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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: Summary, Characters and Themes

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: Summary, Characters and Themes

Pride and Prejudice is the most famous work of Jane Austen and is definitely one of the most important novels in the world of literature. Austen’s writing talent was praised by Walter Scott, Virginia Woolf, Richard Arlington and many others. Her language is smart and beautiful, the rural England of the XVIII century that hosts the events of this novel is marvelously depicted, and the relationships of the characters develop like an intriguing and graceful dance. The love story of Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who managed to overcome their pride and prejudice, is the story with a happy ending so many people crave.


Table of Contents

Pride and Prejudice Setting: Cultural and Historical Background of the Story

The author doesn’t specifically divulge the time at which the novel takes place. Historically, it’s a known fact that Jane Austen had written the book between 1796-1797, but it was only published in 1813. The writer edited the novel before it was published, which means that the book reflects the customs and traditions of the 1790s up until the 1810s. The events begin in September and unfold during one calendar year.

For the readers, it’s important to keep in mind the cultural background of those times: this was the period when wealth was measured in estate, status was both a privilege and a duty to upkeep, and women enjoyed much less freedom than they do today. Female children were considered to be a burden, unless they could marry someone who could take care of them—and preferably their family as well. The vicious cycle was manifested in the fact that, unless a girl is born into a rich family, her chances of finding a rich husband were pretty much non-existent. Men often took advantage of their position and made most of women’s decisions for them.

Pride and Prejudice Book Characters

The story develops around the five Bennet daughters and their friends, who have several candidates for their husbands, but not all of them play an important role in the text.

Key Characters

Despite his wealth, Mr. Bingley is a quite simple man, who doesn’t like to brag about his status. He is described at the beginning of chapter 3 to be “good-looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners.” Bingley is an open-minded and positive man who enjoys talking to and meeting interesting people. He is sincere and follows his feelings. His friend is quite the opposite of him; Mr. Darcy carries a lot of pride and is convinced of his uniqueness and importance. He keeps to himself and likes to be around the chosen circles. The nature of the relationships of the two young men reflect their personalities. Jane Bennet and Bingley are both simple and trusting; they like each other from the start and are clear about their feelings. Jane is the eldest of her five sisters, and is probably the most trusting and naïve. She is beautiful and sweet.

Mrs. Bennet and Bennet sisters

Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship is different. They both have extraordinary personalities and chose to have a love/hate relationship. Elizabeth Bennet is a bright young woman; she is independent, smart, quick-witted and true to herself. She is stubborn and persisted:

“Though her manner varied, however, her determination never did” (Chapter 20).

Her elegance and tenderness show up, even when covered by her pride. Darcy’s prejudice repels her and turns sympathy into dislike. Their dialogues, initiated through mutual interest towards each other, quickly turn into a verbal duel between their two strong personalities. The couple will have to work out their differences to finally be together in the end.

But character is not the only thing that gets in the way of the couples reuniting. Mr. Collins takes advantage of the situation in which he will inherit the Bennet's home, and wants to marry Elizabeth to “save” her. William Collins is a “tall, heavy-looking young man of five-and-twenty. His air was grave and stately, and his manners were very formal” (end of Chapter 13). He is a shallow and uninteresting man, who knows how to please, but doesn’t know how to be pleasant. Despite his downsides, he gets to marry Elizabeth’s best friend, Charlotte Lucas. Charlotte was “a sensible, intelligent young woman, about twenty-seven” (Chapter 5), and being single at that age put a lot of pressure on her. Mrs. Bennet even used to say that “Lucases are a very good sort of girls... It is a pity they are not handsome!” (Chapter 9).


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Secondary Characters

The head of the family, Mr. Bennet, is considered to be a man of noble origins. He is solid, apathetic, tends to have a somewhat fatalistic perception of life, and is sarcastic towards himself and those around him. He is especially sarcastic towards his wife, Mrs. Bennet, who really can’t boast of either high intelligence, nor family orientation or looks. The mother of five daughters is silly, blatantly tactless, and overly self-centered.

Looking at older Mrs. Bennet, it’s no wonder Miss Caroline Bingley strongly protested her brother’s marriage with Jane; she only cared about her status and didn’t want to be associated with a family of such poor manners and origins. Another selfish personage in the story is lady Catherine de Bourgh. She is Darcy’s aunt and Mr. Collins’ boss— she “has very lately given him (Collins) a living” (Chapter 16). This woman doesn’t care about people’s feelings and only sees things at the surface value.

Aunt and Uncle Gardiner are relatives of the Bennet girls on the side of their father. They are successful and well-educated. Jane and Elizabeth find the support and advice they couldn’t find from their mother in Mrs. Gardiner. The sisters spend some time traveling around England with them — which allows the girls to reflect more on the relationships in their lives.

Mary Bennet is the middle sister of Jane and Elizabeth. She often likes to talk about morality, and lives mostly in her books. The younger Bennet sisters are given much less attention in the book and are portrayed as rather frivolous trouble-makers; Lydia Bennet and Kitty Bennet quickly fall for the uniform and arms of the officers, and Lydia even runs away with one of them — George Wickham. Mr. Wickham holds a grudge against Darcy and tells lies to shame her — when in fact he was the one who tried to make a move on Darcy’s shy underage sister, Georgiana Darcy. From Elizabeth’s example, Georgiana learns how to voice her mind and realizes that a woman can allow herself to talk to her husband in a way that no little sister can.

