon life. After her
father's death in 1805, his widow and daughters also suffered financial difficulties
and were forced to rely on the charity of the Austen sons. It was also at this time
that, while on holiday in the West country, Jane fell in love, and when the young
man died, she was deeply upset. Later she accepted a proposal of marriage from
Harris Bigg-Wither, a wealthy landowner and brother to some of her closest
friends, but she changed her mind the next morning and was greatly upset by the
whole episode.
After the death of Mr Austen, the Austen ladies moved to Southampton to share
the home of Jane's naval brother Frank and his wife Mary. There were occasional
visits to London, where Jane stayed with her favourite brother Henry, at that time
a prosperous banker, and where she enjoyed visits to the theatre and art
exhibitions. However, she wrote little in Bath and nothing at all in Southampton.
Then, in July, 1809, on her brother Edward offering his mother and sisters a
permanent home on his Chawton estate, the Austen ladies moved back to their
beloved Hampshire countryside. It was a small but comfortable house, with a
pretty garden, and most importantly it provided the settled home which Jane
Austen needed in order to write. In the seven and a half years that she lived in
this house, she revised Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and published
them ( in 1811 and 1813) and then embarked on a period of intense productivity.
Mansfield Park came out in 1814, followed by Emma in 1816 and she completed
Persuasion (which was published together with Northanger Abbey in 1818, the year
after her death). None of the books published in her life-time had her name on
them — they were described as being written "By a Lady". In the winter of 1816
she started Sanditon, but illness prevented its completion.
Jane Austen had contracted Addisons Disease, a tubercular disease of the
kidneys. No longer able to walk far, she used to drive out in a little donkey
carriage. By May 1817 she was so ill that she and Cassandra, to be near Jane's
physician, rented rooms in Winchester. Tragically, there was then no cure and
Jane Austen died in her sister's arms in the early hours of 18 July, 1817. She was 41
years old.
- Plot
- Major
- Themes, motifs
and symbols
Although convinced that she herself will never marry, Emma Woodhouse, a
precocious twenty-year-old resident of the village of Highbury, imagines
herself to be naturally gifted in conjuring love matches. After self-declared
success at matchmaking between her governess and Mr. Weston, a village
widower, Emma takes it upon herself to find an eligible match for her new
friend, Harriet Smith. Though Harriet’s parentage is unknown, Emma is
convinced that Harriet deserves to be a gentleman’s wife and sets her friend’s
sights on Mr. Elton, the village vicar. Meanwhile, Emma persuades Harriet to
reject the proposal of Robert Martin, a well-to-do farmer for whom Harriet
clearly has feelings.
Harriet becomes infatuated with Mr. Elton under Emma’s encouragement, but
Emma’s plans go awry when Elton makes it clear that his affection is for
Emma, not Harriet. Emma realizes that her obsession with making a match for
Harriet has blinded her to the true nature of the situation. Mr. Knightley,
Emma’s brother-in-law and treasured friend, watches Emma’s matchmaking
efforts with a critical eye. He believes that Mr. Martin is a worthy young man
whom Harriet would be lucky to marry. He and Emma quarrel over Emma’s
meddling, and, as usual, Mr. Knightley proves to be the wiser of the pair.
Elton, spurned by Emma and offended by her insinuation that Harriet is his
equal, leaves for the town of Bath and marries a girl there almost immediately.
Emma is left to comfort Harriet and to wonder about the character of a new
visitor expected in Highbury—Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill. Frank is set
to visit his father in Highbury after having been raised by his aunt and uncle in
London, who have taken him as their heir. Emma knows nothing about Frank,
who has long been deterred from visiting his father by his aunt’s illnesses and
complaints. Mr. Knightley is immediately suspicious of the young man,
especially after Frank rushes back to London merely to have his hair cut.
Emma, however, finds Frank delightful and notices that his charms are
directed mainly toward her. Though she plans to discourage these
charms, she finds herself flattered and engaged in a flirtation with the
young man. Emma greets Jane Fairfax, another addition to the Highbury
set, with less enthusiasm. Jane is beautiful and accomplished, but Emma
dislikes her because of her reserve and, the narrator insinuates, because
she is jealous of Jane.
Suspicion, intrigue, and misunderstandings ensue. Mr. Knightley
defends Jane, saying that she deserves compassion because, unlike
Emma, she has no independent fortune and must soon leave home to
work as a governess. Mrs. Weston suspects that the warmth of Mr.
Knightley’s defense comes from romantic feelings, an implication Emma
resists. Everyone assumes that Frank and Emma are forming an
attachment, though Emma soon dismisses Frank as a potential suitor
and imagines him as a match for Harriet. At a village ball, Knightley
earns Emma’s approval by offering to dance with Harriet, who has just
been humiliated by Mr. Elton and his new wife. The next day, Frank
saves Harriet from Gypsy beggars. When Harriet tells Emma that she
has fallen in love with a man above her social station, Emma believes
that she means Frank. Knightley begins to suspect that Frank and Jane
have a secret understanding, and he attempts to warn Emma. Emma
laughs at Knightley’s suggestion and loses Knightley’s approval when
she flirts with Frank and insults Miss Bates, a kindhearted spinster and
Jane’s aunt, at a picnic. When Knightley reprimands Emma, she weeps.
