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"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
This opening line of Pride and Prejudice has become one of the most famous sentences in English literature. With this single short statement, Jane Austen does three things:
1. She declares one of her major themes: Money and Marriage.
3. She sets the stage for a chase-either by the young man in search of a bride, or by young women in pursuit of him as a husband.
As we all know from reading adventure stories or watching slapstick movie comedies, a chase can be one of the most entertaining forms of narrative. Jane Austen seemed to know that too, because from the opening scene that follows her first sentence, the chase is on.
Mrs. Bennet tells her husband that a single young man, Mr. Bingley, has rented the nearby manor house of Netherfield. She is sure that he will fall in love with one of the Bennet daughters, and tells Mr. Bennet that he must begin the acquaintance at once by calling on him. Mr. Bennet teases her by saying she should send her daughters themselves over to Mr. Bingley so that he can get a good look at them. She is offended at the suggestion and complains of her poor nerves. Mrs. Bennet never knows when her husband is making fun of her.
NOTE: The opening scene of the novel is written almost entirely in dialogue. This is the way Jane Austen develops both her characters and her story. She does not tell, she shows. Pride and Prejudice has been successfully adapted for three forms of the drama-stage, motion pictures, and television-and you can see why just from this first scene. If you were to make a note of similar scenes as they occur, you'd see that by assembling them you'd have the whole action of the novel in dramatic form. One of the most entertaining ways to enjoy and understand the novel is to read some of these scenes aloud or even act them out.
The short first chapter makes clear in a few lines of dialogue the relationship of Elizabeth's parents and the quality of their marriage. Most of the novel is about young women hoping to get married, yet here at the very start of the story we find a couple who are not a good example of happiness in marriage. In the course of the novel, Austen shows how several other marriages work. Some are happy, some not, and no two are alike. In a society in which marriage was so important to women-and to men-the qualities that make a marriage succeed are quite a serious matter. Austen treats the subject with comedy, but underneath the comic surface she is very serious. Notice, as you read, what qualities she shows us as good and bad in a marriage.