I thought that by now I’d have a clear idea of which story I’d choose to highlight as the Story of the Month for January. I actually thought that I’d have the next few months completely lined up, pulling from a broad range of novels and short stories, fiction and nonfiction. The book that I tentatively had planned for next month seemed to be the perfect fit for February, considering that it is all about love. But, for that reason alone, I recently decided to push it up to January in order to bring a little bit of romance into our lives during the coldest, loneliest time of year: mid-winter and post-New Years. So, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for January 2009: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Let me start off by saying that this is not just a book for female audiences. I have spoken with many men who cherish Pride and Prejudice above some of their favorite “manly” books. That being said, I will not deny that the story is almost idyllic (although the language is often anything but simple) and reminiscent of a fairy tale in its depiction of true love. Some of my male peers find these to be the flaws of Pride and Prejudice and do not wish to read “chick lit.” However, great literature transcends genre and tells memorable stories about interesting characters. Pride and Prejudice succeeds on all three counts, and anyone who’s read it would probably agree.
Arguably Jane Austen’s most beloved work, Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet, the second oldest of five daughters living with her parents in the countryside of England in the early 1800s. Although respectable (aside from the chronic silliness of Elizabeth’s mother and three younger sisters: Mary, Kitty, and Lydia) and well-liked among their neighbors, the Bennets barely have any money to serve as proper dowries for their daughters. As a result, Mrs. Bennet’s sole desire in life is to marry all five of her daughters off to rich men, a task that she takes most seriously and pursues with impressive, though detestable, fervor. So when the nearby estate is “let” to the wealthy Mr. Bingley, who brings with him his two snobby sisters and even richer friend Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Bennet is sure that Bingley will choose a wife from among her daughters, since such a rich and single man surely must want to marry. Jane Austen says it best in the opening line of the novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Though Austen never states it, it’s clear that Mrs. Bennet intends Bingley for her eldest and most beautiful daughter, the ever-sweet and angelic Jane.
But the story does not belong to Jane and her perfect match, Mr. Bingley. Rather, it belongs to Jane’s best friend and sister, Elizabeth, and her perfect match, Mr. Darcy, though neither of them realize how perfect they are for one another, at least not at first. From the moment they first meet, they find each other to be proud and stubborn, prejudiced and arrogant. Darcy snubs Elizabeth at a ball, telling Bingley that she is not beautiful enough to tempt him into dancing with her or spending any time with her at all, and Elizabeth constantly refuses to indulge him and his sullen and self-righteous nature. They seem to push each others’ buttons every time they meet in just the right sequence so that they are entirely annoyed with each other, yet left simultaneously with an overwhelming sense of admiration for the other. They really do drive each other crazy…and whether that means having love or hate for the other eludes them.
It’s fascinating to watch Elizabeth meet Darcy’s wit and intelligence every time they are together. Unlike many of Elizabeth’s female peers, she is not content to be quiet, to sit idly by and let life happen around her and to her without her input. She doesn’t feel fulfilled by such female accomplishments as reading or playing the pianoforte, or even from the idea of securing a marriage proposal from any man. She prefers to use her intelligence to carve a place for herself in the world, including in her own smallish world in the countryside of England. This is a trait that, until meeting Elizabeth, Darcy had never witnessed in a woman, and he discovers that he admires it–and Elizabeth–greatly. This book is their journey to realizing that they are equals, in every way imaginable.
More than just a story about two fictional 19th Century characters who learn to first-hate-then-love each other, Pride and Prejudice is a story about marriage. Austen portrays every possible marriage scenario for us: a marriage of convenience (the Bennets’ cousin Mr. Collins and Elizabeth’s best friend Charlotte Lucas), a marriage of lust (Mr. Wickham and Lydia; Mr. and Mrs. Bennet), a marriage of love (Mr. Bingley and Jane), and a marriage of equals (Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth). She shows us the benefits of each, as well as the drawbacks. And before this book, I thought that a marriage of love, like that between Bingley and Jane, was the highest to strive for. But after reading this book, I see that only a marriage where both the husband and wife are seen as equal partners, as Darcy and Elizabeth are, can be called an ideal marriage. Their love is perfect and equal, though it took them a long time and a lot of heartache to get there. Nevertheless, their love is ideal. And regardless of how realistic or unrealistic that is, it is something that all readers of Pride and Prejudice hope to achieve themselves.
And it is at this time of year, when it is dark and lonely and depressing (especially for us singletons out there), that a story of such triumphant love could do us some good. Austen’s books are brilliant works of literature, from her language to her characters to her complex weaving of plot, and Pride and Prejudice is by no means exempt. It is one of the most feel-good and fulfilling books that I’ve ever read, and I’m sure that you’d agree.
For additional information on the characters of Pride and Prejudice, please see the character map I have created for this book. Under the “Topics” menu on the right-hand portion of my blog, click “Character Maps” for the link to my map, or simply click the same link here.