News comes that Frank’s aunt has died, and this event paves the way for
an unexpected revelation that slowly solves the mysteries. Frank and
Jane have been secretly engaged; his attentions to Emma have been a
screen to hide his true preference. With his aunt’s death and his uncle’s
approval, Frank can now marry Jane, the woman he loves.
Emma worries that Harriet will be crushed, but she soon
discovers that it is Knightley, not Frank, who is the object of
Harriet’s affection. Harriet believes that Knightley shares her
feelings. Emma finds herself upset by Harriet’s revelation, and
her distress forces her to realize that she is in love with
Knightley. Emma expects Knightley to tell her he loves Harriet,
but, to her delight, Knightley declares his love for Emma.
Harriet is soon comforted by a second proposal from Robert
Martin, which she accepts. The novel ends with the marriage of
Harriet and Mr. Martin and that of Emma and Mr. Knightley,
resolving the question of who loves whom after all.
Major characters
Emma Woodhouse
The narrator introduces Emma to us by emphasizing her good fortune:
“handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition,”
Emma “had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress
or vex her.” But, the narrator warns us, Emma possesses “the power of having
rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of
herself.” Emma’s stubbornness and vanity produce many of the novel’s conflicts,
as Emma struggles to develop emotionally.
Emma makes three major mistakes. First, she attempts to make Harriet into the
wife of a gentleman, when Harriet’s social position dictates that she would be
better suited to the farmer who loves her. Then, she flirts with Frank Churchill
even though she does not care for him, making unfair comments about Jane
Fairfax along the way. Most important, she does not realize that, rather than being
committed to staying single (as she always claims), she is in love with and wants
to marry Mr. Knightley. Though these mistakes seriously threaten Harriet’s
happiness, cause Emma embarrassment, and create obstacles to Emma’s own
achievement of true love, none of them has lasting consequences. Throughout the
novel, Knightley corrects and guides Emma; in marrying Knightley, Emma signals
that her judgment has aligned with his.
Austen predicted that Emma would be “a character whom no one but me will
much like.” Though most of Austen’s readers have proven her wrong, her
narration creates many ambiguities. The novel is narrated using free indirect
discourse, which means that, although the all-knowing narrator speaks in the
third person, she often relates things from Emma’s point of view and describes
things in language we might imagine Emma using. This style of narration creates
a complex mixture of sympathy with Emma and ironic judgment on her
It is not always clear when we are to share
Emma’s perceptions and when we are to see
through them. Nor do we know how harshly
Austen expects us to judge Emma’s behaviour.
Though this narrative strategy creates
problems of interpretation for the reader, it
makes Emma a richly multidimensional
character. Emma does not have one specific
foil, but the implicit distinctions made
between her and the other women in the novel
offer us a context within which to evaluate her
character. Jane is similar to Emma in most
ways, but she does not have Emma’s financial
independence, so her difficulties underscore
Emma’s privileged nature. Mrs. Elton, like
Emma, is independent and imposes her will
upon her friends, but her crudeness and
vanity reinforce our sense of Emma’s
refinement and fundamentally good heart.
Emma’s sister, Isabella, is stereo-typically
feminine—soft-hearted, completely devoted to
her family, dependent, and not terribly bright.
The novel implicitly prefers Emma’s
independence and cleverness to her sister’s
more traditional deportment, although we are
still faced with the paradox that though Emma
is clever, she is almost always mistaken.
Mr. Knightley
Mr. Knightley serves as the novel’s model of good sense. From his very first
conversation with Emma and her father in Chapter 1, his purpose—to correct
the excesses and missteps of those around him—is clear. He is unfailingly
honest but tempers his honesty with tact and kindheartedness. Almost always,
we can depend upon him to provide the correct evaluation of the other
characters’ behavior and personal worth. He intuitively understands and
kindly makes allowances for Mr. Woodhouse’s whims; he is sympathetic and
protective of the women in the community, including Jane, Harriet, and Miss
Bates; and, most of all, even though he frequently disapproves of her behavior,
he dotes on Emma.
Knightley’s love for Emma—the one emotion he cannot govern fully—leads to
his only lapses of judgment and self-control. Before even meeting Frank,
Knightley decides that he does not like him. It gradually becomes clear that
Knightley feels jealous—he does not welcome a rival. When Knightley believes
Emma has become too attached to Frank, he acts with uncharacteristic
impulsiveness in running away to London. His declaration of love on his
return bursts out uncontrollably, unlike most of his prudent, well-planned
actions. Yet Knightley’s loss of control humanizes him rather than making him
seem like a failure.
