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Pride and Prejudice | Themes

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Social Class

Social constraints imposed by the class structure are evident throughout the novel. People know their place in society. The Bennets are members of the gentry, or landowning class, but they are not very wealthy and have "low" relatives engaged in trade. They may socialize with the wealthy Bingleys and the aristocratic Darcy family, but class distinctions still govern every interaction with those characters. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a good example of a character who puts people in their places. At the end of novel, she calls on Elizabeth and self-assuredly expresses her expectation that Elizabeth will keep to her class and not marry Darcy. "If you were sensible of your own good," Lady Catherine says, "you would not wish to quit the sphere, in which you have been brought up."

Mr. Collins, who idolizes Lady Catherine, also personifies a slavish adherence to class distinctions. As someone who has risen higher than he might have expected—from a merchant's son to a clergyman—he makes every effort to pay homage to his patroness, who has helped him achieve his post in the clergy. In one telling scene, he insults Elizabeth by telling her that her simple clothes are appropriate because Lady Catherine likes to be better dressed than her guests.

As the children of a man who made, rather than inherited, his wealth, the Bingleys are newer members of the upper class. Keen to reinforce her social status, Caroline Bingley looks down on people of lower status, as if they might drag her family name back down.

Darcy, acutely conscious of the "distinctions of rank," is well aware of the implied prohibition on marrying below his social class. Yet the power of his love for Elizabeth, and his recognition of her value as an intellectual and emotional equal, overcomes his initial adherence to class distinctions.

Reputation

In Pride and Prejudice, the importance of reputation, especially a woman's reputation, is woven through the novel. Early in the story, Elizabeth makes her way to Netherfield, where her sister Jane has taken ill while visiting the Bingleys. The three-mile walk takes her through muddy terrain. Upon her arrival, Caroline Bingley views Elizabeth's muddy skirts with disdain, expressing no empathy or admiration for Elizabeth's sisterly devotion.

When Lydia and George Wickham elope, the Bennets are nearly hysterical about Lydia's potential disgrace and how it may damage the family's reputation—and the other daughters' marriage prospects. Mr. Collins writes to recommend that they disown Lydia and consider her dead. Even after the problem is remedied and the couple has been legitimized through marriage, Mr. Bennet has to be convinced to admit the couple to his home. The marriage will always be tainted by scandal because it is generally known that Lydia and Wickham lived together for two weeks before marrying.

Darcy orchestrates George Wickham's marriage to Lydia, providing him with an income and setting him up in a new military posting to ensure that Lydia's reputation is saved. It is an act that proves his love for Elizabeth, as it shields the Bennets from further social ostracism. His drastic steps to save Lydia's reputation emphasizes the importance society places on a woman's reputation. If Elizabeth's family is ruined by her sister's actions, Darcy can never hope to marry Elizabeth.

Love versus Marriage

At the center of Pride and Prejudice is the love story between Elizabeth and Darcy. But this is not a "love at first sight" romance. Their initial encounter produces mutually negative impressions. The tension that builds as their relationship evolves creates the energy that fuels the plot, building suspense toward what readers hope will be a happy ending.

The road to love is littered with misunderstandings and complications. Darcy, first finding Elizabeth's looks only "barely tolerable," becomes increasingly drawn to her liveliness and wit, even as his pride makes him feel that the attraction is beneath him. His cringe-worthy proposal only hardens Elizabeth's initial impression of his snobbery and coldness, an impression she mistakenly allows Wickham to foster.

Darcy overcomes his pride, accepting Elizabeth as she is, despite the fact that her family is not wealthy and often not even respectable. Elizabeth, for her part, must also swallow the pride she takes in her judgment of people's characters, for she eventually realizes that Darcy's pride is based more on honor than class, his reserve is more natural seriousness than snobbery, and what he lacks in charm he makes up for in sincerity. Ultimately, the two realize that their complementary parts create a perfect whole.

Three couples in the novel have the luxury of marrying for love. In addition to Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley and the Gardiners make or have love-based marriages. Other couples present a different view of love and marriage. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet's marriage was brought about by an initial attraction that soon faded. Lydia and Wickham's marriage, founded on sexual attraction, is surely destined for the same fate. Charlotte's marriage to Collins is based on convenience—she needs a husband, and he, a wife. Austen does show in both characters that such a marriage may have some consolations, however. Charlotte has the satisfaction of running her own household, something that would not have been possible if she had stayed in her family's home, unmarried. Mr. Collins's goal in marriage seems to have been finding a respectable mate to please Lady Catherine, and he has achieved that goal.

Flashcards for Themes

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Term:

macabre

Definition:

adj. gruesome; grisly. The city morgue is a macabre spot for the uninitiated.

Term:

mace

Definition:

n. ceremonial staff; clublike medieval weapon. The Grand Marshal of the parade raised his mace to signal that it was time for the procession to begin.

Term:

macerate

Definition:

v. soften by soaking in liquid; waste away. The strawberries had been soaking in the champagne for so long that they had begun to macerate: they literally fell apart at the touch of a spoon.

Term:

Machiavellian

Definition:

adj. crafty; double-dealing. I do not think he will be a good ambassador because he is not accustomed to the Machiavellian maneuverings of foreign diplomats.

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