Timeless Lessons from Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’

I recently re-read Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and was surprised at how much it teaches us about ourselves as human beings.

I first discovered “Pride and Prejudice” through the 1995 BBC mini-series with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. I immediately became fascinated by the colourful characters, vivid scenery, and of course the beautiful love story. Eager to learn more, I read the book and appreciated the opportunity to connect with the plot and characters on a more personal level.

The story opens with the Bennett family who is excited about the arrival of their new neighbour, a young and wealthy single man by the name of Mr. Bingley. Mrs. Bennett is hoping he will marry her eldest daughter, Jane, and she is prepared to do everything in her power to make this happen. Mr. Bingley brings along his friend, the handsome and even wealthier Mr. Darcy. Yet despite his privileges, Mr. Darcy is a proud young man and inadvertently insults Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennett’s second daughter, when they first meet.

Her vanity wounded, Elizabeth develops strong prejudice against Mr. Darcy. He, in turn, starts to fall in love with her. As the story progresses, we see that it takes much effort and pain to undo the knots of the characters’ pride and prejudices. Yet it is a rewarding ride as we join them on their bumpy journey toward happiness.

“Pride and Prejudice” has been a favourite with audiences and critics alike since its first publication in 1813 in Britain. The book was soon translated into French, with translations in other languages following. Today, it is one of the most popular books in the world with the characters of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett becoming beloved fixtures of our literary culture.

A Healthy Dose of Humour

There are many reasons for the popularity of “Pride and Prejudice,” one being the timeless themes it presents, such as love, family, and friendship, in a witty and entertaining manner. The novel makes us laugh at our flaws and those of society, while simultaneously inspiring us to reflect upon them.

The book’s opening passage describing the neighbourhood’s reaction to a new arrival is a great example of Austen’s delightful approach to storytelling. She writes:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings and views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some or other of their daughters.”

We immediately see that Austen is gently mocking these families who are not interested in Mr. Bingley’s wants and needs, but rather in their own self-interest. Yet as the story unfolds, we see that this is related to a larger problem they face. This is especially clear in the case of Mrs. Bennett. If her daughters don’t marry well-off men, they will be destitute after their father’s death. Austen understands their plight and doesn’t make light of the matter. However, throughout the book, she also makes sure to point out that Mrs. Bennett’s scheming approach almost ruins her daughters’ chances of getting married.

Timeless Lessons from Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’
Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873, from the Portrait Gallery of the Perry–Castañeda Library of the University of Texas at Austin. (Public Domain)

Humility and Truth

Austen demonstrates a keen eye for the flaws of human nature, but also faith in people’s ability to improve.

Her two protagonists, Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy (known as Mr. Darcy) both have their flaws. They make mistakes and allow themselves to be blinded by pride and prejudice in their interactions. As a result, they hurt each other and almost miss their chance of finding happiness together.

Yet fundamentally they are good people. They are able to look inside themselves, find their faults, and improve their character. With this heart of humility, they let go of their pride and prejudices and begin to treat each other with mutual respect and appreciation.

We see this when Mr. Darcy expresses his gratitude to Elizabeth for helping him recognize his selfishness. He tells her toward the end, “As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. … By you, I was properly humbled.”

Elizabeth is also willing to admit to her faults. Once she learns the extent to which her prejudices have blinded her toward Mr. Darcy’s true character, she faces her shortcomings in an honest manner: “Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love has been my folly. … Till this moment, I never knew myself.”  After recognizing this, she is able to re-evaluate her opinion of Mr. Darcy and is thus able to better appreciate him.

Manners and Self-control

Having read discussions by “Pride and Prejudice” fans online, I get the impression many people are drawn to the polished manners of 19th-century society, when men stood up if a lady entered the room, dancing was respectful, and people valued morality. In that sense the story is timeless in expressing our wish for a better, more civilized society.

One important aspect of such a society is self-control and this is well-emphasized in the novel. One example is the scene of Mr. Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth. Confident that she will accept him, he is shocked that she rejects him so rudely. In this scene, Austen makes an effort to emphasize that despite his anger, he is able to control his emotions. She writes, “He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips, till he believed himself to have attained it.”

In a world where tempers flare easily, it is comforting and a good reminder to pay attention to poise and composure.  ­

“Pride and Prejudice” is a combination of family drama, love story, and fairy tale. The lead characters suffer because of their failings but work to overcome them. In the end, they get their happily-ever-after. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy start out with pride and prejudice, but come together in humility and sincerity. They are equals in their shared respect and love for one another, and in the end the whole family benefits from their relationship.

“Pride and Prejudice” is a good reminder that true happiness lies in self-improvement, respect, and appreciation for one another, and for that I am deeply appreciative of Jane Austen’s beautiful story.