Pride and Prejudice: What Makes it Still Relevant?

pride and prejudice

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

These lines by Jane Austen at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice have been immortalized by their continuing relevance through time. Every single human being I know (mostly women) swoons at the mention of Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, the epitome of a virile, silent, and mysterious man. This character has been romanticized in every romance novel and every movie adaptation of the novel. The protagonist meets his match in our female protagonist, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who does not fall for his act. In Elizabeth, we meet a young, self-confident woman who encompasses the emotional maturity of a teenager yet has enough self-respect and courage to challenge the conventional idea of survival through a husband.

While many believe what attracts readers to Jane Austen’s infamous work is romance, it actually is the character of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Miss Bennet is the envy and a source of admiration of every woman who reads this work (the author of the article is no exception to this rule). She embodies a higher self of the feminine that most women aspire to be. Austen imparts Elizabeth with skills that, during her times, were considered to be masculine, such as being a creature of reason, showcasing liberty of choice, openly conveying her opinions, being strong-willed, etc. Austen presents us a story where the principles that Elizabeth harbors and her faith in them make her truly valuable in Mr. Darcy’s sensibilities.

“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

When Mr. Darcy initially proposes to Elizabeth, we bear witness to the strength of her character and its principles. She declines not because she doesn’t respect or have feelings for him as in the case of Mr. Collins. It is her integrity and reasoning that restrict her because she disagrees with his interference in her sister’s happiness. Her convictions and loyalty to her sister make her reject the offer and with it, the chance to secure a comfortable future. It goes on to reinforce a break in the Regency Era stereotype wherein qualities of loyalty, courage, and stubbornness were qualities typically ascribed to the male protagonist.

The age-old axiom – Everything is not as it seems – rings true for each of Austen’s characters, especially Mr. Wickham. Most women characters in popular novels have often been portrayed as gold diggers. Often, people skip over the reason why women opted for husbands with fortune. Since the dawn of the colonial period, women of the nobility and the gentry were shunned from working and earning a livelihood. The abstract concept of respect and honor was hung around their neck like a placard, the scores of which increased with rank, title, and ‘innocence’. In such circumstances, the women of these classes often preferred husbands with a fortune to ensure their survival and social upkeeping. But, in Austen’s novel, we see a reversal of this common trope. Mr. Wickham, who comes across as a gentleman and ticks all the boxes of an ideal husband, is portrayed as an opportunist. He is often on the prowl for innocent women with a huge fortune, manipulating them with a story where he victimizes his existence.

The bold move by Jane Austen to create a strong female character isn’t the only attraction of the novel. It is also the amalgamation of the psychological workings of the characters. 

Most of the characters in Austen’s work are rounded characters. For beginners, a round character possesses multiple layers of personality. Consider Mr. Darcy for an example (although he is showcased as the broody and masculine type). It is towards the peak of the story that we come to learn about his vulnerabilities and reasons for shielding himself from the world. We then understand that a human who comes across as mysterious and brooding may have insecurities and past experiences that have molded them into becoming the persons they have become.

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of the conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

pride and prejudice

At the end of the novel, the conversation Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy engage in may seem to profess each other’s love but is full of confessions about their pride, vanity, and presumption. It is also a testament to their virtues of generosity, kindness, and compassion. In their confession of love, they accept each other’s flaws while working on evolving through their strength to upturn these flaws into virtues. This is also when Elizabeth truly realizes her mistake in judging Mr. Darcy for his arrogance and condescension and understands that these traits exist due to his shyness and introverted character. A part of Elizabeth’s realization from the novel has been quoted below:

“How despicably I have acted! I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candor of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. 

But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either was concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.

Now, let’s come to the main theme that eternalizes this magnificent work. It isn’t the tiff between the classes or a statement on the feudal system or feminism. It is the essence of spirituality in love, the acceptance of growth or flexibility. 

As a daughter of a preacher, it comes as no surprise that some form of spirituality and morality may slip through from the author’s subconscious into her body of work. We learn from Irene Collins in Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter (1998) that Austen was often encouraged to ‘make her witness in the world through her behavior to others rather than by preaching.’

Thus, we see her works often lined by intuitive and shrewd observations of human nature and the natural world around her. She contradicts the cliché works of the genre that highlight passion and focus only on carnal need as the true symbol of love. She shows us that in a true match, where the heart and head align with the soul. The true companion often challenges you and pushes you to become your own better version, or like Mr. Darcy puts it:

“Such I was… and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you? You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous.”

In the second half, we are introduced to a type of love that ensures it stays pure in entirety and essence, such as the need to make sure the partner’s distress is often alleviated by one without goading about one’s part in doing the same. When Lydia elopes with Wickham, Mr. Darcy rushes to help the Bennet family stealthily solely to ensure Elizabeth’s well-being and happiness. He doesn’t wish to take credit for his part in ensuring that Elizabeth’s sister’s future is safeguarded. It is only through Elizabeth’s aunt that we, the readers, are made aware of the generosity of our hero. Through Mr. Darcy, we see a positive portrayal of a man who can handle rejection. In his second proposal, we see the true gentleman he is. His words:

“You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.”

indulge every person in a surreal reality where one can accept a woman’s disinterest and move on. Lastly, it is not only the respect for one another but also the belief that both are equal in footing and neither one inferior due to sex or wealth that makes Pride and Prejudice more relevant today. We all feel proud when Elizabeth announces

“He is a gentleman, and I am a gentleman’s daughter. So far, we are equal.”

These astral ideas about man and woman, which form the crux of contemporary ideas around courtship, were ideated long before by Jane Austen in her work. Thus, we see many of her works, including the one in question, as evergreen.



 

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting perspective on the book – especially the spirituality part. I remember I have read this book in college and what a book it is! So many layers in story and characters.

    Also, this need to find the ‘one’ is eternal and will always make this book relevant.