Background of The Novel Pride and Prejudice

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      Pride and Prejudice is the greatest work of Jane Austen. It illustrates her greatness as well as her limitations. It expresses her delight in life and love for comedy. The novel takes readers to an abstract idea — the idea of pride in one character and that of prejudice in another. So the novel is primarily concerned with ideas. The characters of Pride and Prejudice show different kinds of humour, various traits of human behaviour. Mr. Bennet is a cynic; Lydia a flirt, Mary a pedant; Darcy a proud character; Collins a potential conceit; Sir William Lucas a feeble dullard; and so on.

      Pride and Prejudice is the love story of a man and a woman and the man being held back by unconquerable pride and the woman blinded by — prejudice. Moreover, Pride and Prejudice is a satire upon life in a small village called Longbourn in Southern England.

      So, the novel is important in more than one way. It is important both historically and critically. Historically, it introduced a new kind of fiction. Eighteenth century was an age of picturesque romances with splendid places, high towers, underground passages. It was an age of the stories of terror, horror and mystery. As opposed to such romances, sentimental novels full of tears and sorrow, were written. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice struck a middle path between the two. This novel was written after Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey. There is, therefore a symmetry, a well-knit form and an unified structure.

      Pride and Prejudice is the first novel in which the process of the shift of emphasis from persons and things to study of human character, has been complete. The beginning was made in Sense and Sensibility, but it was in Pride and Prejudice that the process was cumulated. This is why F.R. Leavis in his book The Great Tradition has assigned a remarkable place to Pride and Prejudice. The novel has been said to have inaugurated the tradition of fiction in England. It may be said to be the first English novel in the real sense of the term. Jane Austen follows none of the traditions of her predecessors. She rightly started her own tradition of fiction which was followed by other succeeding novelists of England.

      In the very first chapter of the novel there is a note of orchestration. Diverse elements have been subordinated to a well-defined pattern. The chapter opens with the statement, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” — and then follows the talk between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The sole concern of Mrs. Bennet in her life is to get her daughters married. The entire novel is based on the domestic theme. A reader trying to approach Pride and Prejudice for action, quick movement, drama or crisis, would be disappointed. The characters seem to take the philosopher’s walk. “Action trivial; movement limited” — this is all we find in Pride and Prejudice. Hence the characters look devitalised and anaemic, at times devoid of flesh and blood. There is no firework or dynamics in the story.

      Jane Austen is a spectator of characters. She puts men and women in a certain environment and continues to study them in detail. She gives alternative readings of her characters, compares them and ultimately finds out the correct method of approach to human personality. This method has been followed in Pride and Prejudice. There is plenty of contemporary element in the novel. Description of dances, balls and parties is scattered throughout the story. But Jane Austen is not primarily concerned with contemporary England. The key-point in the book is the study of human behaviour. Jane Austen is almost like Shakespeare in this respect.

      In Pride and Prejudice Austen follows the method of selection and transmutation. There is evident exclusion of death, coincidence or destiny. None of the characters dies in the course of the story. Elizabeth, Lydia, Jane, Mary and Catherine — all the Bennet sisters are preoccupied with their own personal, domestic problems. None of them is touched by physical agony or ailment. Similar is the case with Darcy, Bingley, Collins or Sir William Lucas. Besides, there is complete absence of mob, or menace of organised society. It is a placid atmosphere of quiet country houses and drawing rooms that we find in the novel from the beginning to the end. Longbourn, Hunsford or Pemberley has no hurry or busy excitement about it. It is the dialogue of the characters, the subtle reflexes of moods and feelings, that makes the story full of psychological importance.

      Although Pride and Prejudice begins with a direct reference to the entail of Longbourn and the fortunes of Bingley amounting to four-five thousand a year, money or wealth occupies only a place of secondary importance in the novel. It has no significance as a real powerful motive of action. Austen, brought up in the modest comforts of middle class gentry, had little knowledge of poorer classes. This is why she shows in her novels an aversion to poverty. She hates poverty to an extent that she cannot endure poor characters. But at the same time her characters are not of exalted levels of aristocracy. She deliberately selects her characters and makes them her butts of ridicule. In Pride and Prejudice all her characters are exemplers of certain idiosyncrasies of behaviour. Mr. Bennet embodies cynicism, while Mrs. Bennet “was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper”. Darcy embodies pride, while Collins, conceit. Similarly, all other characters possess those aspects of snobbery which belong to upper classes of society. Thus, the novel has an aura of social satire. Most of the male characters of Pride and Prejudice are male egoists and Jane Austen appears as a satirist of male egoists. Her wit is playing all the time round the egoism of social caste. She admires and derides her characters at the same time.

      In Pride and Prejudice as well as in other novels of Jane Austen family is the symbol of a larger world. Symbol is a technique of literary art in which the artist has recourse to indirect statement. Instead of the object meant to be expressed, we get that thing with which the object is associated. For instance, ‘lion’ stands for courage, ‘cross’ for Jesus Christ, ‘white’, for purity. In Pride and Prejudice family assumes the importance of a symbol. The family of Bennets consisting of the father, the mother and five daughters, is the picture of a larger world. Jane Austen does not shirk life. She faces life and the problems of human existence. The choice of family in Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice is deliberate. Jane Austen intends to give the picture of life in miniature. In Pride and Prejudice the Bennets, Darcys, Lucases and a few others are the only families with which Austen is concerned. When an artist represents a large object on a smaller canvas, it is said to be miniature painting. The technique followed by Gothic Romances and Waverly novels was different. They presented the entire world at a time.

      There is an element of the mock-heroic in Pride and Prejudice. After all marriage is a minor affair of life. Why should a novelist give so much importance to it? But in Pride and Prejudice in-spite of the mock importance, there is an impression of realism. If marriage is not the most important of the problems, it is undoubtedly a vital problem of life. We get reminiscences of Jane Austen’s burlesques in Pride and Prejudice. A novel is read for its plot, character, denouement and atmosphere. If one reads Pride and Prejudice for great problems of life or for great crisis, one would be disappointed. It has an interesting story to narrate. The story is how Mr. and Mrs. Bennet who have five daughters, namely Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Catherine and Lydia, and how Elizabeth, Jane and Lydia are happily united with Darcy, Bingley and Wickham respectively. The novel gives the story of an upper middle class family of 18th century. The family of the Bennets comes in contact with other families of prestige and standing like the families of Sir William Lucas, Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The novel also gives a number of interesting characters. Apart from the male characters who represent certain particular idiosyncrasies, the female characters of Pride and Prejudice are also memorable. Jane Austen was the first novelist before Meredith to portray charming women with a free personality. Elizabeth is a headstrong girl full of prejudice; Jane a sensitive, pretty romantic heroine; Mary a pedant, reading books all the time; Lydia a flirt; and Catherine a feeble dependant girl without any charm or initiative. Jane Austen creates in her novel two most charming characters, namely Elizabeth and Jane.

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