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Inspiring a masterpiece

Michelle Fordice | Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Considered one of the greatest novels and treasures of Western literature, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” helped define a literary genre, inspired a flood of sequels and reinventions and stole the hearts of its readers.

It is both popular and academic in equal measure – it would be unsurprising if it were the subject of an English paper, yet play one of its filmic incarnations (or a film inspired by the novel) in any girl’s dormitory and it would be granted instant recognition. Somehow, this outwardly simple and romantic tale left an inerasable mark on both classic literature and pop-culture.

With its opening line of “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” Austen’s book leaps into the story of a middle class family and their struggles to “marry off” five daughters. The novel focuses on Elizabeth Bennet, the second oldest and most independent of the five.

The village of Longbourn is thrown into excitement when it is revealed that “Netherfield is let at last,” and by a very wealthy, and single, young gentleman, Mr. Bingley. Soon, the Bennets finally catch sight of Mr. Bingley and his friends at a town ball where he becomes quite taken with Elizabeth’s older sister, Jane.

Elizabeth herself is scorned by Mr. Bingley’s friend, Mr. Darcy, who refuses to dance with her. In turn Elizabeth brushes off the insult and Mr. Darcy loses his standing in her eyes, but as the rest of the novel reveals, pride can be a burden and first impressions a mistake.

“Pride and Prejudice,” like most of Austen’s novels, centers its action around marriage and its meaning on good choice and character, but as author and editor Ronald Blythe commented, “Jane Austen can in fact get more drama out of morality than most other writers can get from shipwreck, battle, murder or mayhem.” Jane Austen pulls her readers into the world of Elizabeth through the novel’s entertaining and suspenseful plot, clever dialogue and unforgettable characters.

Beyond its simple appeal as a story, “Pride and Prejudice” provides a beautiful illustration and satire of a class and age. “Pride and Prejudice” is a tongue-in-cheek criticism of many of the Regency Era’s faults, focusing on the differences in status between the middle and upper classes as it leaves out almost any presence of the lower classes.

Throughout the novel, Austen disparages the rifts between these two classes as she presents Mr. Collins as a bumbling sycophant and Mr. Wickham as a class climber at any cost. She also makes Mr. Darcy’s main obstacle overcoming his own pride, and ultimately illustrates the positive effects of letting love prevail over class prejudice.

Perhaps “Pride and Prejudice” is such a widely acclaimed and accepted novel because of its versatility. It is both one of literature’s great works and chick-lit’s ultimate masterpieces. It paints a beautiful picture of its era and then reaches beyond it. It contains characters that are romantic, and yet familiar and accessible – they are full of their own faults, their prides and prejudices.

Jane Austen described her own “Pride and Prejudice” as “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling,” but history has seen fit to deem it a “truth universally acknowledge” that it is as radiant as it should be.