The “Truth[s] Universally Acknowledged” in Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen starts her most famous novel with an ironic line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  The rest of the novel follows several single women in the quest to capture the hearts of men in possession of great fortunes.  It’s a justification for predatory women, to hunt and capture rich men.

Austen begins with the irony of a universal truth about love.  But, the true irony is that her book reveals more universal truths about love than most “serious” attempts at the subject.

Having just completed my 100,000th read-thru of Pride and Prejudice (I’m rounding up a bit), I’m thinking about why in the world this book about upper class women in regency England (early 19th century) still rings true today.  These women didn’t have cell phones. They didn’t surf the web or update their Facebook profiles.  Boyfriends didn’t even exist.  Instead, they had an elaborate courtship and engagement process.  Women didn’t work outside the home.  As a general rule, they didn’t own property, and many of them died early in childbirth. So why in the world is it the ultimate chick lit book?

If Elizabeth Bennet lived today, she and Jane would probably go to a state school, where Elizabeth would be in her junior year at the beginning of the novel (at 20), and Jane (at 22) would be a year out of school and at an entry level job, doing something like nursing or social work.  So when Mr. Bingley enters the scene, he’s a handsome, rich chap, but he’s not the answer to all their prayers.  The Bennet women are doing just fine without his riches. Mr. Darcy is easily ignored and avoided.  When Lydia and Wickham skip town, the family can be thankful that they don’t have to fork over the money for an elaborate ceremony and leave it at that.

Obviously, I think that the story has more reasons to carry over to our time and culture.  But, it’s this sort of mindset, of sticking the characters in the modern time frame, that can limit us from seeing how much we truly have in common with them.

Within the context of the Bennet sisters’ historical situation, we see some universal truths played out, ones that continue to be relevant in today’s game of love.

1.    Watch out for female competitors who use dirty tactics

Sure, the stakes today are a little different, but the heart still beats the same.  Miss Bingley’s two faced friendship and attempts at sabotage with Jane and Elizabeth is a perfect example of the lengths many women will go to win their men.

2.     Don’t be too quick to judge someone’s character

Elizabeth gets burned here. She used bad information to form an entirely incorrect picture of Mr. Darcy.  The same goes for Mr. Wickham.  She was way off on that one too.

3.    Heartbreak doesn’t heal easily

Poor Jane.  She languished for Bingley, and those of us who have ever felt heartbreak feel for her.  So much more the reason to rejoice when they are reunited.

4.    Good Girlfriends are essential to survival

Jane and Elizabeth are constantly debriefing after their encounters with their respective suitors.  And Charlotte needs Elizabeth more than ever when she settles for the annoying Mr. Collins.

5.     A woman has a lot of expectations to negotiate

While the family and societal expectations have changed a lot in the past two hundred years, women’s anxiety over being the “good girl” hasn’t changed at all.  We aim to please a lot of different people, and many of them have conflicting desires for us.  Elizabeth is trying to please her fickle family and the society that says she’s too low to marry upwards into Mr. Darcy’s stratosphere.  Women today battle the call to stay home with their kids but also to embrace the feminist call to “do it all.”  We can’t win.  So we live in the skillful negotiation of the middle ground.

If anybody has been reading along with me, I’d love to hear your ideas for other “universal truths” in the story.  I’m sure that there are plenty more.

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As an Older Woman, I am facinated with the old women in the book. The mother of five girls who thinks only of her daughters getting married…Mr. Darcy’s Aunt…I think it would be interesting to consider the story through their eyes, and realize that Austen was never an older woman to gain insight into that perspective of life.

    Along the same lines: re-reading Little Women when my daughter was in her teens. Marmee suddenly became much more interesting to me.

    AL: Isn’t it interesting how we approach different book from a whole new angle when we’re in different stages of life? One reason I love writing in my books is so I can reflect on the notes I took many years before and see how I’ve changed. It’s especially interesting in the notes in my Bible.

  2. We’re big fans of Pride and Prejudice too, we made an audio book of the novel – http://prideandprejudicemp3.wordpress.com/2008/09/25/pride-and-prejudice-mp3-format/

    AL: Thanks for sharing your resource! It’s nice that you let people donate the amount that they see fit. If anybody is a commuter or likes to listen to books while they do housework (like me), this might be a great way to experience the book.

  3. Hi Amy, I enjoyed your review….Miss Austen is still sitting on my shelf. At the moment I am working my way through about four other books, but some are close to the end. P&P is next.

    Jill’s point is interesting too…viewing these stories from the point of the older women in the stories…now that I find myself in that stage of life, I’m sure that will be my viewpoint too. I hadn’t given that much thought before.

    AL: I know what you mean about having a backlog of books. I have so many at the moment that I’m overwhelmed, but in a good way. =)

  4. Hi again, just want to say I linked to your blog in my post today, naming you as the person who has inspired me to read P&P.

    AL: Thanks Sara! You’re too kind.

  5. Well, I finished Pride and Prejudice last night. I loved it! There is so much more in the written story than we see in the movies….I don’t know why I was surprised at this, as I usually always prefer the book to the movie anyway!

    Speaking of universal truths about love, I enjoyed her comments about her parents’ relationship…about marriage to a partner who is so not suited to you and how people deal with that. Those first two paragraphs of chapter 19 in Volume II are priceless. Makes me wonder what sort of parents Jane Austen had…obviously her powers of observation were great and she certainly does understand the foibles of human character…my oh my, why have I waited so long to get acquainted with her works!

    AL: So excited that you finished it! I knew you’d fall in love. Hope this will be your impetus to dive into her other books. Thanks for pointing out that section. Worth a re-read. Austen has wonderful little social commentaries about love and marriage, tough to imagine in a woman who died young and never married. What incredibel gifts of observation she had!


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