Before we all ride into the sunset and bring 2017 to a close, I thought I’d kickstart our reading of Pride and Prejudice with a detailed analysis of Volume I Chapter I that lays the ground for our future study of Austen’s narrator, characters and the overlapping concerns of the text.
Beginnings are important, because they set up the reader’s expectations and illuminate the chapters that follow.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife (5).
The famous first line of Pride & Prejudice ushers us quickly into the mansion of manners, men and marriage built by Austen, her narrator barely waiting a second (or sentence) before announcing her intentions. This is a novel about marriage, the relationship between man and woman and the social norms surrounding it, and how material possession will come to define it. Let’s not forget the title of the novel and how it might be significant to the coming-of-age of its two protagonists – Pride and Prejudice – will undergo. For now, we occupy ourselves with marriage.
The bold, seemingly definitive terms of that opening sentence may convince the reader well enough about the “truth” presented. It is “universally acknowledged” after all, to be further deepened by the use of “must“. Even the commas exceed their grammatical function to add weight to this proclamation, begging the reader to contemplate the “universality” right after and the certainty of “must” just before their respective appearance. Austen’s omniscient narrator has spoken, and we anticipate that Charles Bingley, “a young man of large fortune from the north of England” will come to wed one of the Bennet girls introduced in Chapter One.
From the second paragraph onward, the reader however senses that the careless confidence is not as it seems. Does the narrator believe the notion to be true, or is she speaking on behalf of “the surrounding families”? Their minds, she tells us, are “so well fixed” that the man’s thoughts and feelings are of little consequence. There is an air of ridiculousness for them to regard him as “the rightful property of some one of other of their daughters” on simply “entering a neighbourhood”, objectifying and then claiming him as if he were a hapless chicken wandering into a coop. The obsession with such single men of fortune, as we will soon discover, resides not least with a certain Mrs Bennet.
Introduced as the “lady” to Mr Bennet, Mrs Bennet is presented to us as much the inferior in terms of gender relations – as one might expect in 19th-century England – and intellect – by the comic dialogue starting from the third paragraph.
The husband-and-wife conversation is largely unidirectional. Mrs Bennet directs two questions at him in the mode of direct discourse [i.e. “quoted speech”]. Mr Bennet’s nondescript responses are reported to us via the narrator in indirect discourse. His third reply is nothing short of sarcastic towards his wife’s over-eagerness, saying “You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” to the effect of Mrs Bennet unleashing a detailed account of Mr Bingley’s plans to move in. The contrast between this long paragraph and the one or two lines that mark Mr Bennet’s speech, topped by the narrator’s wry interjection that “This was invitation enough”, collectively shape our perceptions of both characters. One ridicules, while the other is meant to be ridiculed.
Mrs Bennet‘s dialogue, read in sequence, is laughable indeed:
- “My dear Mr. Bennet… have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
- “Why, my dear, you must know…”
- “Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
- “My dear Mr. Bennet… how can you be so tiresome!”
- “My dear, you flatter me. I certainly have had my share of beauty, but I do not…”
- “But, my dear, you must indeed go and see Mr. Bingley when he comes into the neighbourhood.”
The repetition of “my dear” stands out, and not for the affection of the words. Instead, Mrs Bennet’s words read like a nagging appeal for attention. Considering the lack of affirmation from her husband in most parts, they may express her frustration at Mr Bennet’s “tiresome” non-replies and condescension as she insists that he “must” know or “must” go see Bingley. As if the repetition is not melodramatic enough, Mrs. Bennet’s sentences are conducted in mostly exclamations and rhetorical questions to mark her desperation to have one of her daughters engaged to Bingley.
Mr Bennet on the other hand is a picture of placidity, humouring his wife with rather lukewarm questions about Bingley’s name, marital status and links to their family. When he teases his wife that “Mr. Bingley might like her the best of the party”, he becomes a figure for the reader to laugh with. Mrs Bennet is the easy target, and we laugh again at Mr. Bennet’s personification of her nerves as “old friends” he has heard about “these twenty years at least”. His dialogue, full of wry humour and ironic understatement, seems to parallels the narrator’s ironic perspective, and we might expect to hear some of the novel’s satirical commentary from him in the later chapters.
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope (7).
Certainly, Mr and Mrs Bennet are not the protagonists of the novel. Towards the end of Chapter I, we are introduced to the Bennet sisters via Mr Bennet, and are told explicitly who the emotional and intellectual centre of the narrative is:
“[The other Bennet girls] are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”
Elizabeth Bennet, as we soon learn, is quick-witted and quick to judge; like Mr Bennet, the reader is naturally inclined to take on her prejudices in the chapters to follow, particularly those toward a certain Fitzwilliam Darcy. If the novel shines light on notions of social norms, property and the need to “marry well to survive” (Penguin cover), it does so by the unravelling of Pride and Prejudice.
Links to Elsewhere
- In the very next chapter, Mr. Bennet betrays his apparent disinterest in Mr Bingley, being “among the earliest of those waited on Mr Bingley. He had always intended to visit him, though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go” (8). The man clearly delights in tormenting his wife (in harmless ways), eluding Mrs Bennet and his girls’ “attack” with “barefaced questions” about Bingley (11).