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.