"Like all true literary classics, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is still capable of engaging us, both emotionally and intellectually" (Twayne back flap) through its characters and themes. This paper illustrates how Jane Austen uses the characterization of the major characters and irony to portray the theme of societal frailties and vices because of a flawed humanity. Austen writes about the appearance vs. the reality of the characters, the disinclination to believe other characters, the desire to judge others, and the tendency to take people on first impressions.
The main female protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, like many in society, appears perfect, but is in fact flawed. Austen uses this to show that nobody in society is perfect and will never reach perfection. Elizabeth's major flaw is her ability to make "fundamental sorts of errors about her fellow human beings" (Moler 23). Charlotte Lucas, although her best friend, is even a stranger, because Elizabeth shows no signs of knowing her feelings for Mr. Collins. She did not and could not accept the fact that her best friend is to marry Mr. Collins after the announcement of the engagement. The society during Austen's time, from 1775-1817, put a lot of pressure on women to find a decent husband and the ultimate goal was to marry (Weldon 37). Though she never married, Austen felt the stress bestowed upon her by her fellow companions. "Women were born poor, and stayed poor, and lived well only by their husbands' favour" (Weldon 37). Elizabeth is obviously mistaken about Charlotte and her need to marry, and does not know her or take the time to know her, as a best friend is obligated to do. Elizabeth is at fault for not understanding and for seeing her best friend through a blindfold. This portrays a problem of communication that people in society face everyday. In this particular novel it almost cost a lifetime friend. Society is made up of the individuals in it, and since no individual is perfect for instance Elizabeth, society is flawed.
Also, Elizabeth's perception of Mr. Wickham is incorrect (Molar 25). She thinks he is, and he does appear to be, a perfect gentleman on the outside because of the way he portrays himself, but really, he is one of the most flawed characters in the novel. Elizabeth is "completely taken in by the almost transparent duplicity" (Moler 25) of Mr. Wickham, especially when he speaks. "A thorough, determined dislike of me, a dislike which I cannot but attribute in some measure to jealousy. Had the late Mr. Darcy liked me less, his son might have borne with me better; but his fatherŐs uncommon attachment to me, irritated him I believe very early in life. He had not a temper to bear the sort of competition in which we stood, the son of preference which was often given me" (Austen 72), Mr. Wickham speaks with eloquence and Elizabeth takes it for face value, and believes everything he says. If what he says is true, problems do not arise, but what he says is false and is in fact hurtful to another man, Mr. Darcy. Austen shows it is important to see all sides of the story before making a judgement, otherwise it is called being prejudice. She also portrays the fact that there is probably a lot more to people than what they show to the world. This illustrates the clich*, "do not judge a book by its cover."
Most important is Elizabeth's misjudgment of Mr. Darcy's character (Molar 26). She believes he is an ill-willed man that cannot be trusted. Her opinion is clearly stated when she says, "Mr. Darcy is condemned as the worst of men" (Austen 119). Elizabeth is so caught up in all of Mr. Wickham's opinions of Mr. Darcy that she does not formulate her own. This is another communication problem because she does not go to Mr. Darcy to see what he is really like, but hears it from someone else. On one occasion Elizabeth refuses his hand for a dance, and replies with a snide remark that the only reason he asks is because "Mr. Darcy is all politeness" (Austen 28). If she gives him a chance, maybe she will like him, but she does not because she believes he is evil. Ironically she later finds out from Mr. Darcy HIMSELF who he really is, and she falls madly in love with him, and then would give anything to marry him.
On another occasion, Elizabeth is playing the pianoforte at Lady Catherine de Bourgh's house (Austen 146). "Mr. Darcy rather conspicuously leaves Lady Catherine's side to come and listen to Elizabeth" (Molar 27). "Elizabeth assumes that he comes in an attitude of supercilious criticism and attacks him accordingly" (Molar 27). "You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? But I will not be alarmed. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me" (Austen 147). Mr. Darcy's real reason for going to listen to her is because he had a genuine desire to listen and to see her. If Elizabeth sees the characters as how they really are and what they really want, she will not have offended him or anyone else, for instance, Charlotte. Not only Elizabeth, but the rest of society has the problem of looking at things and other people with a mask that covers their eyes. Jane Austen does a fine job showing this, and she also shows the consequences of what happens. She shows how people can be hurt when the mask is still on, but once removed, a light bulb goes on and things become much clearer. Society needs to keep this light on all the time, but it is individual people who turn it off thus blinding others as well.
"The pattern of Jane Austen's life was set by her dedication to writing" (British 107). This in turn may help the reader to understand her "obsessive need to privacy, her choice of spinsterdom, and her role in the family as a dutiful daughter, and affectionate sister, and a favorite aunt to hordes of nephews and nieces" (British 107). This is why she portrays the characters of her novels as well as she did. Elizabeth Bennet was all of these in her lifetime except the aunt, which was sure to come. The circumstances of her life also help the reader to understand certain qualities in her writing: "its highly personal tone especially; its allusiveness; its dramatic aspect, in the prominence of dialogue and in the scenelike staging of the characters and action; and its concentration of personal and family relationships" (British 107).