Full Summary of How the Love Story in Pride and Prejudice Unfolds

The story begins with Mr. Bingley moving into the most luxurious Netherfield Park mansion in the area — together with his sisters and their friend Darcy. Bingley is young, rich and single. It seems like a perfect solution for the Bennet family, who have five single daughters and are preoccupied with getting them married to secure the financial wellbeing of their family. One day, Jane Bennet is invited over for dinner, but she becomes ill once she arrives. Elizabeth comes to Netherfield to take care of her sister. That’s how the two couples – Jane and Mr. Bingley, and Elizabeth and Darcy – meet and develop an interest in each other. Later, Mr. Bingley and his sisters visit Bennet’s mansion to invite them to the ball they are hosting.

Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy

At the same time Mr. Collins (Mr. Bennet’s cousin, and sole successor to the family estate—as there are no male heirs to the Bennet family) comes to visit the family. He wrote a letter sometime before announcing his visit with the intention to choose one of the Bennet girls as his wife. He selfishly expects that all of them will want to marry him to get to keep their family mansion and is surprised when Elizabeth turns down his proposal at the ball. After that, determined to find himself a wife, William Collins proposes to Charlotte Lucas, who agrees, simply out of the social pressure, to get married.

The Bingley sisters realized that their brother might disgrace the whole family by marrying Jane, who is not of their class. They do everything they can to separate the couple, and eventually make him move away to London. After some time, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet also arrive in London. While visiting her friend Charlotte, Elizabeth meets Darcy again. They re-engage in sharp dialogues. Darcy confesses that he loves Elizabeth and proposes to her, but does it in such a snobbish manner that Elizabeth turns him down. However, his act did change the way she thinks about him, and the dislike she had for him changes into something more complex and deep.

The next day Darcy writes a long letter to Elizabeth in which he comes clean, sincerely explains why he interfered in the relationship between Jane and Mr. Bingley (which he sincerely regrets), and explains that the stories Mr. Wickham tells about him are lies. Elizabeth changes her attitude towards Darcy, but doesn’t initiate contact to tell him. The next time the lovebirds see each other is when Lizzy travels with her aunt and uncle to visit the Pemberley estate that belongs to Darcy. She hears people saying good things about him, and Darcy himself behaves quite gallantly around people. One day, Darcy sees Elizabeth in tears after she finds out that her younger sister Lydia had run away with officer Wickham. Luckily for all, uncle Gardiner was quickly able to find the lovers in London, and pretty easily managed to convince the young man to marry the girl he had seduced. Only later Elizabeth would realize that Wickham agreed to marry Lydia because Darcy had paid off all his debts.

The story finishes with a happy ending when Mr. Bingley, along with the sisters and Darcy, come to Netherfield Park again. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth for the second time and she agrees, and they move into the pompous Pemberley House. Mr. Bingley marries Jane and the two live happily ever after.

Elizabeth and Darcy

Pride and Prejudice Themes

Pride

Pride is the key theme that keeps the protagonists of the story from developing intimate connections. When Darcy proposes to Elizabeth for the first time, he is not shy to throw in a couple of comments to demonstrate his superiority, compared to Elizabeth’s family. The girl’s pride wasn’t able to handle it, despite the connection the two had. Anyhow, the story also demonstrates that it’s possible to overcome one’s pride. It took Elizabeth a while to start seeing the positive traits of Darcy’s character, but, eventually, she saw his true heart.

Prejudice

Prejudice is another obstacle in building loving relationships in the story. At that time, it was more important to marry someone within your status than to marry someone you love. That’s why Miss Bingley insists that her brother shouldn’t marry Jane, despite the fact that the two really like each other. That’s also why Darcy keeps demonstrating his superiority to the woman he loves. The right and honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the absolute depiction of the opposite of prejudice in her willingness to appreciate people for their hearts.

Family

The story centers upon the theme of family. First of all, the Bennet girls are in desperate need to make families of their own (at least so their mother thinks). Secondly, the characters are often connected by family relations, like Mr. Collin’s boss being the aunt of Mr. Darcy. At the same time, we see how much society undervalues the unity of family: British law at that time did not allow females to inherit property, thus, the wife and daughters of Mr. Bennet face homelessness—as only their father’s closest male relative can inherit their home.

Women

The role of women in society and family in this story deserves special attention. At that time it was difficult to be a woman, whether you were rich or poor. You could be from a noble family, but you weren’t protected from one day hearing that “my cousin, Mr. Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases.” (Chapter 13). Women also had little power over their future. It was more of an exception for Elisabeth’s father to support her decision not to marry Mr. Collins:

“From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.” (Chapter 20).

It didn’t matter that the mother wanted the marriage to happen. Only if the father insisted, would Elizabeth be obliged to spend the rest of her life with the man she neither respected nor liked.

Love and Marriage

While Pride and Prejudice is often called a love story, and there is a great deal of love in it, there was little love in marriages in the 18th century. For example, Charlotte marries Mr. Collins just because she is 27 years old and at that time it was considered to be too old to hope for any better options. Lydia has to marry the wicked Wickham to save her family’s reputation, despite the fact that Wickham only marries Lydia because Darcy paid off his debts (they consider Darcy to be a hero as he coerces the drunk, lying man to marry Elizabeth’s sister!). Marriage was a must, but it wasn’t a must to be happily married. As Charlotte rightfully mentioned: >“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life” (Chapter 6).

Class

Class was at the core of everything people did and said around the time this book was written. The two sisters, Darcy and Bingley, resisted the possibility of tying their names to the Bennet family, specifically due to class issues: Elizabeth and Jane had no rich estate or inheritance to offer their potential husbands. Families did everything they could to be around people of high status and origin, or at least not to destroy their existing reputation for the future. The fact that Lydia ran away with some officer could have put irreparable damage on Bennet’s family name. The troubled sister could have ruined the lives of all her unmarried siblings: such shame meant that Elizabeth would never have been able to marry Darcy, or any decent man, because their family name would have become tarnished.

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