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Jane Austen sets her novel in places she was probably familiar with as a girl. Mr. Bennet's modest gentleman's estate is the main setting with excursions to (a) Meryton, a provincial town within walking distance where a regiment of militia is the chief attraction for the younger Bennet girls; and (b) the more distant and far grander Pemberley, Mr. Darcy's inherited manor in Derbyshire. Some action takes place in the more modest manor house of Netherfield. Rented by Mr. Bingley, Netherfield is located in the neighborhood of the Bennet home of Longbourn.
Although never specifically described, the various rooms in which the Bennet family live and entertain their visitors, the surrounding gardens where they walk, and the farm that provides their income, all become familiar to us. So does the main street of Meryton where the Bennet girls encounter the officers on their walks and their Aunt Philips keeps track of comings and goings from her window.
The only setting that is described in detail is Pemberley. There the beauty of every view and the good taste of every rich furnishing become part of the developing love story of Elizabeth and Darcy. You can see the novelist's skillful hand here, in the economy with which she uses the physical description of this setting both to unfold significant aspects of her hero's character and to advance her plot.
How to get a husband, and preferably a rich one, is the central theme of the novel. Austen's concern with money has won her the accusation of being vulgar and mercenary. Yet in her hands, under the guise of comedy, the subject is transformed into a serious and sympathetic exposure of the lot of women in her society. For the women of her time marriage on any terms was often the only escape from a depressing spinsterhood in respectable poverty. Around this crucial issue of marriage she weaves her lively subthemes of social criticism, making fun of snobbery, hypocrisy, the spiteful gossip of respectable housewives and the prying impertinence of ladies of title. While the drive of her story is getting the Bennet girls married, Austen incidentally examines marriage itself, and its effect on five different couples. She comments, through her heroine, on the ironic fact that the Bennets must be happy over a marriage (Lydia's to Wickham) that can bring no happiness to anyone. Here is a brief look at some of the subthemes:
1. GOOD MANNERS
Every society has its rules of social behavior, but manners are much less important today than they were in Jane Austen's time. Her world was dominated by social rituals that had built-in rules-balls, formal visits, and conversations in which people were supposed to avoid personal or otherwise embarrassing subjects. In Pride and Prejudice Austen demonstrates her view that these rules are necessary: they constitute civil and considerate behavior, the "oil" that allows relationships to run smoothly. She is often critical of characters who break the rules and sometimes uses them for comic effect-as when Lady Catherine de Bourgh pries into the Bennet family's affairs. Mr. Collins represents the other side of the coin-he is comic because he carries good manners to a ridiculous extreme. Elizabeth represents the middle ground. When Mr. Collins proposes, she rejects him with a proper "thank you." But when Darcy proposes, she tells him that she cannot express gratitude to him because she does not feel gratitude-and she goes on to tell him exactly how she does feel, in words that bristle with angry criticism of him. It is clear that while Jane Austen approves of the correct forms of social behavior, she makes fun of them when they are carried to excess, and she does not approve of them as cover-ups of strong and justifiable feelings.
2. PRIVILEGE AND RESPONSIBILITY
The English gentry, as Jane Austen shows us, were highly privileged people. When Darcy is criticized for being proud, Charlotte Lucas comes to his defense, saying that a man of his wealth and family background has a right to be proud. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that privilege brings with it responsibilities-ones that Darcy takes seriously. For example, his housekeeper tells of his generous treatment of his servants and tenants. And, shortly after that, Darcy undertakes the rescue of Lydia and the rehabilitation of Wickham, at least as far as he is able. Darcy's sense of responsibility impresses Elizabeth and finally wipes away her prejudice against him.
Jane Austen is known for her perceptive depiction of relationships. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, she shows us all kinds of marriages, no two of them alike: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Charlotte and Mr. Collins, Lydia and Wickham, Jane and Bingley, and, finally, Elizabeth and Darcy. She also shows us other kinds of relationships: the sisterly relationship of Jane and Elizabeth, the aunt and niece relationship of Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner. Finally, there are the friendships: Elizabeth and Charlotte enjoy a friendship of equals, even though they do not always agree. Darcy and Bingley, on the other hand, have an odd relationship in which Bingley confesses himself to be in awe of Darcy, and Darcy, the stronger character, has taken on a responsibility for his friend's welfare-to the point of manipulating him away from courting Jane.
At the end of the novel, when Darcy and Elizabeth are married, Darcy's sister Georgiana is amazed that Elizabeth can tease Darcy and make him laugh at himself-a privilege, as Jane Austen points out, that a wife may have but not a younger sister. In this final subtle touch Jane Austen shows her mastery of the art of relationships.