Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

Cover image

Publisher: Penguin
Copyright: 1813
Printing: 1983
ISBN: 0-14-010649-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 221

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I read this book as part of The Complete Novels of Jane Austen omnibus. The sidebar information is for that edition.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

This sentence, with its oddly-placed commas, its subtle satire of the manners and expectations of the lower aristocracy that's Austen's constant subject, and its sly narrative position that invites the reader to laugh along with the knowing narrator at the silliness of society, is one of the most famous sentences in literature. It is, of course, the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, which is the best-known novel in the storied career of one of the most popular novelists in English literature.

When reviewing a book this famous, one has to expect that most readers have already read it. Even I, with my hit-and-miss literary background, had previously read Pride and Prejudice despite missing all other Austen novels. It's the sort of book that people often have stories about. In my case, it was the only thing I read in a full year of freshman literature survey at Stanford that I liked well enough to want to go back and read it outside of class. My re-reading interest was further sparked by watching the recent movie adaptation starring Keira Knightley.

The story is, of course, about the Bennet daughters and their attempts (and their mother's attempts on their behalf) to find husbands. The man of the opening sentence, Mr. Bingley, is the initial "target," but in typical Austen fashion neither he nor the elder Bennet daughter Jane are part of the starring love affair of the book. The far more interesting character is Bingley's haughty friend, Mr. Darcy. Darcy begins the story openly contemptuous of the country society in which he finds himself and immediately draws the ire of the protagonist, Jane's younger sister Elizabeth.

Like Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, Elizabeth is the sensible character at the heart of the story, constantly beset by the idiocies of her family and friends. Unlike Elinor, she's sharp-tongued and occasionally combative, and her banter and conversational interplay with Darcy and others is a highlight of the book. She also has more depths of emotion than Elinor, without losing her sensible and honorable approach to the world. She's obviously the character that the reader is meant to identify with and admire.

What surprised me, both compared to my memory of the book and compared to the movie, was just how annoying the rest of the Bennet family is. Elizabeth's mother is, of course, a total loss in all accounts, and her younger sisters are flightly and unreliable. But, in the book, Jane is forgiving and kind-hearted to the point of being dim-witted and helpless, which robs the story of a sisterly dynamic that I would have enjoyed. Elizabeth still dotes on her, but I would have preferred that affection be more deserved. And Austen is much harsher on Elizabeth's father than the recent movie was, probably because social expectations about the role of a father in preventing his daughters from making serious mistakes have changed drastically since Austen's day. It's rather hard to like anyone except Elizabeth for much of the book, and Elizabeth and Darcy are the only major characters who warranted much respect by the end of the book. I'm now curious to rewatch the movie and see if my kinder impression of the supporting cast withstands a second viewing.

As one might expect from its classic status, this is an excellent book despite its sometimes-unlikeable supporting cast, and the complex dynamic between Elizabeth and Darcy makes it a better book than Sense and Sensibility. It has some wonderful scenes that stand out in memory: Collins's proposal and Elizabeth's father's reaction, Darcy's first stormy revelation of feelings, the meeting at Pemberley. But it wasn't quite as different, or quite as good, as I remembered it. As in Sense and Sensibility, I'm still missing supporting cast I can really respect. At least this time I felt like the heroine got a partner worthy of her.

If you haven't read this book, I of course recommend it. It's a deserved classic with significant influence on subsequent literature, and it's simply great writing. Even if my memory made it stronger than I found it on re-reading, it's a wonderfully twisty emotional story with a truly satisfying payoff, even for a reader like myself who's often not a fan of straight romance novels.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-09-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21