Pride and Prejudice and “Universally Acknowledged” “Truths”
by Seth Snow
[Note: Throughout this essay, when I refer to specific words from Pride and Prejudice¸ I will put these words in quotation marks.]
Jane Austen’s readers are quite familiar with the opening line of Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
This passage raises several issues. Firstly, marriage is obviously important to characters in this novel. Secondly, “universally acknowledged” would mean all members of this particular society are aware, likely even in agreement, of the “truth” concerning wealthy single men who “must be in want” of wives. Consequently, when a wealthy man comes onto the scene, the socially “acknowledged” expectation is that these men “must be in want” of a wife solely due to their single status and financial status. Whatever thoughts or feelings on marriage that these wealthy men may have are secondary to the “acknowledged” “truth.” The same can be said for single women: their thoughts and feelings on marriage must align with this “universally acknowledged” “truth”; while some women privately may object to “universally acknowledged” “truths,” we do not get the “wife’s” point of view in the opening line. Therefore, a single woman is expected to marry whichever “single man in possession of good fortune” proposes to her. Finally, it is important to note that the narrator does not say “the truth” but rather “a truth.” “A truth” suggests that other “truths” are not “acknowledged” and that it is not the only “truth” out there. This particular “truth,” however, has become “universal” because norms of society “acknowledge” it is “true” and the minds of its members have been conditioned by these norms. Being different or thinking differently initially means remaining single in the world of Pride and Prejudice.
As Pride and Prejudice progresses, the tension between what society expects of a character and what that character desires for herself or himself becomes even more relevant to our understanding of the novel. For example, Elizabeth Bennet wants to marry a single wealthy man, which she eventually does, yet love and respect are also a high priority to her. Furthermore, Mr. Darcy, in speaking of what makes an “accomplished” woman, upholds some of Caroline Bingley’s ideas regarding female education (knowledge of music, drawing, modern languages, and so on); however, he also has independent, un-“acknowledged” thoughts on women: “improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” “Improving” one’s mind suggests a woman’s mind is active during the learning process, not a passive vessel filled with knowledge of taught subjects; a woman’s “accomplished” mind can think on its own, which is not considered an “acknowledged” feminine virtue in their society.
While Elizabeth’s romantic view of marriage may be, to a reader, preferable over marrying solely for money, and while Mr. Darcy’s enlightened view on a female’s mind and her education also may be preferable to the kind of education that Caroline has where she looks polished on the outside but lacks depth on the inside, both characters still uphold some of the traditional views that society “acknowledges” (e.g., Mr. Darcy is a gentleman, which is part of his struggle to “acknowledge” and accept his love for Elizabeth, and Elizabeth “acknowledges” the social consequences of her family’s ridiculous behaviour in the eyes of gentlemen like Mr. Darcy despite whatever flaws he may possess in her eyes).
Because the novel’s two main characters, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, hold both traditionally “acknowledged” views and non-traditional, independent views, the question then becomes how does a character make sense of a world and live in a world that follows strict social rules, some of which go against what a character personally thinks, feels, and/or values? While this question cannot be answered with full certainty, due to its complex nature and the number of passages in Pride and Prejudice dealing with this question, I still want to focus on one passage in what follows to examine the difficulty that Elizabeth has between forming her own opinions and trying to live in a world that often times will frustrate and/or prove wrong those opinions.
When Elizabeth visits Charlotte after her marriage to Collins, the narrator gives the following account of Elizabeth’s view of Charlotte’s life with Collins:
Elizabeth was prepared to see [Collins] in all his glory…rather [Elizabeth] looked in wonder at [Charlotte] that she could have so cheerful an air, with such a companion.
The key words are “prepared” and “wonder,” both of which signify something about Elizabeth’s view of Charlotte’s marriage, a marriage that she has openly opposed earlier in the novel. “Prepared,” then, reinforces Elizabeth’s readiness to pass judgment on Charlotte’s marriage without the need to assess the situation and without her “acknowledgment” of society’s “truth” regarding women and marriage. Elizabeth’s readiness to pass independent judgment on Charlotte’s marriage is not her first effort to form an opinion that may differ from the “acknowledged” norms: she has also said her “resistance” to dancing with Darcy would not “injure” her with him (which it obviously does to an extent), she is entitled to her “original dislike” of Caroline and Mrs. Hurst, and she cynically asserts that every day “confirms” her in believing in the “inconsistency of all human characters.” While the novel does not grudge Elizabeth for “disliking” Caroline and Mrs.Hurst, her frustrations with what she calls the “inconsistent” people in her life, such as Charlotte’s marriage to Collins,are largely self-inflicted wounds. Elizabeth convinced herself that Charlotte would never actually marry someone without first falling in love, even though Charlotte clearly had stated that “happiness is a matter of chance” and that she intends to “fix” a man for herself; Elizabeth’s personal view of love and marriage took precedent over Charlotte’s view, which aligned with the “acknowledged” “truth” that single women in financially weak positions need to marry single wealthier men who “must be in want of a wife.” How a woman feels is not relevant to this “acknowledged” “truth.”
