'Pride and Prejudice' Review

Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice. Penguin

Jane Austen is a novelist with an extremely narrow focus that extends, surprisingly, into a wide range of concerns. Her books can be viewed most simply as eerily good

romance novels, more broadly as sharp critiques of nineteenth-century vanity, cruelty, and folly, and--broadest of all--as an indictment of a social system and economic system dedicated to the marginalization and commodification of a full half of the human experience.

This is the important point to remember about ​classic literature--the reason why it even became classic in the first place: classic works can be read simply because they're enjoyable to read, simply because when truth and insight are added to fiendish complexity of plot and a strong capacity for wit, the results are rarely dry fodder for academics. The results are faithful, engrossing portraits of life: satisfying even in their narrowness, ultimately satisfying perhaps because of their narrowness.

Plotting the Novel: Pride and Prejudice

The book's plot deals with the five Bennet sisters, whose fanatically prosaic mother obsesses over marrying off as quickly and as advantageously as possible.

Most of the action centers on the two eldest Bennet girls: dutiful Jane and practical, quick-witted Elizabeth. For the better part of the book, these sisters are occupied chiefly in damage control against the various disastrous almost-engagements they and their sisters find themselves in, as well as in pining after their various objects of affection: the dashing yet befuddled Charles Bingley for Jane, and the grave, calculating Mr. Darcy (So dark!

So cold! So rational!) for Elizabeth, whose viewpoint is probably--based on her wit and levelheadedness compared to her sisters--the closest to Austen's.

It's Elizabeth and Darcy that really drive the plot through a combination of their seeming compatibility and their total inability to get together, thanks to their mutual low opinions of one another--or at least the belief on the part of each that the other has a low opinion of them.

The Structure of Pride and Prejudice

The novel has a very simple structure (basically the progenitor of the romance novel): two people should be together on the first page and end up together on the last, with various complications to fill up the rest of the book. It's in the complications where the qualities most come out that set Austen apart from her latter-day followers: witty dialogue, a sense of the brutality of individual character, and a keen, analytical eye for rivulets of emotion running through the smooth-surfaced stream of everyday events.

One of the Bennet girls' suitors, Mr. Collins, thinks nothing of proposing to Elizabeth's best friend once Elizabeth rejects him; romantic young Lydia runs off in pursuit of true love and ends up ridden with debts; Elizabeth's father seems to live exclusively for moments of small (yet witty!) cruelty to his wife of however many years. It's a well-detailed portrait of events, particularly at this fairly early stage in the development of the modern novel. Individual scenes get by on absurd comic detail alone.

Where the novel runs into problems, though, is in its overall plot arc. The conflict between Elizabeth and Darcy fits neatly into the larger social conflict of fitting women--human beings--into predefined marriage relations for purely economic reasons, and it's actually chilling to see the ease with which Elizabeth's friend Charlotte Lucas takes up with the loathsome Mr. Collins for the sake of financial security, and the inability of Mrs. Bennet to see why this might not be an ideal situation.

The Role of Women

Women, in Austen's world, are restricted beings, and a large measure of the conflict in the plot comes from the inability of Elizabeth and Jane, at times, to act on their own behalf, rather than through the intermediary of their mother or some man. But the aesthetic power of this is heavily offset by the other consequence of Austen's world: Elizabeth's inability to act makes her a sympathetic figure, true, but it also means that her actions must be--by virtue of her world's logic--largely inconsequential to the plot. It's difficult not to see Darcy as the superior partner in what is ostensibly a relationship between equals: Darcy acts on Elizabeth's behalf, true, in resolving some of the most serious subplots and complications, but what does Elizabeth do for herself? Why, she decides that Darcy isn't so bad after all, and she consents to marry him.

In order to resolve the plot, she decides to consent. Is this the kind of strong action we expect from a character who is virtually our narrator, whose viewpoint we come closest to sharing? There's something unsatisfying about Elizabeth's ultimately limited range of actions, and there's thus something that jars us with the benevolent, "all's-well-that-ends-well" tone of the conclusion. There's something unsatisfying at the very heart of Pride and Prejudice, a necessary irresolution to its central conflict.

And yet this irresolution raises deeper questions: should the failure of Elizabeth's final actions to satisfy really be laid at the feet of Elizabeth, or at her world? Yes, it would be nice to see Elizabeth rise up, take matters into her own hands, and prove her equality with Darcy via direct intervention in Darcy's masculine sphere. But, given the restriction of female influence that has driven most of the plot to this point, could we really believe in such a resolution?

Austen's primary virtue is her precision. Could we really ask her to be so imprecise in her ultimately grim portrayal of the world faced by eighteenth-century women? Is it really proper to offset the dark streak that runs through the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice--the incomplete satisfaction of our hopes, our expectations--with a happy ending that satisfies us on a plot level, but that ultimately obscures a darkness, a dissatisfaction present in Austen's reality itself?

This, beyond the simple charm of the prose, is perhaps the greatest proof the status of  Pride and Prejudice as a classic.

It can't be reduced to the charge of "romance novel," which has occasionally been levied against it. Austen's sense of truth feels obliged--or Austen's patriarchal world feels obliged--to shoot an happy ending quite subtly in the foot. Pride and Prejudice, in the imperfection of its conclusion, rises from the mechanics of a pleasant plot to the level of great art.