Famous First Sentences: Pride and Prejudice

Barnes and Noble editions
Barnes and Noble editions

What First Sentences Tell Us

One of the most famous opening sentences in Western Literature is the crisply arch first statement in Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice (1813):

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.


Now.  This sentence is loaded in so many ways that it is a joy to read -- is she serious?  Is this how people thought in 1813?  Real folk actually had this kind of opinion?  Is it satire, rather than social commentary?

It is a declaration -- a statement assuming a heck of a lot -- an edict, almost -- a prescription and code of behavior and thought.  It is also a very bold sentence crafted in stark terms, considering several factors of contemporaneous society and literature.  Did it outrage any readers?  Did it elicit chuckles?  Let's consider some of the factors that make this such a bombshell of a sentence, and ponder why Austen might have derived such satisfaction in letting it detonate, reader by reader.

England in 1813

Or rather, England in the years leading up to 1813, which was the year the novel was published.  In 1792 another audacious woman, Mary Wollstonecraft -- a rather more outspoken, less insouciant writer than Austen -- published her findings on the general esteem in which women were held by society (i.e. men) in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, her immediate addendum to Thomas Paine's A Vindication of the Rights of Man, published the previous year.

Her assessment of men's opinion of women was "that the minds of women are enfeebled" and that "they are treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as part of the human species" (Introduction).  Kinda like a pet poodle?

This state of affairs was brought about by societal forces larger and stronger than men and women themselves, though, because education was reserved for men. This meant that all the professions were the purview and domain of men. Law, government, medicine, science -- all the responsibility of men.  

Likewise, exploration, war, shipping, trade -- all the heavy responsibility of men. Ownership, oversight of property management, banking, legislation, policy drafting -- all the responsibility of men. 

That's a lot.  

No wonder men saw women partly as an escape from the duties and cares of the world.  

But that's not all.  By continuing the age-old custom of reserving education for males, the forced ignorance of women led to a self-fulfilling prophecy: women knew nothing of travel, war, trade.  It became incumbent on men to manage these duties whether they wanted to or not.

Add A Shortage of Men

England and France were at war (1803-1814). That took a lot of men out of the social register. In fact, single men were becoming a rare and valuable commodity, so when a single man appeared in any new neighborhood it was going to be big news for all the single women in the district.  For women of any social standing, the only way out of the family home was marriage -- the only way to have her own home was to live vicariously through a husband.  

I think I would have lost my mind.

Or I might have developed a sense of humor like Jane Austen's.

Back to the Opening Sentence

So let's look at that sentence again, remembering the title of the novel; we are primed to expect pride and prejudice, and it is ladled out firmly from the get-go. "It is a truth universally acknowledged"; is wonderful. It is pompous and supercilious in tone, if we believe that the narrative voice [not the author, mind] is being serious: what ARE universal truths?  That gravity is in force, that we grow old?  Death and taxes!

So we are immediately forced to consider which particular universe this truth belongs to.  It is not a universe where poverty forces young girls into prostitution (as was happening so steadily in industrial England).  It is a universe where servants are indispensable and men are to be hunted down, vetted, assessed, and then bagged as prey.  "We hold these truths to be self-evident"?

". . . that any single man in possession of a good fortune"; two words are key here -- "single," of course, and "good" -- not a small fortune or a large fortune but a good one, as if moral worth is tied to financial liquidity.  In fact, the word "fortune" has also been subverted from its original meaning, too, to mean money rather than luck or happy destiny.

". . . must be in want of a wife."  The axe falls.  The final pronouncement is slammed shut like a heavy oak door.  We (in this very particular society that the narrator of the novel is opening to us) must see the logic of a statement, so universally acknowledged to be true, that actually means the opposite: "It is a truth understood implicitly by women that any man with enough money is going to be a good prize" might be one interpretation. Or "it is a truth understood implicitly by women that the only way they can ever get out of their parents' house is by finding a single man."   

So don't be tempted to take Jane Austen at face value.  She is having a lot of fun with her beautiful declarative prose style. And sure: some of the women characters she describes are painfully stupid.  But many of them aren't. This gives Austen the ability to let her readers decide for themselves who is foolish and who is wise -- or who is proud, and who prejudiced.

