In which a series about literature, which is wanting of an episode on Jane Austen, gets the first of two episodes. It’s Pride and Prejudice, everybody! John Green talks about Pride and Prejudice as a product of Regency England, gives you a short biographical look at author Jane Austen, and familiarizes you with the web of human connections this book spins.
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature and it is a truth universally acknowledged
that a video series about world literature must be in want of a Jane Austen episode.
/ So here it is.
Today, we’ll be discussing Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s Regency-era novel of life, liberty
The book was first published in 1813, it’s a social satire about a family with five daughters
and quite a lot of economic anxiety.
And the novel’s characters and themes have remained relevant for centuries now–which
is why there are SO.
MANY. adaptations of it, from the Keira Knightly movie to an Emmy winning web series co-created
by my brother.
/ Today, we’ll talk about the social and historical
context in which the book was written, the style that Jane Austen helped invent, and
the dilemmas the major characters face.
And in the next episode, we’ll look more closely at the politics of the book and its
attitudes toward money, class and gender.
But for now: It’s bonnets all the way down.
INTRO So we don’t know that much about Jane Austen’s
life because after her death her sister burned most of her letters.
Just a friendly note, by the way, to any future literary executors out there, maybe don’t
burn so much stuff?
Even if you’re told to.
Wait, unless your MY literary executor.
Then burn everything.
But, here’s what we do know: Jane Austen was born in 1775 to an Anglican clergyman
and his wife; Jane was the second youngest of eight children.
And her father farmed and took in students to makes ends meet.
Jane was mostly taught at home and sometimes she wasn’t taught at all, although she and
her sister did go to a year or two of boarding school.
When she was eleven, Jane started writing plays and novels, mostly social satires and
parodies of “novels of sensibility,” a literary genre in which women like, cry and
sigh and faint a lot.
Many of these early works were in the style of the epistolary novel, which is a story
composed of letters, and we see echoes of that form in Pride and Prejudice.
We also see some echoes of Pride and Prejudice in Austen’s life.
She never married, but she did receive at least one proposal that she accepted for a
And after her father’s death in 1805, her financial position and the positions of her
mother and her sister became increasingly insecure.
By 1816, four of her books had been published.
And she was working on a new novel, called Sanditon, when she died in 1817, at the age
of just 41.
/ Two more of her works, Persuasion and Northanger
Abbey, were published after her death.
They’re all good–but to me at least Pride and Prejudice is the most perfect of them–there’s
a precision to it.
Like Gatsby or Sula, Pride and Prejudice is a novel in which every single word feels genuinely
So what happens in Pride and Prejudice?
well, let’s go to the Thoughtbubble: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet live in rural England
with their five daughters: pretty Jane, lively Elizabeth, horrible Mary, airhead Kitty, and
boy obsessed Lydia.
When Mr. Bennet dies the estate will go to a male cousin, so the daughters have to find
Or else live in poverty or become governesses, and if you’ve read Jane Eyre, you know how
great that gig is.
Mr. Bingley, an eligible bachelor, arrives on the scene, and he and Jane fall in love.
Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley’s best friend, definitely don’t.
Elizabeth gets a proposal of marriage from Mr. Collins, the cousin who’s going to inherit
And marrying him would save her sisters from poverty, but Mr. Collins is awful and Elizabeth
So her best friend, Charlotte, ends up snagging him.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth starts to fall for Wickham, a soldier in the militia.
He hates Mr. Darcy, too.
/ Suddenly Mr. Bingley moves away and Jane is heartbroken.
Elizabeth goes to visit Charlotte and is introduced to Lady Catherine, Mr. Darcy’s ultra-snob
She sees Mr. Darcy there and he also proposes marriage but in a very insulting way.
She insults him right back.
/ much for love at first sight.
Some months later Elizabeth is on a trip with her aunt and uncle.
They visit Mr. Darcy’s lavish estate and Elizabeth softens toward him.
Then she gets word that Lydia has run off with Wickham.
/ Mr. Darcy saves Lydia’s reputation by brokering
Then it’s happy endings all around: Lydia gets married; Jane and Mr. Bingley get
married, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy get married, Kitty learns to be a little bit less of an
airhead and Mary is presumably still horrible.
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
So let’s talk life and letters in Regency England.
By the way, Regency England refers to a period from about 1800-1820 when King George III
became mentally ill and unfit to rule.
In England, this was a time of political uncertainty and a lot of economic volatility.
There was a rising middle class, a burgeoning consumer culture, and a move from an agrarian
economy to an industrial one.
And that meant less overall poverty, but it also meant a lot of social instability.
And It was also a time when people in England were beginning to talk about the rights of
Like, Mary Wollstonecraft published “Vindication of the Rights of Women” seven years after
Austen was born, though it’s important to remember that at this place and time women
didn’t really have many rights–they couldn’t vote, and in Pride and Prejudice, the whole
plot begins because all of Bennet’s five children are daughters,
This means that legally, Bennet’s estate has to go to a male cousin.
But there was a growing belief that hey, maybe women should have rights.
Abroad, the American Revolution and the French Revolution had recently unsettled established
social and political orders.
Everywhere there were increasing discussions about rights and responsibilities, liberties
You can even hear this in the famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice: “It is
a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be
in want of a wife.”
It has an echo of the American Declaration of Independence: “We find these truths to
But the comic deflation in the second half of the sentence is pure Austen.
Some people are initially put off by Pride and Prejudice because they view it as a sort
of literaryfied romance novel.
And, it is a book primarily interested in human relationships, especially romantic ones–but
I’d challenge the idea that such novels can’t be great.
