When I teach Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I take great pains to un-sully it from students’ film-adaptation-induced misconceptions that it’s a “romantic” novel. As a satirist, even if a gentle one, Austen offers rather unromantic corrections to vices and foibles, many of which range far beyond the surface themes of love and marriage. Indeed, like most early novels, Austen’s contend with the seismic social shifts birthed by modernity, particularly the rise of the individual. In Pride and Prejudice, as in Austen’s other works, the private angst surrounding the choice of a marriage partner really reflects the larger, public anxieties swirling around a disintegrating class structure, a new social mobility, and increasing personal autonomy.
Nevertheless, the truth is that I still learned everything I needed to know about marriage from Pride and Prejudice.
Marriages are foremost in Austen’s world, and, its place in literary theory and history aside, Pride and Prejudice enchants me again and again with its hairpin sharp insights into matrimonial matters. Here are nine lessons Pride and Prejudice taught me about marriage—and surely, there are many more.
Mutual Respect Is Essential to a Happy Marriage
The first marriage we encounter in Pride and Prejudice is Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s. These two illustrate magnificently by negative example just how crucial respect for one another is to marital bliss. Mr. Bennet treats Mrs. Bennet like the fool she assuredly is, and Mrs. Bennet, in return, exerts the only authority she has: nagging. As readers, we may laugh with Mr. Bennet (and the narrator) at Mrs. Bennet, but we don’t side with him entirely. Even Elizabeth, as much as she loves her father and as much as he respects her, admits she “could not have formed a very pleasing opinion of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort” based on her parents’ marriage.