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Comments 63 comments

Candie V profile image

Candie V 7 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

Teresa, you continue to put me in awe! Now, literary analysis! I love Jane Austen, but some of her letters get soooo long and wordy! You have to look at the period to really appreciate the subtle nuances of these kinds of lines.. (See, I can get wordy, too! - must be the Emerson in me..:) ) anyhow, I really enjoyed this, I bet you'd be great in a book club!


Pete Maida profile image

Pete Maida 7 years ago

That gave me an excellent education in that time period. My understanding has grown considerably; thank you.


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Hey Candie, hey Pete: thanks for stopping by and reading. This is one of my favorite games -- deconstructing opening sentences to find out what's really in 'em!


goldentoad profile image

goldentoad 7 years ago from Free and running....

I felt like I was in the front row of class. I was actually forced to think!


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Hope I didn't kill your buzz, GT -- thanks for reading.


goldentoad profile image

goldentoad 7 years ago from Free and running....

I was going through my afternoon spell where all my thoughts are drained and are becoming increasingly dormant. Then your ruler slapped my desk and now I'm recharged. Just don't smack the back of my head please.


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

I only knock students "upside the head" when they fall asleep.  Or I throw chalk.  I threw a blackboard eraser, once.  And a book. 


goldentoad profile image

goldentoad 7 years ago from Free and running....

Very gentle tactics. I assume then, all eyelids were glued open at every moment after that.


Whikat 7 years ago

Wow, If I had an instructor in College that could have kept me fascinated with each word, like you can. I would have probably graduated with honors. :-) Thanks for the knowledge and wisdom. Thanks for opening up my mind to Jane Austen's thoughts. :-)


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thank you, Whikat -- how sweet -- I can see that I wouldn't have had to throw any chalk at you!


fortunerep profile image

fortunerep 7 years ago from North Carolina

I absolutely loved this, how have we evolved, sometimes I silintly wish that it was back in the ole days again where the bigggest worry I had was what to cook for dinner and the men handled everything, no more. We do it all. Sometimes it is unsettling. Damn tose bra burners.........lol

dori


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

Very much enjoyed your analysis, and I must admit, I had never thougt too deeply abotut that line, though it is familiar. Good one.


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

about


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Hey Dori, hey Rochelle -- thanks for reading. (Gee, Rochelle -- I didn't even notice the "about").


Lucey Knight profile image

Lucey Knight 7 years ago from North Richland Hills, Texas

Excellent read. Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books of all time. Thank you for broadning my view of it.


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

Abotut-- wasn't he a pharaoh or something?


Not Telling profile image

Not Telling 7 years ago from Eastern Nowhere

Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors. Very much enjoyed this piece that crystalized so much of what I had kept as feelings and half-thoughts.


Candie V profile image

Candie V 7 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

What book is next so I can prepare?? I so want to be prepared!! I'll bring you and apple!! Can I clean the chalk board?? Can I sharpen your pencils???


Iphigenia 7 years ago

I love JA after first reading all of her novels as a teenager over 30 years ago, an again many times since. There is always something new to find in the details and descriptions.

I have been delighted over these last 8 years or so re-reading them again with my daughter Sorrel, who is now 24 years old. To discuss them with her during these years of her early womanhood has brought us even closer together.

We both love Jane Austen's voice - she has a profound vision (moral and spiritual) Her characters undergo enormous transformations of repentance or conversion - and those that don't learn from experience are either ruined and disgraced or dommed to increasing shallowness. Most of all she is full of irony and humour.

Candi V is right - we should have a bookclub here - or maybe on the VFT ??


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Candie -- lol, you are too funny, girl. A book club? Hmmmmm Then I'd have to read past the first sentence, wouldn't I?


Ginn Navarre profile image

Ginn Navarre 7 years ago

Excellent read and as always, you brought the wisdom right up front and planted it deep.


Candie V profile image

Candie V 7 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

Maybe we could have a "first line only" book club?


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thank you, Ginn -- always a pleasure to hear from you!