/ Nobody ever argues that picaresque novels,
or bildungsromans, are merely genre novels–even though they are also genres.
But the word “romance” is too often and too quickly dismissed.
By the way, Austen has this completely unearned reputation for being genteel and conservative.
The reality is that her work is very funny and mean and super smart about human behavior.
/ You can hear that in the letters that survive,
like when she writes to her sister, “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it
saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”
Also, this may be a novel about relationships, but relationships are important.
Most of us aren’t going to get to decide the fate of a city-state or die in pursuit
of a great white whale but many of us are going to have to decide whom to marry.
But also while this book involves lower-case r romance, it is very aggressively not capital-r
Romantic, in the Byron Wordsworth Shelley sense that feelings are so overwhelming that
they supersede logic.
I mean, Wordsworth can write a hillside for thirty-seven stanzas, but if you read Austen
closely, you’ll find that there’s a striking absence of physical description.
We don’t know what the dresses look like.
We don’t know what the people look like.
When there is a physical description, like the description of Mr. Darcy’s estate or
Elizabeth’s petticoat, it means that something crucially important is happening.
And even then these descriptions are very brief.
If we’re being honest, there isn’t even all that much in here about bonnets.
In fact, Austen is suspicious of overwhelming emotion.
Remember how I mentioned the novel of sensibility and Austen’s early satires?
She’s skeptical of feeling too much, of getting so carried away by emotion that it
prevents you from thinking clearly.
This is exemplified by Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s relationship.
They don’t fall in love at first sight.
Actually, it’s the opposite: hate at first sight.
At a ball, she overhears him telling his friend that her sister is the only hot girl in the
room and that Elizabeth is merely “tolerable.”
Given that Elizabeth and Darcy are end up together, this is a novel that’s suspicious
of romantic love, especially romantic love based on instant physical attraction
and when characters do get carried away by their emotions, they’re either fooling themselves,
like Mr. Collins, or doing something really wrong, like Lydia.
Pride and Prejudice: Not a capital-r Romance.
Yes, it has a wish-fulfilling ending, but it’s a sly, and ironic and clear-eyed exploration
of the individual vs. the collective, happiness vs. security and how and why people form romantic
/ It’s about love, but rather than presuming
that love is only a feeling, Pride and Prejudice explores how thinking and feeling and need
and responsibility intersect to form the experience that we call love.
/ One might even say that it’s a novel about
love that deconstructs love.
Austen joked that the scope of her works was narrow, equating her writing with a two-inch
piece of ivory “on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after
She also critiqued of Pride and Prejudice, writing to a friend, “The work is rather
too light & bright & sparkling; it wants shade.” /
and yeah, OK, the novel is fun.
But reading should be fun sometimes.
I mean, we already read To the Lighthouse.
And in terms of the prose-style itself, Austen actually was pioneering a new style here called
free indirect discourse.
It means that even though the narration is in the third person, the narrative voice takes
on the thoughts and feelings of characters.
/ I mean, After unexpectedly meeting Darcy at
his estate, the third-person narration captures Elizabeth’s embarrassment:
“Her coming there was the most unfortunate, the most ill-judged thing in the world!
How strange must it appear to him!
In what a disgraceful light might it not strike so vain a man!
It might seem as if she had purposely thrown herself in his way again!”
This narrative approach reflects emotion without stating it–showing instead of telling, as
the saying goes–and makes us feel not as if we can sympathize with Elizabeth, but instead
as if we ARE Elizabeth, /
which to me is one of the most profound and important things a novel can do: Great books
offer you a way out of yourself, and into others’ lives.
Next time we’ll look more closely at some of the themes, but for now, let’s briefly
explore the dilemma facing Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters.
Because her parents have been bad with money, she knows she has to marry well or face poverty.
Or become a governess.
And as we know from Jane Eyre, that’s a terrible option.
When Mr. Collins proposes, that’s a fantastic solution.
Except for one thing: She can’t respect him.
Mr. Collins is pompous and foolish and the very things that make Elizabeth terrific—like
her lively mind and her fresh wit—make him nervous.
She tells him, “ You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman
in the world who would make you so.”
But the idea that happiness should be privileged over security is pretty radical.
/ Elizabeth is deciding that her personal individual
happiness should outweigh the economic problems of her family.
She is taking a huge risk when she rejects him.
/ As Mr. Collins tells her, she’s poor so
she probably won’t get another proposal.
He might not have made her happy, but he would have made her and any unmarried sisters financially
And then, Elizabeth takes the same risk or a greater one when she rejects Mr. Darcy’s
insulting first proposal.
She can’t make herself marry a man she doesn’t like.
This was the same dilemma Austen herself faced and her rejection of a suitor made things
hard for herself and for her family.
But she did it anyway.
Now, thanks to the fairy tale ending, Elizabeth doesn’t experience, like, catastrophic consequences
as a result of her privileging happiness.
/ But as 19th century English readers would
have been very well aware, she could have.
And so, the novel helped them, and also helps us, explore when we should put our own needs
first, and when the happiness and security of others is more important.
/ Is doing what is best for you always the right
thing to do?
Or are there moments when you must sacrifice your happiness for the good of your family
or your social order?
We’ll continue our discussion next time when we’ll also examine whether the politics
of the book are radical or conservative.
And we’ll answer a vexing question: Why does Lydia buy such an ugly bonnet?
Thanks for watching.
Hope it was tolerable.
I’ll see you next time.
This post was previously published on YouTube.
Photo credit: Screenshot from video