Like Emma, Knightley stands out in comparison to his peers. His brother, Mr.
John Knightley, shares his clear-sightedness but lacks his unfailing kindness
and tact. Both Frank and Knightley are perceptive, warm-hearted, and
dynamic; but whereas Frank uses his intelligence to conceal his real feelings
and invent clever compliments to please those around him, Knightley uses his
intelligence to discern right moral conduct. Knightley has little use for
cleverness for its own sake; he rates propriety and concern for others more
Frank Churchill
Frank epitomizes attractiveness in speech, manner, and appearance. He goes
out of his way to please everyone, and, while the more perceptive characters
question his seriousness, everyone except Knightley is charmed enough to be
willing to indulge him. Frank is the character who most resembles Emma, a
connection she points out at the novel’s close when she states that “destiny …
connect[s] us with two characters so much superior to our own.” Like Emma,
Frank develops over the course of the novel by trading a somewhat vain and
superficial perspective on the world for the seriousness brought on by the
experience of genuine suffering and love. He is a complex character because
though we know we should judge him harshly in moral terms, we cannot help
but like him more than he deserves to be liked.
Jane Fairfax
Jane’s beauty and accomplishment immediately make her stand out, but we are
likely to follow Emma’s lead at first and judge Jane uninteresting on account of
her reserve. As Jane gradually betrays more personality and emotion, she
indicates that she harbours some secret sorrow. Eventually, she and Emma
push the cloudy confusion behind and become friends. The contrast between
Jane’s delicate sense of propriety and morality and the passionate nature of her
feelings is much more dramatic than any of the conflicts that Emma
experiences. Jane’s situation too is much more dire than Emma’s: if Jane does
not wed, she must become a governess, because she lacks any money of her
own. The revelation of Jane’s secret engagement to Frank makes Jane seem
more human, just as Knightley’s humanity is brought out by his love for
Themes, Motifs and Symbols
Marriage and Social Status
Emma is structured around a number of marriages recently consummated or anticipated,
and, in each case, the match solidifies the participant’s social status. In Austen’s time,
social status was determined by a combination of family background, reputation, and
wealth—marriage was one of the main ways in which one could raise one’s social status.
This method of social advancement was especially crucial to women, who were denied the
possibility of improving their status through hard work or personal achievement.
Yet, the novel suggests, marrying too far above oneself leads to strife. Mr. Weston’s first
marriage to Miss Churchill had ostensibly been a good move for him, because she came
from a wealthy and well-connected family (Mr. Weston is a tradesman), but the inequality
of the relationship caused hardship to both. He marries Mrs. Weston just prior to the
novel’s opening, and this second marriage is happier because their social statuses are more
equal—Mrs. Weston is a governess, and thus very fortunate to be rescued from her need to
work by her marriage. Emma’s attempt to match Harriet with Mr. Elton is also shunned by
the other characters as inappropriate. Since Harriet’s parentage is unknown, Emma
believes that Harriet may have noble blood and encourages her to reject what turns out to
be a more appropriate match with Robert Martin. By the time it is revealed that Harriet is
the daughter of a tradesman, Emma admits that Mr. Martin is more suitable for her friend.
The relationship between marriage and social status creates hardship for other characters.
Frank Churchill must keep his engagement to the orphan Jane Fairfax secret because his
wealthy aunt would disapprove. Jane, in the absence of a good match, is forced to
consider taking the position of a governess. The unmarried Miss Bates is threatened with
increasing poverty without a husband to take care of her and her mother. Finally, the
match between Emma and Mr. Knightley is considered a good one not only because they
are well matched in temperament but also because they are well matched in social class.
The Confined Nature of Women’s Existence
The novel’s limited, almost claustrophobic scope of action gives us a strong sense of the
confined nature of a woman’s existence in early-nineteenth-century rural England. Emma
possesses a great deal of intelligence and energy, but the best use she can make of these is to
attempt to guide the marital destinies of her friends, a project that gets her into trouble. The
alternative pastimes depicted in the book—social visits, charity visits, music, artistic
endeavours—seem relatively trivial, at times even monotonous. Isabella is the only mother
focused on in the story, and her portrayal suggests that a mother’s life offers a woman little
use of her intellect. Yet, when Jane compares the governess profession to the slave trade, she
makes it clear that the life of a working woman is in no way preferable to the idleness of a
woman of fortune. The novel focuses on marriage because marriage offers women a chance
to exert their power, if only for a brief time, and to affect their own destinies without
adopting the labours or efforts of the working class. Participating in the rituals of courtship
and accepting or rejecting proposals is perhaps the most active role that women are
permitted to play in Emma’s world.
