When people talk about what makes Jane Austen’s writings so marvelous, they usually mention her wit, her keen observations of society, and the vivid characters she creates. But I’d like to draw your attention to a lesser-known Austen quality: her use of symbols.
One of the most obvious symbols in Pride and Prejudice is dancing. A couple’s compatibility in dance is almost always a symbol of their relationship.
When Elizabeth and Darcy dance together the first time, their steps are stilted and formal, much like their relationship at that point. Neither knows quite what to do with the other, and it shows in the hesitating steps back and forth and the awkward breaks in their conversations. Their courtship will be filled with hesitating steps and misunderstandings.
Likewise, when Elizabeth has to suffer through a dance with Mr. Collins, he missteps, grovels, and embarrasses in front of her friends and family, just as he will do later when he proposes to her.
We do not get to see Elizabeth and Darcy dance together after they are engaged, but it is easy to imagine the smooth steps and easy, if reserved, affection they will finally be able to show each other on the dance floor.
Another symbol in Pride and Prejudice is the outdoors. Outdoor settings become symbols of openness and understanding, a loosening of the rigid expectations of society. With few exceptions, Darcy and Elizabeth move towards each other emotionally in outdoor settings. Indoors, their misunderstandings tend to multiply. This is true at Netherfield, in Kent, and especially at Pemberley.
The pattern continues right up to the end of the novel, when Elizabeth and Darcy, after a long separation, are at last together inside Longbourn—but they still cannot speak freely to each other. It is not until they take a walk outside together that they finally come to an understanding with each other. Then they go back inside Longbourn and endure another uncomfortable evening in company with her family before announcing their engagement. One has the idea that this couple would be content to be always outside-outside of the house, and outside of the rules and class distinctions that have made their courtship so difficult.
Finally, let’s talk about Pemberley itself, by far the most obvious symbol in the novel. When Austen describes Pemberley as neither “formal, nor falsely adorned,” she may as well be describing the improved Darcy Elizabeth is about to encounter. The lack of pretension, refined taste, and gracious welcome experienced at Pemberley describe the man as much as the manor. Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy in large part because she sees his true character revealed through his home.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at symbols used in Pride and Prejudice. My upcoming novel, tentatively titled Duty Demands, uses a symbol at a crucial point in the story, and so I am including an excerpt from that story here. In this passage, Darcy has brought his new bride outside to see a comet over Pemberley.
Darcy looked down at her, his eyes nearly as dark as the night itself. “I believe we were all put here for a purpose, Elizabeth. We all have our appointed tasks which we must complete before our time on earth is through, and if our lives are cut off prematurely, who is to say whether our Maker does not grant us a little while longer to look down on those we love, and perhaps have a second chance to complete our assigned tasks?”
“That is a whimsical notion, sir.”
“Whimsical it may be, but life thrives on such fancies and wishes; they nurture the soul and give it hope.”
“I confess I did not expect to hear such a statement from you.” Elizabeth said, her head still tilted at an angle to look up at him. It occurred to her that this was an odd conversation for a man to have with a woman he had married only for convenience and to fulfill the demands of society, a woman he found beneath him in every way. She waited for him to respond but he made no answer, and after a moment she turned back to gazing at the comet. The silence stretched out for several minutes.
“I have heard,” Elizabeth finally said, “that the ancients used to believe in making wishes on stars as they fell to the earth, thinking that wishes made at such times would be granted. Never having observed a falling star in person, I have never had the opportunity to try it for myself.”
“And what would you wish for, if you could?” Darcy’s voice was deep and warm in her ear.
“Why would I need to wish for anything?” she answered lightly. “You and Georgiana are very kind, and my family is safe and happy. I want for nothing.”
“There must be something,” her husband protested. “Everyone has at least one thing that they desire, some wish that has not yet been fulfilled. I wish you would tell me what yours might be.”
Once she had wished to marry for love, but that chance was now gone forever. “You are very gallant, Mr. Darcy. If you insist on knowing, then my desire would be to finally see a falling star for myself. But now, since you have discovered my wish, I must know yours. What would you ask for, if you could?”
“To know the hearts of the ones closest to me.” Darcy’s voice was suddenly grave. “To understand their thoughts- to know their desires completely, and bring them nothing but the greatest of happiness.”
“You are speaking of Georgiana, of course,” Elizabeth said, serious in her turn.
“Georgiana-“ Darcy’s voice suddenly seemed choked. “Yes, of course. My sister.”
