Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an iconic novel. Throughout the years, multiple editions have been published, it has been adapted, and several writers have attempted at sequels such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Death at Pemberley. It is, therefore, very evident that Pride and Prejudice has had a mass cultural impact that continues to the present day.
At its very essence, Pride and Prejudice is often interpreted to be a romance between the witty Elizabeth Bennet and the well-meaning but disastrously socially inept Fitzwilliam Darcy. Theirs is certainly an eventful romance. To say that their acquaintance had a rocky beginning would be an understatement. The initial slight made by Darcy towards Elizabeth forms a foundation of dislike for Elizabeth and of grudging infatuation for Darcy. Add to it misunderstandings, the intriguing Mr Wickham, an unhealthy involvement of others in the blossoming relationship between Jane and Mr Bingley, and you have the foundation for a wonderful romance that has charmed readers for over two hundred years.
Despite the multiple ups and downs throughout the novel, it ends in a fairy-tale ending with an implied ‘happily ever after’. This begs the question, ‘is Pride and Prejudice a nineteenth-century fairy-tale?’
To begin answering this question, let’s put Pride and Prejudice in its historical context. Written and published in the early nineteenth century, the novel hides within it the grim realities of the lives of women that Austen was well aware of.
Thanks to the deeply ingrained patriarchal ideals which formed the pillars of the society, women had little to no economic options. For a middle-class woman with meagre inheritance, a fate of destitution and poverty in the absence of the support of a male relative was a very real possibility. The only real economic professions open to these women were of writing and teaching, but neither ensured respect or a steady income. Thus, the only viable solution that could rescue such middle-class women from their vulnerable and precarious social situation was marriage.
Such is the situation of the Bennet sisters when the novel opens. They are unmarried, have no brother, live on an estate that is bound to be entailed to a distant cousin (Mr Collins) after the death of their father, and have an inheritance that is insufficient for a respectable survival. It is then accurate to say that the Bennet sisters were in an extremely economically and socially vulnerable situation with their father’s life being the only thing saving them from destitution, poverty, and a life of uncertainty. With this in mind, Mrs Bennet’s obsession with seeing her daughters married ceases to be comical and becomes practical. Similarly, while the reader may cringe at Mr Collins’ proposal to Lizzy, and with good reason, the fact remains that the economic realities of the Bennet sisters are such that that offer is actually valuable.
Keeping this in mind, Lizzy emerges as a spectacular heroine, who doesn’t compromise despite her vulnerable situation. She is headstrong and independent, and that is precisely what endears her to us. The fact that she rejects two marriage proposals (by Mr Collins and the first proposal by Darcy) makes her stand out and reinforces that she isn’t someone who would be intimidated and influenced by rank and money.
Following the rejection of Darcy by Elizabeth, he writes a letter to address the accusations that Lizzy had made (except, notably, his ‘selfish disdain for others’). This letter becomes the first step towards the redemption of Darcy and simultaneously propels Elizabeth to a downward spiral of guilt and self-doubt. The next time they meet is at Pemberley, which becomes an extension of Darcy. Here, we meet a reformed Darcy, who is no longer as proud and no longer views others as lesser mortals. This leads to a new phase in the relationship between Lizzy and Darcy wherein both seemed to have overcome their previous flaws and look at each other with respect and admiration. Of course, this is the time when Lydia elopes with Wickham and Darcy becomes the knight in shining armour by not only finding the couple but by ensuring that the two get married. Despite Darcy’s wish of keeping his contribution to the patched-up marriage anonymous, a fulfilling romance required his role to be discovered by Elizabeth, so that is exactly what happens. Darcy then also encourages Bingley to pursue Jane again and becomes the perfect reformed hero.
The novel ends with the marriage of the two elder Bennet sisters and a description of their life after that. In a novel where dysfunctional marriages, like that of Mr and Mrs Bennet, and barely functional marriages, like that of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins, exist, the Jane-Bingley and Elizabeth-Darcy marriages become equivalent to a fairy-tale. The two Bennet sisters, unlike other women in the text and indeed the nineteenth century, do not have to choose between love and money for they find husbands who provide a neat package of both, and that is what makes Pride and Prejudice a nineteenth-century fairy-tale.
2 thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice: A Nineteenth-Century Fairy-tale”
It’s been over a decade since I read Pride and Prejudice; it was my first venture into literary classics. Your great review reminded me of how I felt when read it.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’m glad that you liked it! Pride and Prejudice was my first classic too and I’ve read it a few more times since then. It’s a really wonderful text and I always find something added to my interpretation of it each time I read it.