The Blinding Power of Imagination
The novel offers sharply critical illustrations of the ways in which personal biases or desires
blind objective judgment. Emma cannot understand the motives that guide Mr. Elton’s
behaviour because she imagines that he is in love with Harriet. She later admits to herself
that “[s]he had taken up the idea, she supposed, and made everything bend to it.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Elton’s feelings for Emma cause him to mistake her behaviour for
encouragement. The generally infallible Mr. Knightley cannot form an unbiased judgment of
Frank Churchill because he is jealous of Frank’s claim on Emma, and Emma speaks cruelly of
Jane because her vanity makes her jealous of Jane’s accomplishments. Emma’s biases cause
her to invent an attachment between Harriet and Frank and blind her to the fact that Harriet
actually has feelings for Knightley. At the same time, Frank’s desire to use Emma as a screen
for his real preference causes him to believe mistakenly that she is aware of the situation
between him and Jane. The admirable, frequently ironic detachment of the narrator allows us
to see many of these misunderstandings before the characters do, along with the humorous
aspects of their behaviour. And the plot is powered by a series of realizations that permit
each character to make fuller, more objective judgments.
The Obstacles to Open Expression
The misunderstandings that permeate the novel are created, in part,
by the conventions of social propriety. To differing degrees, characters
are unable to express their feelings directly and openly, and their
feelings are therefore mistaken. While the novel by no means suggests
that the manners and rituals of social interaction should be
eliminated, Austen implies that the overly clever, complex speech of
Mr. Elton, Frank Churchill, and Emma deserves censure. She presents
Mr. Martin’s natural, warm, and direct manner of expressing himself
as preferable to Mr. Elton’s ostentatious and insincere style of
complimenting people. Frank too possesses a talent for telling people
exactly what they want to hear, and Knightley’s suspicions of Frank’s
integrity are proven valid when it turns out that Frank has been
misleading Highbury and hiding his true feelings for Jane. The
cleverness of Frank’s and Emma’s banter gets them both into trouble
by upsetting Jane, about whom Emma says indiscreet and unfair
things. Emma and Frank’s flirting at the Box Hill party hurts both
Knightley and Jane. Moreover, Emma forgets herself to the extent that
she cruelly insults Miss Bates. Austen seems to prefer Knightley and
Martin’s tactfulness to the sometimes overly gregarious commentary
of Emma, Mr. Elton, and Frank, and, as a result, the author gives the
latter characters’ contrived speech a misleading influence on the story
as a whole.
The main events of the novel take place during visits that the characters pay to each other. The
frequency and length of visits between characters indicates the level of intimacy and attachment
between them. Frank’s frequent visits to Hartfield show his relationship with Emma to be close,
though in hindsight we recognize that Frank also continually finds excuses to visit Jane. Mr.
Knightley’s constant presence at Hartfield indicates his affection and regard for Emma. Emma
encourages Harriet to limit a visit with the Martin family to fifteen minutes, because such a short
visit clearly indicates that any former interest has been lost. Emma is chastised for her failure to
visit Miss Bates and Jane more often; when she takes steps to rectify this situation, she indicates a
new concern for Miss Bates and a new regard for Jane.
More formal than visits, parties are organized around social conventions more than around
individual attachments—Emma’s hosting a dinner party for Mrs. Elton, a woman she dislikes,
exemplifies this characteristic. There are six important parties in the novel: the Christmas Eve
party at Randalls, the dinner party at the Coles’, the dinner party given for Mrs. Elton, the dance
at the Crown Inn, the morning party at Donwell Abbey, and the picnic at Box Hill. Each occasion
provides the opportunity for social intrigue and misunderstandings, and for vanities to be
satisfied and connections formed. Parties also give characters the chance to observe other people’s
interactions. Knightley observes Emma’s behaviour toward Frank and Frank’s behaviour toward
Jane. Parties are microcosms of the social interactions that make up the novel as a whole.
Conversational Subtexts
Much of the dialogue in Emma has double or even triple meanings, with different characters
interpreting a single comment in different ways. Sometimes these double meanings are apparent
to individual characters, and sometimes they are apparent only to the alert reader. For example,
when Mr. Elton says of Emma’s portrait of Harriet, “I cannot keep my eyes from it,” he means to
compliment Emma, but she thinks he is complimenting Harriet. When, during the scene in which
Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma, Emma says, “I seem to have been doomed to blindness,”
Knightley believes she speaks of her blindness to Frank’s love of Jane, but she actually refers to
her blindness about her own feelings. One of our main tasks in reading the novel is to decode all
of the subtexts underlying seemingly casual interactions, just as the main characters must. The
novel concludes by unravelling the mystery behind who loves whom, which allows us to
understand Austen’s subtext more fully.
The Riddle
Also known as charades, riddles in the novel take the form of elaborate wordplay.
They symbolize the pervasive subtexts that wait to be decoded in characters’
larger social interactions. In Chapter 9, Mr. Elton presents a riddle to Emma and
Harriet. Emma decodes it immediately, as “courtship,” but she decodes it wrongly
in the sense that she believes it is meant for Harriet rather than herself. This
wordplay also makes an appearance during the Box Hill party, when Mr. Weston
makes an acrostic for Emma.
