Isn’t it amazing that a novel first published 203 years ago to the day can hold relevance even in the 21st century? Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice settled on two of the many prevalent vices of the 19th century to carve a novel that was intended to send a strong message to citizens of the British Empire. However, it permeated the empire into every nook and cranny of the world to delight readers. People still read the novel – because of the relevance of the message it conveys.
I first read the novel when I was at an age where the difference between the meanings of the words pride and prejudice was blurred. I read it a second time some years later when it drove a point into my mind that the world hasn’t changed much since the 19th century. I read it a third time last month and was quite surprised that these are two vices which even 21st century cannot do away with. Yesterday, I talked about online shopping and how the world has grown. It takes only a reading of the novel to realize that in 200 years man has grown his ego so much that pride and prejudice are several notches higher than they were in the 19th century. One could contest that 200 years is nothing in the evolution of man, but seriously we can do much better than blame evolution for the situation we are in.
Let’s talk about pride first. This is a word whose synonyms have multiplied manifold. Like Mrs.Bennett, we have people who view vanity as a virtue than a vice. We still have people in our midst who are arrogant and attach too much importance to themselves. 19th century pales in comparison when we see some of the pride that is on display. While a notion has evolved that some amount of pride is even necessary, it doesn’t help that we cannot measure pride. National pride borders on extreme airs of superiority that we go to war with neighboring countries. Religious pride takes tones that condescends other religions. Ethnic pride is used to gain one-upmanship. Jane Austen’s novel teaches us that pride is totally destructive. It reveals aspects of you that will prompt others to detest you. Darcy was snobbish initially but was intelligent enough to tone down his attitude, making him likeable. Mrs. Bennett was vain but was able to rise above her pitiful petulance to accept the truth. The most endearing characters in the novel are the people with the least amount of pride – the close sisters Jane & Elizabeth Bennett and William Collins. Perhaps Catherine de Bourgh manifests pride which rares its ugly head and is an epitome of modern day humans who refuse to come down from the high pedestals where they seem to be perched.
Prejudice is a vice which perhaps cannot as easily be eliminated. I think our brains are programmed to be prejudiced about one thing or the other. You could rarely find a person who is open minded and without prejudices. The wars and other trials and tribulations in the 20th century may have greatly contributed to the prejudicial mindset of the 21st century. The onus is upon us to eliminate the prejudice. First impressions is a prejudice. Skin color is a prejudice. The more we train our minds to be non-judgmental, the better we can eliminate prejudice. It may not be something as destructive as pride, but a correct view of others can foster better relationships among humans particularly in an increasingly hostile environment. The key is to keep the mind open. Jane Austen interestingly tackles prejudice in the novel. She arms her leading lady brilliantly with this trait. Elizabeth is a person who always creates first impressions of people she meets. This leads her to question the attitude of those people. Gradually, she is able to clear her prejudices and see people for what they really are. She kept her mind open which is the reason she was able to accept Darcy later on. Mr.Bingley is also prejudiced – a derived one which created quite a lot of problems in expressing his love for Jane. Again, an open mind comes to the rescue as he is able to woo Jane who reciprocates his affection.
Books can be great teachers. They can be tremendously influential in shaping behavior with the tool of characterization. With a scintillating title, Jane Austen does just that – making people understand pride and prejudice from the perspective of English family relations. A modern day reader has a lot to learn from and relate to in this novel. It has stood the test of time. It’s up to us to change ourselves.