Candie -- lol -- could catch on?  this hub, incidentally, is the first in a series -- as you correctly guessed.  I'm trying to decide which novel to tackle next: Ulysses, or As I Lay Dying?


Candie V profile image

Candie V 7 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

I think maybe something light, like Tolstoy or an Archie's Comic Book.. I shall get a head start should you choose Archie, Veronic and Betty..


Gin Delloway profile image

Gin Delloway 7 years ago

great hub!!! I like it!


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Amazing that you read it in 7 seconds, Gin -- that must be a record! Thanks for beng such a speed reader!


LondonGirl profile image

LondonGirl 7 years ago from London

Fantastic hub, I love it! I've always loved JA's prose, so concise, precise, and yet subversive.

I also like the opening line, "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there" from the Go-Between.


shibashake profile image

shibashake 7 years ago

What a lovely hub Teresa! I have watched Pride and Prejudice many times over and every time I see it, I always chuckle at this first line.

Women's education? Nah - don't need it. A wink, a smile, and talking folksy is enough to get you very very far ;)


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thanks, guys -- LG, yes; that is on my list of possibles (d'ja know that Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay for it?), because it is timeless and opens up such a great philosophical question. L.P. Hartley? Am I remembering correctly?

Hey, Shiba -- there were members of my family who were of the opinion that there was no point in educating me, but that's another story!


LondonGirl profile image

LondonGirl 7 years ago from London

Thassa one - part of my Eng Lit GCSE.


Candie V profile image

Candie V 7 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

Oh man, London girl and Teresa, higher education rocks, but never got there.. feeling outta my league!


Feline Prophet profile image

Feline Prophet 7 years ago from India

This is great! Who would have thought there was so much behind a little sentence? For some strange reason, the only opening line I remember is from Daphne du Maurier's 'Rebecca'...Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again....


Hawkesdream profile image

Hawkesdream 7 years ago from Cornwall

One sentence , one hub, who would ever of thought that so much could be deduced from so little.


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

I'm taking suggestions for other novels, so let me know if you have a favorite.


Smireles profile image

Smireles 7 years ago from Texas

Jane Austin is an enduring treasure. The female members of my family love her works. My husband laughs at the older versions of the movie Pride and Prejudice. Thank you for a wonderful and captivating review.


2patricias profile image

2patricias 7 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

What an entertaining Hub! Not only is that opening sentence positively dripping with meaning, it is very poetic.

Please keep up this series!

Why not try something 20th Century next as a contrast.

Here's an opening sentence: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

oh -- is that Salinger? It's intriguing -- I'll have to go look for it, now! Thanks for leaving it.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

Thanks for the Jane Austen, Teresa. It's been a while, maybe 17 years since I've read her and need to revisit...Emma, I think. I've always loved Emma.

Those first sentances in a novel pack a powerful wallop, set the whole tone for the book, induce us to read on. My favorite first sentance is the beginning of Rebecca - 'Last night I dreamed I went to Manderlay.' So simple, yet it just lures you in and creates the sense that you're entering a strange dream.


Elena. profile image

Elena. 7 years ago from Madrid

Smart woman, this Jane Austin, just as this Teresa woman. I would have liked to have you as English teacher, not that I can complain about the two I got back when, but you're better looking all the way, besides knowing your literature! Laugh! Loved this article, Teresa!


Cris A profile image

Cris A 7 years ago from Manila, Philippines

Jane Austen is really a curiosity and a wonder. She seems too modern and contemporary for her time. And I really like it when the characters are in a duel or having conversations with themselves. Thanks for sharing. I hope there's no quiz after! LOL :D


Hawkesdream profile image

Hawkesdream 7 years ago from Cornwall

Here's one, 'Time passes, Listen, time passes, slow black , crow black, fishing boat bobbing sea.' [ pretty sure it's the first] Dylan Thomas - Under Milk Wood.


Shalini Kagal profile image

Shalini Kagal 7 years ago from India

One of my favourites - and I must confess I've always felt Jane Austen wrote most of her work very tongue-in-cheekish!

Teresa - you are God's gift to students!