The Word Game
Similar to the riddle, a word game is played in Chapter 41 between Emma, Frank,
and Jane. It functions as a metaphor for the partial understandings and
misunderstandings that exist among Emma, Frank, Jane, and Mr. Knightley. As
Mr. Knightley looks on, Frank uses child’s blocks to create words for the ladies to
decode, though these words mean different things to each of them. Frank makes
the word “blunder,” which Jane understands as referring to a mistake he has just
made, but whose meaning is opaque to Emma and Knightley. He then makes the
word “Dixon,” which Emma understands as a joke on Jane, and which baffles
Knightley. In truth, everyone “blunders” in different ways that evening, because
no one possesses complete enough information to interpret correctly everything
that is going on.
Tokens of Affection
A number of objects in the novel take on symbolic significance as tokens of
affection. Mr. Elton frames Emma’s portrait of Harriet as a symbol of affection for
her, though Emma misunderstands it as a symbol of affection for Harriet. Harriet
keeps court plaster and a pencil stub as souvenirs of Mr. Elton. When the
engagement between Jane and Frank is briefly called off, she returns his letters to
symbolize her relinquishment of his affection.
Pride and Prejudice
- Plot
- Major
- Themes, motifs
and symbols
The news that a wealthy young gentleman named Charles Bingley has rented the
manor of Netherfield Park causes a great stir in the nearby village of Longbourn,
especially in the Bennet household. The Bennets have five unmarried daughters—
from oldest to youngest, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia—and Mrs. Bennet
is desperate to see them all married. After Mr. Bennet pays a social visit to Mr.
Bingley, the Bennets attend a ball at which Mr. Bingley is present. He is taken with
Jane and spends much of the evening dancing with her. His close friend, Mr.
Darcy, is less pleased with the evening and haughtily refuses to dance with
Elizabeth, which makes everyone view him as arrogant and obnoxious.
At social functions over subsequent weeks, however, Mr. Darcy finds himself
increasingly attracted to Elizabeth’s charm and intelligence. Jane’s friendship with
Mr. Bingley also continues to burgeon, and Jane pays a visit to the Bingley
mansion. On her journey to the house she is caught in a downpour and catches ill,
forcing her to stay at Netherfield for several days. In order to tend to Jane,
Elizabeth hikes through muddy fields and arrives with a spattered dress, much to
the disdain of the snobbish Miss Bingley, Charles Bingley’s sister. Miss Bingley’s
spite only increases when she notices that Darcy, whom she is pursuing, pays
quite a bit of attention to Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth and Jane return home, they find Mr. Collins visiting their
household. Mr. Collins is a young clergyman who stands to inherit Mr. Bennet’s
property, which has been “entailed,” meaning that it can only be passed down to
male heirs. Mr. Collins is a pompous fool, though he is quite enthralled by the
Bennet girls. Shortly after his arrival, he makes a proposal of marriage to
Elizabeth. She turns him down, wounding his pride. Meanwhile, the Bennet girls
have become friendly with militia officers stationed in a nearby town. Among
them is Wickham, a handsome young soldier who is friendly toward Elizabeth
and tells her how Darcy cruelly cheated him out of an inheritance.
At the beginning of winter, the Bingleys and Darcy leave Netherfield and return to
London, much to Jane’s dismay. A further shock arrives with the news that Mr. Collins
has become engaged to Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s best friend and the poor daughter
of a local knight. Charlotte explains to Elizabeth that she is getting older and needs
the match for financial reasons. Charlotte and Mr. Collins get married and Elizabeth
promises to visit them at their new home. As winter progresses, Jane visits the city to
see friends (hoping also that she might see Mr. Bingley). However, Miss Bingley visits
her and behaves rudely, while Mr. Bingley fails to visit her at all. The marriage
prospects for the Bennet girls appear bleak.
That spring, Elizabeth visits Charlotte, who now lives near the home of Mr. Collins’s
patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is also Darcy’s aunt. Darcy calls on Lady
Catherine and encounters Elizabeth, whose presence leads him to make a number of
visits to the Collins’s home, where she is staying. One day, he makes a shocking
proposal of marriage, which Elizabeth quickly refuses. She tells Darcy that she
considers him arrogant and unpleasant, then scolds him for steering Bingley away
from Jane and disinheriting Wickham. Darcy leaves her but shortly thereafter delivers
a letter to her. In this letter, he admits that he urged Bingley to distance himself from
Jane, but claims he did so only because he thought their romance was not serious. As
for Wickham, he informs Elizabeth that the young officer is a liar and that the real
cause of their disagreement was Wickham’s attempt to elope with his young sister,
Georgiana Darcy.