As the title of the novel implies, a lot of pride is expressed and exerted into the story, either "too much or too little pride, pride of a bad or silly sort, pride of a good sort, sham pride, or genuine pride" (Ryle 63). Mr. Darcy is blamed for showing negative or false pride and "fashionable indifference" (British Critic 30) throughout the book, but Elizabeth is the one who fits the description better. Concerning the event of Lydia going with Mrs. Forster to Brighton for the sole purpose of the officers, Elizabeth says, "Our importance, our respectability in the world, must be affected by the wild volatility" (Austen 191). She is afraid of Lydia wounding the family's pride or reputation, but does not care at all for her sister, Lydia's, happiness. Too much pride is one of society's major flaws because along with pride follows prejudice. If someone has too much pride, they stand on a pedestal, a pedestal to which they do not belong. They then believe they are better than the rest of the world and when people think in that fashion, other innocent people become the antagonists in life because the proud have prejudged them or even prejudged themselves. Although pride is not always meant to be evil, prejudice is.
The second half of the title, Prejudice, is also an issue in the story where light shines. Prejudice is also a major societal flaw. It is not the same kind of prejudice that people feel towards a different race; it is the kind of prejudice felt towards another person because of his or her actions or status in society. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, "had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds. Were in the habit of spending more than they ought and of associating with people of rank; and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves and meanly of others" (Molar 22). Nothing gives them the right to believe they are better than everybody else is, especially when they are not. Others during Austen's time would have shown prejudice if one was not married, for "marriage is a great prize. No wonder Jane Austen's heroines were so absorbed by the matter" (Weldon 37), thus turning the world into a place absorbed with materialism desperate and prejudiced. Prejudices can be avoided if people spent the time to know each other and not let his or her differences get in the way. This is what Austen wants to say to the world, and she uses Elizabeth to say it. Before Elizabeth even talks to Mr. Darcy, she thinks she knows what and who he is, proud and evil. After talking to him, she is on the other spectrum and says, "I love him, indeed he has no improper pride" (Moler 28). "She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham would she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd" (Austen 173). She deserved to feel this way; it was her fault for wearing the blindfold society had put on her. She could have taken it off, but it was just easier to listen to Mr. Wickham and wear it. Sure, society should not have put it on in the first place, but society is people, and nobody can control the actions of many people. That is why one important person such as Elizabeth, who realizes the mistake, can lead others to the solution, too.
Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale wrote about misogyny in a dystopia that could not exist, and Jane Austen lived in a time where it did. Prejudice against women was not an uncommon thing. Women were not equal, and she showed it in the novel. The sole purpose of the women was to acquire a husband. This put women down and was demeaning to them, but this is how it was. Life was not good without a husband, because there would be no land or money to inherit. Once married, life was not perfect either (Weldon 38). Any property that was acquired belonged to the husband. The children were his, instead of the mothers, and if the choice at childbirth was the child or the mother, the mother goes (Weldon 38). The main role of women after marriage was to bear children. In The Handmaid's Tale, there is a striking resemblance because the handmaid's entire job is to bear children. They were essentially "reduced to slavery status of being mere breeders" (Malak 1). Women and children were allowed beatings by the man of the household if he thought it was needed. The husband can divorce a wife for adultery, but a wife could not do the same (Weldon 38). The excuse was that the women did not do her duty as a wife and the man was not happy. Sex was what the man wanted and what the woman gave. "For him she is sex, absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not with the reference to her; she is the incidental, as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute, she is the Other (Beauvoir 1)" (Malak 2). This was considered the better choice of life, more preferred than spinsterhood. Jane Austen saw all these tragedies and in turn chose spinsterhood. She portrayed all five daughters of Pride and Prejudice to be very ignorant and selfish to search and hunt for a husband and later marry. She understood the prejudices against women, and tried to defy them.
Jane Austen uses irony in Pride and Prejudice to depict what is said by saying the opposite or the contradiction (Perrine 222). She writes one thing, but really wants the readers to think and interpret another. "The contrast between what it seems to be saying with almost philosophic gravity, and the truth of the situation to which it refers, creates an irony that has been captivating to readers down the generations" (Moler 22). Atwood writes also with irony through the novel's dystopian essence, but does not include "too many frightening images that may compare with Oceana's torture chambers; the few graphic horror scenes are crisply and snappily presented, sparing us a blood-curdling impact" (Malak 2). Letters written by Austen in her early twenties said virtually nothing about relationships with other men, but the few comments she did write were ironic and evasive. Her real life carried on into her novels. One of the most renowned first sentences of novels begins this book, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" (Austen 9). Consider the course of the rest of the story, and the truth of the matter is that it is poor, single, desperate women who are in want of "a single man in possession of a good fortune" (Austen 9). She uses this device to show how ignorant society is for believing otherwise. She uses this to also show how people can be wrong when at first they appear right. Similarly, irony is shown during a party. After Darcy asks Elizabeth to dance, Elizabeth's "attack on Darcy and her archness have an irony beyond the irony intended by the speaker" (Brower 57). Elizabeth interprets his request as "premeditated contempt" (Brower 57) but it really could be "pure gallantry" (Brower 57) and of a "friendlier nature" (Brower 57) as Elizabeth later puts it. Elizabeth was in fact wrong to begin with, but the reader believed otherwise. Later when irony is brought in, the reader is proved wrong. There are many different ways to interpret one sound or phrase by the tone it is expressed in. Irony is mainly used to prove something by stating just the opposite. This way the reader sees that the obvious and what is stated is many times wrong, and in reality much deeper and more complex.
Throughout the novel, Austen uses characterization, tone, and irony to show us that society is not perfect because of flawed human nature. If humans can relieve themselves of too much pride and prejudice, the world would be one step closer to perfect. The world needs to get rid of the disinclination to believe, the desire to judge, and the tendency to take people on first impressions. Maybe one day, but most likely not, we can all stand on that pedestal and think about how much it took to get there, and how a small piece of literature named Pride and Prejudice contributed.
Works Cited and Consulted