Famous First Sentences: Pride and Prejudice
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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