This letter causes Elizabeth to reevaluate her feelings about Darcy. She returns home
and acts coldly toward Wickham. The militia is leaving town, which makes the
younger, rather man-crazy Bennet girls distraught. Lydia manages to obtain
permission from her father to spend the summer with an old colonel in Brighton,
where Wickham’s regiment will be stationed. With the arrival of June, Elizabeth goes
on another journey, this time with the Gardiners, who are relatives of the Bennets. The
trip takes her to the North and eventually to the neighborhood of Pemberley, Darcy’s
estate. She visits Pemberley, after making sure that Darcy is away, and delights in the
building and grounds, while hearing from Darcy’s servants that he is a wonderful,
generous master. Suddenly, Darcy arrives and behaves cordially toward her. Making
no mention of his proposal, he entertains the Gardiners and invites Elizabeth to meet
his sister.
Shortly thereafter, however, a letter arrives from home, telling Elizabeth
that Lydia has eloped with Wickham and that the couple is nowhere to be
found, which suggests that they may be living together out of wedlock.
Fearful of the disgrace such a situation would bring on her entire family,
Elizabeth hastens home. Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bennet go off to search for
Lydia, but Mr. Bennet eventually returns home empty-handed. Just when
all hope seems lost, a letter comes from Mr. Gardiner saying that the
couple has been found and that Wickham has agreed to marry Lydia in
exchange for an annual income. The Bennets are convinced that Mr.
Gardiner has paid off Wickham, but Elizabeth learns that the source of the
money, and of her family’s salvation, was none other than Darcy.
Now married, Wickham and Lydia return to Longbourn briefly, where Mr.
Bennet treats them coldly. They then depart for Wickham’s new
assignment in the North of England. Shortly thereafter, Bingley returns to
Netherfield and resumes his courtship of Jane. Darcy goes to stay with
him and pays visits to the Bennets but makes no mention of his desire to
marry Elizabeth. Bingley, on the other hand, presses his suit and proposes
to Jane, to the delight of everyone but Bingley’s haughty sister. While the
family celebrates, Lady Catherine de Bourgh pays a visit to Longbourn.
She corners Elizabeth and says that she has heard that Darcy, her nephew,
is planning to marry her. Since she considers a Bennet an unsuitable
match for a Darcy, Lady Catherine demands that Elizabeth promise to
refuse him. Elizabeth spiritedly refuses, saying she is not engaged to
Darcy, but she will not promise anything against her own happiness. A
little later, Elizabeth and Darcy go out walking together and he tells her
that his feelings have not altered since the spring. She tenderly accepts his
proposal, and both Jane and Elizabeth are married.
Main characters
Elizabeth Bennet
The second daughter in the Bennet family, and the most intelligent
and quick-witted, Elizabeth is the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice
and one of the most well-known female characters in English
literature. Her admirable qualities are numerous—she is lovely, clever,
and, in a novel defined by dialogue, she converses as brilliantly as
anyone. Her honesty, virtue, and lively wit enable her to rise above
the nonsense and bad behaviour that pervade her class-bound and
often spiteful society. Nevertheless, her sharp tongue and tendency to
make hasty judgments often lead her astray; Pride and Prejudice is
essentially the story of how she (and her true love, Darcy) overcome
all obstacles—including their own personal failings—to find romantic
happiness. Elizabeth must not only cope with a hopeless mother, a
distant father, two badly behaved younger siblings, and several
snobbish, antagonizing females, she must also overcome her own
mistaken impressions of Darcy, which initially lead her to reject his
proposals of marriage. Her charms are sufficient to keep him
interested, fortunately, while she navigates familial and social turmoil.
As she gradually comes to recognize the nobility of Darcy’s character,
she realizes the error of her initial prejudice against him.
Fitzwilliam Darcy
The son of a wealthy, well-established family
and the master of the great estate of Pemberley,
Darcy is Elizabeth’s male counterpart. The
narrator relates Elizabeth’s point of view of
events more often than Darcy’s, so Elizabeth
often seems a more sympathetic figure. The
reader eventually realizes, however, that Darcy
is her ideal match. Intelligent and forthright, he
too has a tendency to judge too hastily and
harshly, and his high birth and wealth make
him overly proud and overly conscious of his
social status. Indeed, his haughtiness makes
him initially bungle his courtship. When he
proposes to her, for instance, he dwells more on
how unsuitable a match she is than on her
charms, beauty, or anything else complimentary.
Her rejection of his advances builds a kind of
humility in him. Darcy demonstrates his
continued devotion to Elizabeth, in spite of his
distaste for her low connections, when he
rescues Lydia and the entire Bennet family from
disgrace, and when he goes against the wishes
of his haughty aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh,
by continuing to pursue Elizabeth. Darcy
proves himself worthy of Elizabeth, and she
ends up repenting her earlier, overly harsh
judgment of him.
Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley
Elizabeth’s beautiful elder sister and Darcy’s wealthy best friend, Jane and Bingley
engage in a courtship that occupies a central place in the novel. They first meet at
the ball in Meryton and enjoy an immediate mutual attraction. They are spoken of
as a potential couple throughout the book, long before anyone imagines that Darcy
and Elizabeth might marry. Despite their centrality to the narrative, they are vague
characters, sketched by Austen rather than carefully drawn. Indeed, they are so
similar in nature and behaviour that they can be described together: both are
cheerful, friendly, and good-natured, always ready to think the best of others; they
lack entirely the prickly egotism of Elizabeth and Darcy. Jane’s gentle spirit serves
as a foil for her sister’s fiery, contentious nature, while Bingley’s eager friendliness
contrasts with Darcy’s stiff pride. Their principal characteristics are goodwill and
compatibility, and the contrast of their romance with that of Darcy and Elizabeth is
remarkable. Jane and Bingley exhibit to the reader true love unhampered by either
pride or prejudice, though in their simple goodness, they also demonstrate that
such a love is mildly dull.
Mr. Bennet
Mr. Bennet is the patriarch of the Bennet household—the husband of Mrs. Bennet
and the father of Jane, Elizabeth, Lydia, Kitty, and Mary. He is a man driven to
exasperation by his ridiculous wife and difficult daughters. He reacts by
withdrawing from his family and assuming a detached attitude punctuated by
bursts of sarcastic humour. He is closest to Elizabeth because they are the two most
intelligent Bennets. Initially, his dry wit and self-possession in the face of his wife’s
hysteria make him a sympathetic figure, but, though he remains likable
throughout, the reader gradually loses respect for him as it becomes clear that the
price of his detachment is considerable. Detached from his family, he is a weak
father and, at critical moments, fails his family. In particular, his foolish indulgence
of Lydia’s immature behaviour nearly leads to general disgrace when she elopes
with Wickham. Further, upon her disappearance, he proves largely ineffective. It is
left to Mr. Gardiner and Darcy to track Lydia down and rectify the situation.
Ultimately, Mr. Bennet would rather withdraw from the world than cope with it.
Mrs. Bennet
Mrs. Bennet is a miraculously tiresome
character. Noisy and foolish, she is a
woman consumed by the desire to see her
daughters married and seems to care for
nothing else in the world. Ironically, her
single-minded pursuit of this goal tends
to backfire, as her lack of social graces
alienates the very people (Darcy and
Bingley) whom she tries desperately to
attract. Austen uses her continually to
highlight the necessity of marriage for
young women. Mrs. Bennet also serves as
a middle-class counterpoint to such
upper-class snobs as Lady Catherine and
Miss Bingley, demonstrating that
foolishness can be found at every level of
society. In the end, however, Mrs. Bennet
proves such an unattractive figure,
lacking redeeming characteristics of any
kind, that some readers have accused
Austen of unfairness in portraying her—
as if Austen, like Mr. Bennet, took
perverse pleasure in poking fun at a
woman already scorned as a result of her
ill breeding.
Themes, Motifs and Symbols
Pride and Prejudice contains one of the most cherished love stories in English
literature: the courtship between Darcy and Elizabeth. As in any good love
story, the lovers must elude and overcome numerous stumbling blocks,
beginning with the tensions caused by the lovers’ own personal qualities.
Elizabeth’s pride makes her misjudge Darcy on the basis of a poor first
impression, while Darcy’s prejudice against Elizabeth’s poor social standing
blinds him, for a time, to her many virtues. (Of course, one could also say that
Elizabeth is guilty of prejudice and Darcy of pride—the title cuts both ways.)
Austen, meanwhile, poses countless smaller obstacles to the realization of the
love between Elizabeth and Darcy, including Lady Catherine’s attempt to
control her nephew, Miss Bingley’s snobbery, Mrs. Bennet’s idiocy, and
Wickham’s deceit. In each case, anxieties about social connections, or the desire
for better social connections, interfere with the workings of love. Darcy and
Elizabeth’s realization of a mutual and tender love seems to imply that Austen
views love as something independent of these social forces, as something that
can be captured if only an individual is able to escape the warping effects of
hierarchical society. Austen does sound some more realist (or, one could say,
cynical) notes about love, using the character of Charlotte Lucas, who marries
the buffoon Mr. Collins for his money, to demonstrate that the heart does not
always dictate marriage. Yet with her central characters, Austen suggests that
true love is a force separate from society and one that can conquer even the
most difficult of circumstances.
Pride and Prejudice depicts a society in which a woman’s reputation is
of the utmost importance. A woman is expected to behave in certain
ways. Stepping outside the social norms makes her vulnerable to
ostracism. This theme appears in the novel, when Elizabeth walks to
Netherfield and arrives with muddy skirts, to the shock of the
reputation-conscious Miss Bingley and her friends. At other points, the
ill-mannered, ridiculous behaviour of Mrs. Bennet gives her a bad
reputation with the more refined (and snobbish) Darcys and Bingleys.
