#IMWAYR (5/25/2020) Classic Critique: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Update (4/2/2022): I typically participate in blogging groups that review kids’ books, but sometimes, I do end up reading adult books like this one. In the past, I have typically labeled those books as MG or YA when I review them, primarily because I still want my typically blogging audiences to see them! However, this has become confusing, so I have decided to re-label these books as adult books, while leaving the reviews in their original format. Thank you for your consideration!
|Cover of the B&N Classics edition
I suspect a great majority of you have already read Pride and Prejudice, but, if you haven't, it is the story of the Bennet family, a wealthy (but not aristocratic) family in 19th-century England of two parents and their five daughters, of whom the second-oldest, Elizabeth, is the protagonist of the book. Elizabeth is smart, a touch snarky, and unwilling to settle for less than what she wants, which is a problem for her, because she'll be inheriting almost no money from her parents (most of their money will go to the next male relative, a distant cousin), and there are basically no job opportunities for her that would not destroy her social standing (which she would not want—she is still from an upper-class family, after all). Elizabeth's only remaining option (as well as the only remaining option for her four sisters) is to marry for money. When Elizabeth's older sister Jane falls in love with the wealthy-but-kind Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth is happy for her, except that the resulting social engagements mean she has to spend more time with Bingley's wealthy (basically every character is wealthy), arrogant friend Mr. Darcy, who is quite rude to Elizabeth and whom Elizabeth quickly grows to hate. But then things start to happen (that is how books work, after all), and Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy begin to realize that their own pride and prejudice might have gotten in the way of them seeing each other clearly.
- This book is very funny. There are many things I can say about most classic books: they are important, deep, deeply boring, etc. I cannot usually say that they are funny, but Pride and Prejudice is a rare exception to that trend. Many characters are crafted to serve as comic relief (while simultaneously serving as mild social commentary, as with Mr. Collins or Mr. and Mrs. Bennet), and the narration of the story is also quite humorous. I feel compelled to share a few examples (this is probably the only book I'll get to quote from with no fear of copyright infringement): first off, on page 1, when the frivolous Mrs. Bennet asks her husband if he wants to know who has decided to rent a nearby estate, he responds, "'You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it,'" after which the narrator says, "This was invitation enough." Much later in the book, after Elizabeth's family basically makes fools of themselves at a party, the narrator says, "To Elizabeth it appeared that, had her family made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could during the evening, it would have been impossible for them to play their parts with more spirit or finer success...." The humor in this book ensures that it is not nearly as dry as many other classics are.
- Elizabeth is a compelling protagonist. Characters that fly in the face of social norms are always the best type of characters, and from the moment that Elizabeth walks miles through the mud to see her ill sister (unconcerned with her now-dirty outfit), I realized that Elizabeth was definitely one of these people. I also appreciate that Elizabeth is unafraid to think deeply and to examine her own character flaws—she definitely develops as a character throughout the book. Not every character in this book is wonderful or even relevant (I'm looking at you, Mary), but with Elizabeth at the helm, this book sails to greatness.
- The book is meticulously plotted out. When Elizabeth realizes how her own prejudice has gotten in the way of her views of Mr. Darcy, she thinks back about all of the events she missed or misinterpreted. And although I don't want to spoil too much, it is truly incredible how Jane Austen managed both to convince me, as the events were happening, to interpret them the way Elizabeth did and to then reveal to me all of the details that had been in the story that I had missed. Austen makes readers think exactly what she wants them to think, exactly when she wants them to think it. The characters in the novel grow and develop at a reasonable pace, and I also appreciated the way in which many characters and couples act as warnings to Elizabeth about what she does not want in life—everything is in this book for a reason.
- The major plot development in the middle falls flat on its face, at least in modern times. There's a major event in which a certain character runs off to an unknown location to live with a man without marrying him, and I have to say that this event goes on for way too long and is way too uninteresting. The event mainly happens so that a different character has a chance to be in the spotlight, which is fine, but if that's the only point, then why do we have to spend pages and pages and pages watching normally-composed characters become hysterical and hearing completely irrelevant details? (I don't care where the search party has looked for the character and where else they have left to look, so why tell me?) I realize that this would have been a more shocking event when the book was written, but I still can't help but think that it would get boring even for readers of the time.
- The ending is a touch dissatisfying. I can't say too much here, except that, although Austen makes a convincing case for why the book ends the way it does, I can't help but think, at least just a little, that certain characters deserve better. The end is hardly surprising, though, so you definitely know what you're in for before it happens.
When I was reading this book for school, my teacher discussed how, although it may seem like a frivolous romance novel, it is actually important as a depiction of the struggles that (wealthy, white) women went through in the 19th century. I do agree with this statement, as Austen excellently depicts the ways in which marriage is the only option for living well while maintaining social standing in the community. However, I don't think that this book depicting these struggles so accurately constitutes grounds for it being held up as some kind of beacon of progress that is still important today. Feel free to argue in the comments, but I don't think the lessons in this book are that applicable today—we are not 19th-century women, after all, and I do believe that there are far more routes today to a comfortable life for women than just marrying. The thing about progressive books is that they serve a purpose: to educate readers about problems that need solving and (sometimes) to suggest potential solutions. Pride and Prejudice no longer serves that purpose, as the problem it discusses has largely been fixed. This book is still being taught in many high schools today, and it brings to mind the bigger problem with teaching classic books: every classic book that gets taught, with its lessons that are interesting but are not useful today, results in a modern book (like this one) that could actually teach kids about the world around them not being taught. I realize that this book gets referenced a lot and that it is important to have read it, but I think that kids would be far more educated about society (and would enjoy reading far more, I might add) if more modern (or at least relevant) books were being taught in schools.