Elizabeth’s use of “prepared” here also suggests that she expects Collins, “in all his glory,” to be someone at whom she can laugh, which supports how she understands him to be based on previous interactions with him. His ridiculous behaviour would also reinforce her “prepared” thought that Charlotte would not be happy while married to him. While Collins’s behaviour does not fail to disappoint Elizabeth, Charlotte does seem content, even “cheerful,” making Elizabeth “wonder.” “Wonder” is a reaction to something strange or unusual. Elizabeth’s refusal to take Charlotte’s views on marriage seriously left her “unprepared,” rather than “prepared,” for Charlotte’s “cheerfulness.” Consequently, Elizabeth’s pride in her ability to understand life and all its happenings accurately, outside of the “universally” “acknowledged” social “truths,” make her quite vulnerable when she visits Charlotte since her “wonder” eventually gives way to an intellectual acceptance of Charlotte’s rather “cheerful” life (e.g., Charlotte can show off a house of her own “without her husband’s help,” which gives her freedom to run and manage a house that she would not otherwise have had had she not married Collins).
While Elizabeth does find her own “happiness in marriage,” largely based on her own “truths,” by marrying Darcy—one whom she can love and respect, and still have financial security—she does so by changing her initial impression of him, which was not positive and which demonstrates her development as a character. The same can be said about her development when she “acknowledges” Charlotte’s version of marriage: while it is not what Elizabeth prefers, it is still a possibility for single women and can offer some “happiness in marriage” even though it is not “happiness” as defined by Elizabeth.
Pride and Prejudice, while critical in some ways of socially “acknowledged” “truths,” still seems to promote a balance between individualism and social responsibility, a balance between individual “truths” and socially “acknowledged” “truths.” Though both characters develop in different ways, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy manage to maintain this delicate balance through their marriage. While much can be written on their marriage, one idea is that Elizabeth both loves Darcy and still is “secure,” which maintains balance. Mr. Darcy, born and bred into a gentleman who is also a single man “in possession of a good fortune,” was in “want of a wife,” which promotes the “universally”-“acknowledged”-“truth” idea. However, Mr. Darcy is not in “want” of just any wife, contrary to the “acknowledged” “truth.” He marries a woman who is “accomplished” in ways that he personally approves and follows the dictates of what his heart deems to be “true” to him even though his social circle (e.g., Lady Catherine de Bourgh), and at times his own conscience (e.g., he, early in the novel, thought it a “danger” to “pay…Elizabeth too much attention”), does not “acknowledge” his marriage as “truth.” That means Mr. Darcy, like Elizabeth, must negotiate what his heart tells him is “true” with what his social duties tell him is “true.”
More specifically, for females in the novel, Lydia, one whose selfish decisions injure her family’s reputation socially, is too much of an individual in the way that she lacks self-control and ignores some “acknowledged” “truths” that only produce negative consequences both for herself and for others. Caroline Bingley conforms too much to society since she is something like a cookie-cutter woman that society “acknowledges” as the ideal woman: she thinks and acts only as she has been taught. Her education, then, would help her attract men since the “acknowledged” “truth” defines her “accomplished” and marriage-ready for “a single man in possession of a good fortune.” Caroline, however, lacks the freedom of individuality. How a woman can be independent—both in terms of her mind and in her decisions for how she wants to live her life and whom she wants to marry while still, whether she wants to or not, live according to some of the “universally” “accepted” “truths”—is a difficult balance for Elizabeth. Therefore, her finding “happiness in marriage,” largely based on what she “acknowledges” is “true” for herself, is quite heroic.
Seth Snow has a master’s degree in English Literature from The University of Akron and teaches a course called Jane Austen, where he and his students read and discuss Emma and Persuasion. He also teaches Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in British Literature and Women’s Literature, respectively.