Austen pokes gentle fun at the snobs in these examples, but later in the
novel, when Lydia elopes with Wickham and lives with him out of
wedlock, the author treats reputation as a very serious matter. By
becoming Wickham’s lover without benefit of marriage, Lydia clearly
places herself outside the social pale, and her disgrace threatens the
entire Bennet family. The fact that Lydia’s judgment, however terrible,
would likely have condemned the other Bennet sisters to marriageless
lives seems grossly unfair. Why should Elizabeth’s reputation suffer
along with Lydia’s? Darcy’s intervention on the Bennets’ behalf thus
becomes all the more generous, but some readers might resent that such
an intervention was necessary at all. If Darcy’s money had failed to
convince Wickham to marry Lydia, would Darcy have still married
Elizabeth? Does his transcendence of prejudice extend that far? The
happy ending of Pride and Prejudice is certainly emotionally satisfying,
but in many ways it leaves the theme of reputation, and the importance
placed on reputation, unexplored. One can ask of Pride and Prejudice,
to what extent does it critique social structures, and to what extent does
it simply accept their inevitability?
The theme of class is related to reputation, in that both reflect the
strictly regimented nature of life for the middle and upper classes in
Regency England. The lines of class are strictly drawn. While the
Bennets, who are middle class, may socialize with the upper-class
Bingleys and Darcys, they are clearly their social inferiors and are
treated as such. Austen satirizes this kind of class-consciousness,
particularly in the character of Mr. Collins, who spends most of his time
toadying to his upper-class patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Though
Mr. Collins offers an extreme example, he is not the only one to hold
such views. His conception of the importance of class is shared, among
others, by Mr. Darcy, who believes in the dignity of his lineage; Miss
Bingley, who dislikes anyone not as socially accepted as she is; and
Wickham, who will do anything he can to get enough money to raise
himself into a higher station. Mr. Collins’s views are merely the most
extreme and obvious. The satire directed at Mr. Collins is therefore also
more subtly directed at the entire social hierarchy and the conception of
all those within it at its correctness, in complete disregard of other,
more worthy virtues. Through the Darcy-Elizabeth and Bingley-Jane
marriages, Austen shows the power of love and happiness to overcome
class boundaries and prejudices, thereby implying that such prejudices
are hollow, unfeeling, and unproductive. Of course, this whole
discussion of class must be made with the understanding that Austen
herself is often criticized as being a classicist: she doesn’t really
represent anyone from the lower classes; those servants she does
portray are generally happy with their lot. Austen does criticize class
structure but only a limited slice of that structure.
In a sense, Pride and Prejudice is the story of two courtships—those
between Darcy and Elizabeth and between Bingley and Jane. Within this
broad structure appear other, smaller courtships: Mr. Collins’s aborted
wooing of Elizabeth, followed by his successful wooing of Charlotte
Lucas; Miss Bingley’s unsuccessful attempt to attract Darcy; Wickham’s
pursuit first of Elizabeth, then of the never-seen Miss King, and finally of
Lydia. Courtship therefore takes on a profound, if often unspoken,
importance in the novel. Marriage is the ultimate goal, courtship
constitutes the real working-out of love. Courtship becomes a sort of
forge of a person’s personality, and each courtship becomes a microcosm
for different sorts of love (or different ways to abuse love as a means to
social advancement).
Nearly every scene in Pride and Prejudice takes place indoors, and the
action centres around the Bennet home in the small village of Longbourn.
Nevertheless, journeys—even short ones—function repeatedly as
catalysts for change in the novel. Elizabeth’s first journey, by which she
intends simply to visit Charlotte and Mr. Collins, brings her into contact
with Mr. Darcy, and leads to his first proposal. Her second journey takes
her to Derby and Pemberley, where she fans the growing flame of her
affection for Darcy. The third journey, meanwhile, sends various people
in pursuit of Wickham and Lydia, and the journey ends with Darcy
tracking them down and saving the Bennet family honour, in the process
demonstrating his continued devotion to Elizabeth.
Pride and Prejudice is remarkably free of explicit symbolism,
which perhaps has something to do with the novel’s reliance
on dialogue over description. Nevertheless, Pemberley, Darcy’s
estate, sits at the centre of the novel, literally and figuratively,
as a geographic symbol of the man who owns it. Elizabeth
visits it at a time when her feelings toward Darcy are
beginning to warm; she is enchanted by its beauty and charm,
and by the picturesque countryside, just as she will be
charmed, increasingly, by the gifts of its owner. Austen makes
the connection explicit when she describes the stream that
flows beside the mansion. “In front,” she writes, “a stream of
some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without
any artificial appearance.” Darcy possesses a “natural
importance” that is “swelled” by his arrogance, but which
coexists with a genuine honesty and lack of “artificial
appearance.” Like the stream, he is neither “formal, nor falsely
adorned.” Pemberley even offers a symbol-within-a-symbol for
their budding romance: when Elizabeth encounters Darcy on
the estate, she is crossing a small bridge, suggesting the broad
gulf of misunderstanding and class prejudice that lies between
them—and the bridge that their love will build across it.

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