You can look for Duty Demands to be released sometime this fall!
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Pride and Prejudice contains one of the most cherished love stories in English literature: the courtship between Darcy and Elizabeth. As in any good love story, the lovers must elude and overcome numerous stumbling blocks, beginning with the tensions caused by the lovers’ own personal qualities. Elizabeth’s pride makes her misjudge Darcy on the basis of a poor first impression, while Darcy’s prejudice against Elizabeth’s poor social standing blinds him, for a time, to her many virtues. (Of course, one could also say that Elizabeth is guilty of prejudice and Darcy of pride—the title cuts both ways.) Austen, meanwhile, poses countless smaller obstacles to the realization of the love between Elizabeth and Darcy, including Lady Catherine’s attempt to control her nephew, Miss Bingley’s snobbery, Mrs. Bennet’s idiocy, and Wickham’s deceit. In each case, anxieties about social connections, or the desire for better social connections, interfere with the workings of love. Darcy and Elizabeth’s realization of a mutual and tender love seems to imply that Austen views love as something independent of these social forces, as something that can be captured if only an individual is able to escape the warping effects of hierarchical society. Austen does sound some more realist (or, one could say, cynical) notes about love, using the character of Charlotte Lucas, who marries the buffoon Mr. Collins for his money, to demonstrate that the heart does not always dictate marriage. Yet with her central characters, Austen suggests that true love is a force separate from society and one that can conquer even the most difficult of circumstances.
Pride and Prejudice depicts a society in which a woman’s reputation is of the utmost importance. A woman is expected to behave in certain ways. Stepping outside the social norms makes her vulnerable to ostracism. This theme appears in the novel, when Elizabeth walks to Netherfield and arrives with muddy skirts, to the shock of the reputation-conscious Miss Bingley and her friends. At other points, the ill-mannered, ridiculous behavior of Mrs. Bennet gives her a bad reputation with the more refined (and snobbish) Darcys and Bingleys. Austen pokes gentle fun at the snobs in these examples, but later in the novel, when Lydia elopes with Wickham and lives with him out of wedlock, the author treats reputation as a very serious matter. By becoming Wickham’s lover without benefit of marriage, Lydia clearly places herself outside the social pale, and her disgrace threatens the entire Bennet family. The fact that Lydia’s judgment, however terrible, would likely have condemned the other Bennet sisters to marriageless lives seems grossly unfair. Why should Elizabeth’s reputation suffer along with Lydia’s? Darcy’s intervention on the Bennets’ behalf thus becomes all the more generous, but some readers might resent that such an intervention was necessary at all. If Darcy’s money had failed to convince Wickham to marry Lydia, would Darcy have still married Elizabeth? Does his transcendence of prejudice extend that far? The happy ending of Pride and Prejudice is certainly emotionally satisfying, but in many ways it leaves the theme of reputation, and the importance placed on reputation, unexplored. One can ask of Pride and Prejudice, to what extent does it critique social structures, and to what extent does it simply accept their inevitability?
The theme of class is related to reputation, in that both reflect the strictly regimented nature of life for the middle and upper classes in Regency England. The lines of class are strictly drawn. While the Bennets, who are middle class, may socialize with the upper-class Bingleys and Darcys, they are clearly their social inferiors and are treated as such. Austen satirizes this kind of class-consciousness, particularly in the character of Mr. Collins, who spends most of his time toadying to his upper-class patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Though Mr. Collins offers an extreme example, he is not the only one to hold such views. His conception of the importance of class is shared, among others, by Mr. Darcy, who believes in the dignity of his lineage; Miss Bingley, who dislikes anyone not as socially accepted as she is; and Wickham, who will do anything he can to get enough money to raise himself into a higher station. Mr. Collins’s views are merely the most extreme and obvious. The satire directed at Mr. Collins is therefore also more subtly directed at the entire social hierarchy and the conception of all those within it at its correctness, in complete disregard of other, more worthy virtues. Through the Darcy-Elizabeth and Bingley-Jane marriages, Austen shows the power of love and happiness to overcome class boundaries and prejudices, thereby implying that such prejudices are hollow, unfeeling, and unproductive. Of course, this whole discussion of class must be made with the understanding that Austen herself is often criticized as being a classist: she doesn’t really represent anyone from the lower classes; those servants she does portray are generally happy with their lot. Austen does criticize class structure but only a limited slice of that structure.
More main ideas from Pride and Prejudice