Jane Austen is a novelist with an extremely narrow focus that extends, surprisingly, into a wide range of concerns. Her books can be viewed most simply as eerily good romance novels, more broadly as sharp critiques of nineteenth-century vanity, cruelty and folly, and--broadest of all--as an indictment of a social system and economic system dedicated to the marginalization and commodification of a full half of the human experience.
This is the important point to remember about classic literature--the reason why it even became classic in the first place: classic works can be read simply because they're enjoyable to read, simply because when truth and insight are added to fiendish complexity of plot and a strong capacity for wit, the results are rarely dry fodder for academics. The results are faithful, engrossing portraits of life: satisfying even in their narrowness, ultimately satisfying perhaps because of their narrowness.
Plotting the Novel: Pride and Prejudice
The book's plot deals with the five Bennet sisters, whose fanatically prosaic mother obsesses over marrying off as quickly and as advantageously as possible.
Most of the action centers on the two eldest Bennet girls: dutiful Jane and practical, quick-witted Elizabeth. For the better part of the book, these sisters are occupied chiefly in damage control against the various disastrous almost-engagements they and their sisters find themselves in, as well as in pining after their various objects of affection: the dashing yet befuddled Charles Bingley for Jane, and the grave, calculating Mr. Darcy (So dark! So cold! So rational!) for Elizabeth, whose viewpoint is probably--based on her wit and levelheadedness compared to her sisters--the closest to Austen's.
It's Elizabeth and Darcy that really drive the plot through a combination of their seeming compatibility and their total inability to get together, thanks to their mutual low opinions of one another--or at least the belief on the part of each that the other has a low opinion of them.
The Structure of Pride and Prejudice
The novel has a very simple structure (basically the progenitor of the romance novel): two people should be together on the first page and end up together on the last, with various complications to fill up the rest of the book. It's in the complications where the qualities most come out that set Austen apart from her latter-day followers: witty dialogue, a sense of the brutality of individual character, and a keen, analytical eye for rivulets of emotion running through the smooth-surfaced stream of everyday events.
One of the Bennet girls' suitors, Mr. Collins, thinks nothing of proposing to Elizabeth's best friend once Elizabeth rejects him; romantic young Lydia runs off in pursuit of true love and ends up ridden with debts; Elizabeth's father seems to live exclusively for moments of small (yet witty!) cruelty to his wife of however many years. It's a well-detailed portrait of events, particularly at this fairly early stage in the development of the modern novel. Individual scenes get by on absurd comic detail alone.
Where the novel runs into problems, though, is in its overall plot arc. The conflict between Elizabeth and Darcy fits neatly into the larger social conflict of fitting women--human beings--into predefined marriage relations for purely economic reasons, and it's actually chilling to see the ease with which Elizabeth's friend Charlotte Lucas takes up with the loathsome Mr. Collins for the sake of financial security, and the inability of Mrs. Bennet to see why this might not be an ideal situation.
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