I had begun to reread Pride and Prejudice recently when it struck me just how impressive the first chapter is. At less than 1,000 words, you would expect it to be a mere toe-dip in the ocean of the novel, but it is actually quite masterful.
Take that masterful first line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The treatment of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley by many in the novel hinges upon this view, and even Mr. Collins, with his more limited “good fortune,” has a trajectory defined by marriage. Mrs. Bennet and the Lucases have a desire for their daughters to match with men of good fortune, and even Lady Catherine wants a specific wife for Mr. Darcy. Were Pride and Prejudice written in today’s times, it might have been given a title more like The Matchmaking Games. Looking at the book in a shallow way, it seems to hinge on the question of who Darcy, Bingley, Collins, and Wickham will marry.
Even beyond this packed first line, the first chapter gives us a lot of information in a concise format. We learn that Netherfield has been leased by a wealthy and single young man who can act impulsively at times (Mr. Bingley was “so much delighted with” Netherfield that he agreed “immediately” to take it). We learn that gossip seems to be the lifeblood of the neighborhood in general and Mrs. Bennet in particular. We learn that Mrs. Bennet hopes that one of her five daughters will marry him – and in fact, she has such a high opinion of her daughters that she thinks “it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them.”
We learn also of the focus on appearances. Mr. Bennet says his wife his as handsome as any of their daughters, and he even makes a joke that, if you look at it in a certain light, even appears to be making light of adultery. Mr. Bennet tells his wife, “You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better, for as you are as handsome as any of them, Mr. Bingley may like you the best of the party.” While Mrs. Bennet does not by any means see this as an invitation to cheat on her husband, there is a sort of dark humor beneath the statement.
That’s one of the things that is so entertaining about Austen – there are layers within the text even beyond tongue-in-cheek humor. Certain things can be interpreted in different ways, and the way the reader engages with the text is ever-changing with each reading.
Within this first chapter, we see how Mr. Bennet teases his wife. This can be viewed as done lovingly, for he does compliment her and call her “my dear,” yet it can also be viewed in a negative light. After all, Mr. Bennet acts as though his wife’s concerns are not things for him to be concerned about, and he indicates she has frequently mentioned her nerves for at least two decades. His respect for her seems lacking, as does his respect for his daughters, whom he calls “silly and ignorant like other girls.”
However, we do learn that Mr. Bennet seems to favor “Lizzzy,” even as Mrs. Bennet seems to be a bit bitter toward how her husband always gives Elizabeth “the preference.” We also learn that Mrs. Bennet believes Jane to be handsome and Lydia to be good-humored.
Finally, we learn that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have been married for 23 years and that Mrs. Bennet’s business in life is “to get her daughters married.” This seems to be the other side of the coin noted in the first sentence of the chapter, which focuses on how young wealthy men must want wives. The other side of that is, of course, that young women must want to become their wives.
All of this information is packed into an introductory chapter that is primarily composed of dialogue. I like to think that Austen spent a long time on this first chapter, knowing how important first impressions are (nudgenudge).
It’s easy to focus on the more dramatic scenes, like Mr. Collins’s proposal and Mr. Darcy’s proposals, but I think that this first chapter is one that doesn’t receive as much attention as it should (apart from that first line!). What’s a chapter or scene that you think is underrated and why?