Just an aside - if this snippet is real, then 1955 was almost as bad as 1813 :D

http://www.barricksinsurance.com/GoodHousekeeping....


ElizaC1959 profile image

ElizaC1959 7 years ago from Mesa, AZ

What wonderful blog, I love Jane Austin. I distinctly remember giggling when I read that line. It seemed to me to be said with such irony. I was maybe 12 or 13 and was reading it for a book report, no less. I've been a Jane Austin fan ever since.


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Many thanks for all your kind comments -- this is certainly a much-loved book.

HAwkes: thanks for the Dylan Thomas -- he was brilliant.


ralwus 7 years ago

Always the teacher and I am always happy to be yer student. How about Melville's opening to Moby Dick?


lxxy profile image

lxxy 7 years ago from Beneath, Between, Beyond

Well done, yet again...

...I like how you fit everything together like a puzzle piece and help people see the larger picture.


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Ralwus -- Moby Dick? I'm not sure I'm tall enough for such a feat. . .

Thanks, Ixxy, for your kind comments.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

Superb analysis of the opening line of Pride and Prejudice, Teresa. My late wife, Ruth, loved the movie version. I suspect that you will -- at some time along the way -- do a similar analysis of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," which I believe may be the most famous of all opening lines: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..." I look forward to reading more about well thought out opening lines.


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 7 years ago from Northern California

Great analysis of this line... Who would have thought so much could come out of one sentence? (Even though those old Victorian sentences could be sooo complex :)


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Hey, William -- I have already had a stab at the Dickens -- :) glad you liked this one.

Glass--thanks -- it was a lot of fun to write.


Staci-Barbo7 profile image

Staci-Barbo7 7 years ago from North Carolina

Jane Austen fought back against the strictures placed on her and other women in the only way she could and still be accepted socially - through satire and irony.  Her saving grace was that she, through her narration and fascinating characters, spoke so adeptly in the 'voice' of that era, that many would not have caught the hidden let's-begin-a-social-revolution-volleys.  Being removed from her writing by nearly 200 years gives us an advantage of historical perspective which sheds light on Austen's beliefs about the social structure and restraints of her day on the 'gentler' sex, that her readers would not have had.   How's that for a fledgling example of Austenian sentence structure?


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Staci -- wonderful! And a very good insight, too. Thanks for reading and commenting.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa

Austin always been a favourite. Thanks for insightful Hub.

Love and peace

Tony


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thanks, Tony, for the read and for the comment.


Jacqueline Yeung 7 years ago

Omg. this was really nice analysis! I love how you explained all the background. I never did go too in depth. It was really great!


John W. Watson profile image

John W. Watson 7 years ago

I'm going to pull out my copy of pride and prejudice again and give it another try. The fact is that I caught my own writing bug after reading dickens a tale of two cities.

I'd like to get your opinion of my Hub, The Pact. Download it and see what you think. And thanks for the great writing. And stay feisty.


ms. 7 years ago

thnx 4 the bckground info


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands

Very interesting.

I might have to add that to my book list. :)


Henna 6 years ago

Thanks a lot this has helped me soo much x


Doug Turner Jr. 6 years ago

That is an excellent opening sentence. I'm constantly picking up books to examine the beginning; it fascinates me, as P and P obviously does for you.


attemptedhumour profile image

attemptedhumour 5 years ago from Australia

Hi Teresa, I haven't read Pride and Prejudice yet, but i've seen the BBC series numerous times, with Mr Collins being one of my favourite male characters. It is so easy to imagine the fuss that would ensue once a dashing rich bachelor rode into town. Or an ugly one for that matter. I suppose there are occasions where the boot is on the other foot. As in China where the desire for a boy is creating a similar problem, if for different reasons.

Thanks for this thought provoking hub.


Howard Allen profile image

Howard Allen 5 years ago

Teresa, great commentary on this first sentence. I've given it some thought too but I didn't know all that. Very informative. Thanks.


innoialifa profile image

innoialifa 5 years ago from Ibadan

Teresa, I was compelled to consider what I've never thought out before... lovely post...

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