The residents of Hertfordshire county are excited by the news that a wealthy single gentleman named Mr. Bingley has rented Netherfield Park, a large house with extensive grounds. Mrs. Bennet urges her husband to go meet Mr. Bingley when he arrives in the neighborhood so that their five daughters may then have the opportunity to meet the gentleman and attract his interest. Skeptical of his wife's matchmaking scheme, Mr. Bennet nonetheless visits Mr. Bingley, much to the delight of Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters — Jane, Elizabeth (Lizzie), Mary, Catherine (Kitty), and Lydia.
Although Mr. Bingley returns Mr. Bennet's visit, the Bennet girls do not get the opportunity to meet him until a ball is held in the neighborhood. At the ball, Mr. Bingley is accompanied by his two sisters, his brother-in-law, and a friend, Mr. Darcy. While Mr. Bingley impresses everyone with his outgoing and likable personality, Mr. Darcy is declared to be proud, disagreeable, and cold. He especially offends Elizabeth when she overhears him refusing Bingley's suggestion that he dance with her.
After the ball, Jane and Elizabeth discuss Mr. Bingley's attentions to Jane, and Jane admits that she found him to be attractive and charming and was flattered by his admiration of her. Elizabeth comments on the difference between her temperament and Jane's, noting that Jane always looks for the good in people, a quality that sometimes blinds her to people's faults. Meanwhile, at Netherfield, Mr. Bingley, his sisters, and Mr. Darcy review the ball and the people who attended it. Although they differ in their perceptions of the ball in general, they all agree on Jane's beauty and sweet disposition.
Discussion of the ball continues when the daughters of the Bennets' neighbor, Sir William Lucas, visit. The oldest daughter, Charlotte, is Elizabeth's close friend, and commiserates with Elizabeth over Mr. Darcy's snub. Charlotte acknowledges, however, that Mr. Darcy's family and wealth give him the right to be proud. Elizabeth agrees, noting that her resentment of his proud nature stems from his wounding her own pride.
With the first sentence of the book, Austen deftly establishes the major theme and tone of Pride and Prejudice. She states: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." This sentence introduces the theme of marriage, which is central to the novel's plot, and also introduces the tone of irony, which Austen will use both verbally and structurally throughout Pride and Prejudice.
To fully appreciate the humor and artistry of Austen's novel, one must first understand what irony is and how it is used in literature. In its most basic sense, irony is the use of words to express something other than, or opposite of, the literal meaning. For example, if the first sentence of the novel is read literally, it's meaning is "Everyone knows that a single rich man is looking for a wife." However, read ironically, the sentence means something other than its literal meaning: "Everyone knows that a single rich man will be pursued by women who want to be his wife." Austen also uses irony in the structure of the plot, placing her characters in situations that seem to signify one thing and are later revealed to signify something else.
As in many of Austen's other novels, irony is employed in Pride and Prejudice as the lens through which society and human nature are viewed. Through the novel, Austen studies social relationships in the limited society of a country neighborhood and investigates them in detail with an often ironic and humorous eye. Note her presentation of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, for example. Their contrasting temperaments are first shown through their manner of conversation; Mrs. Bennet chatters on while Mr. Bennet counters her talk with mildly sarcastic statements, the mocking tone of which Mrs. Bennet completely misses. After letting the reader hear the contrast between the couple through their dialogue, Austen then provides a general summary of the two parents' differing personalities. The disparity between them is amusing, but it is also ironic. In a novel about couples overcoming misunderstandings of each other to reach marital happiness, the reader's first view of marriage is one of a mismatched couple that cannot communicate.
The excitement Mrs. Bennet feels about Bingley's arrival is shared by the rest of the neighborhood, giving the reader a glimpse of the nature of provincial society. Curiosity and gossip escalate with each Bingley sighting, and when Bingley leaves to bring more new faces into Hertfordshire, rumors about the size and composition of his group are constantly revised until he and his party make their appearance at the ball. This gossipy small town environment is a microcosm of society at large. When the narrator comments on the behaviors of the people of Hertfordshire, it can often be viewed as Austen's perspective on society as a whole.
After the ball, the discussion between Elizabeth and Jane allows their characters to become more fully developed. Jane is depicted as a young woman with a kind and generous heart who is always willing to see the best in people. More spirited than her sister, Elizabeth is a sharp observer of human nature who doesn't hesitate to make judgments. She criticizes Jane for being blind to people's flaws, an accusation which will be ironic later in the novel when Elizabeth discovers her own blindness regarding appearances and prejudices.
Austen also introduces Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth's close friend, when the Lucas family visits the Bennets to talk about the ball. Charlotte speaks only briefly in this scene, but what she says hints at aspects of her character that will become more apparent later in the book. In discussing Darcy's proud nature, Charlotte says, "His pride does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, every thing in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud." Charlotte's assessment of Darcy's pride represents a perspective on wealth and privilege that was common in nineteenth-century Britain. As the novel progresses, Charlotte repeatedly expresses the views of society, especially in regard to money and marriage.
a chaise and four a lightweight carriagedrawn by four horses.
Michaelmas the feast of the archangel Michael, September 29.
engage to occupy or involve oneself.
It will be impossible for us to visit him In Austen's day, the women of a family could not visit an unmarried gentleman without first gaining an introduction to him through a third party, preferably a male relation.
to develop to become known or apparent; be disclosed.
mean low in quality, value, or importance.
trimming a hat decorating or embellishing a hat, as by adding ornaments, contrasting materials, and so on.
the assemblies people gathered together for entertainment.
fortnight [Chiefly British] a period of two weeks.
Boulanger a type of dance.
trade a means of earning one's living; one's occupation, work or line of business.
their brother's fortune and their own had been acquired by trade Here, the Bingleys' money has been earned by their father rather than inherited.
the liberty of the manor the privilege of hunting on the estate's surrounding land.
knighthood the rank or status of a knight.
a hack chaise a hired carriage.