Story Skeleton—Pride & Prejudice


Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.

 

By Michelle Barker

Pride, Prejudice, and Happily Ever After

An analysis of the plot points and narrative structure in Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Arguably Jane Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice hits all the high points of the romance cycle—and is considered by many to be foundational to the genre. Austen builds each protagonist’s trials into the narrative structure in a nicely symmetrical fashion before and after the midpoint. What’s interesting about this novel in terms of craft is the way she experiments with free indirect discourse within the omniscient point of view.

Also notable is her frank portrayal of a woman’s plight in nineteenth-century England. When it came to marriage, love was a luxury that not many women could afford. Austen juxtaposes the hope of finding true love with the reality of marrying for financial security—all set against a backdrop of a highly classed society.

Satire plays a key role in this novel. Austen was not the first to wield this sword against the upper classes, but she does it with such wit and cleverness that it’s a delight to read.

Pride and Prejudice is an examination of human nature, particularly the danger of making assumptions about a person based on appearances. Interestingly, its original title was First Impressions, which is reflected in how several of the characters judge each other too hastily. The two main characters—Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy—are particularly guilty of this. Not only do they misjudge each other, but Elizabeth also misjudges Mr. Wickham, and Mr. Darcy misjudges Jane. The pride and prejudice that both Darcy and Elizabeth bring into their assumptions almost keep them apart forever.

But fear not. This is a romance, and happily ever after is part of the deal.

Narrative Goal

The novel’s opening line is so well known, it comes up in trivia games: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In fact, this novel is about the exact opposite of that statement: the truth that is not acknowledged. A single woman who is not in possession of a good fortune had better hunt for a rich husband or she’ll be in trouble. And a single man in possession of a good fortune will be bound by family and societal expectations to only look for a certain type of woman (i.e. a wealthy one).

This is an ugly truth, and Austen creates an ugly character to express it: Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet is loud and lacks social graces and connives to do whatever she can to find partners for her daughters. But though we might dislike her, we cannot deny that she sees reality more clearly than most. With five daughters and the family estate entailed to a distant male cousin, Mrs. Bennet understands the transactional nature of marriage for a woman. She herself has no inheritance, so when Mr. Bennet dies, if one of the daughters is not married to a man in possession of a good fortune who can support them, they’ll be destitute.

But what about love? Jane and Elizabeth are looking for true love, Mary is up to her neck in books, and Lydia and Kitty are flighty and silly. It is worth pointing out the irony that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet do not have a happy marriage. He scarcely tolerates her and sequesters himself in his library so that he doesn’t have to listen to her. They are an object lesson to their daughters of the dangers of marrying too impulsively.

If the narrative structure were expressed in Mrs. Bennet’s terms, it would look thus: when an eligible bachelor rolls into town, Mrs. Bennet is determined to match him up with one of her daughters, else her girls will end up penniless.

While that goal underpins the whole novel, Mrs. Bennet is not one of the protagonists. The two key protagonists are Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, and while this is a love story, it takes two-thirds of the novel before their emotions are in sync and the final third before they can overcome the various obstacles that keep them apart.

Darcy’s arc is as follows: when a wealthy man falls in love with a woman from a middle-class family, he must overcome his societal prejudices or else he’ll be stuck marrying the insipid daughter of his powerful aunt.

And Elizabeth’s: when a young woman’s pride is injured by a wealthy eligible bachelor, she makes faulty assumptions about his character and must eventually swallow her pride and forgive him—else she will remain unmarried and potentially destitute.

Romance Structure

Because Pride and Prejudice sets the foundation for the genre of romance, it seems fitting to evaluate its structure based on what has become the formula for many romance novels. Though Austen’s novel includes most of the main structural elements of a romance, it doesn’t quite hit them in the order readers have come to expect. But they’re still there.

Stasis

The opening of the novel sets up the social context. We meet the Bennets, a middle-class family with five unmarried daughters living in the village of Longbourn on an estate that is entailed to a cousin. When Mr. Bingley arrives in town and rents Netherfield Park, we have the narrative hook: an eligible bachelor who is wealthy to boot. He must marry someone, and Mrs. Bennet is determined it will be one of her daughters.

Inciting Incident (Initial Encounter)

The ball in Meryton is the inciting incident for the two main love stories in the novel. It is the initial encounter for both Jane and Mr. Bingley, and Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, bringing us a double meet-cute moment and a rejection.

When Mr. Bingley sets eyes on Jane, it is love at first sight for them both. He has come to the ball with his good friend, Mr. Darcy. While Bingley seems to get along with everyone, the same cannot be said for Darcy who comes across as proud and haughty. Bingley suggests that he might dance with Jane’s sister, Elizabeth, but Darcy refuses, calling Elizabeth merely “tolerable” and “not handsome enough” to tempt him.

The First Rejection

Unfortunately, Elizabeth overhears this statement. In contrast to the love at first sight that Jane and Bingley experience, for Darcy and Elizabeth it is more like disdain at first sight. When Elizabeth vows to her best friend Charlotte that she will never dance with Mr. Darcy or have anything to do with him because he’s too proud and disagreeable, the seeds of pride and prejudice are planted for them both. Darcy appears to be proud; Elizabeth’s pride has been injured. Darcy is prejudiced against Elizabeth’s lower standing in society; Elizabeth judges Darcy based on her first impression of him which will turn out to be wrong. It’s a moment of mutual rejection.

Initial Rising Action

In a romance cycle, the two main characters have conflicting intentions for the relationship. The rising action involves them challenging or reinforcing these positions through three trials. Austen uses the three trials in a slightly different way, separating them out and creating symmetry around the midpoint. Let’s look at the key initial events first as they relate to Darcy and Elizabeth and then move into the trials.

Jane is invited to Netherfield Park to dine with Mr. Bingley’s sister, Caroline. Mrs. Bennet, ever mindful of snagging the eligible bachelor, forces Jane to go on horseback in the rain so that she will get sick and have to stay there to convalesce. This has an unintended consequence: Elizabeth goes to visit her, and during that time, Mr. Darcy begins to fall in love with her.

But Darcy also watches Jane and misreads her reserved nature as disinterest towards Bingley. He cautions his friend against pursuing the relationship (though Elizabeth doesn’t know this yet). Elizabeth’s opinion of Darcy worsens when she meets Mr. Wickham who tells her that Darcy cheated him out of his inheritance.

At Rosings Park, Darcy tries to connect with Elizabeth and explains that he doesn’t have the easy ability to converse with strangers which is why he comes across as standoffish, but when Elizabeth learns that he convinced Bingley not to pursue her sister, she is enraged.

The Midpoint Declaration

Darcy declares his love for Elizabeth, but he does it in an awkward and almost insulting way, telling her that he loves her despite his better judgment and her poor relations. Elizabeth refuses him, partly because she doesn’t appreciate how he’s expressed himself, but mainly because of what he’s done to her sister and what she’s learned about him from Wickham. Her rejection of him couldn’t be stronger: she wouldn’t marry him if he was the last man on earth.

And yet, as soon as he storms out, she bursts into tears—suggesting that she has developed feelings for him too. But it now seems that the distance between them is unbridgeable. Shortly after the declaration, Darcy delivers a letter which becomes the turning point in the novel. The scales fall from Elizabeth’s eyes and she begins to form a different opinion of him. He must humble himself to write this letter, and Elizabeth must humble herself to accept how wrong she was about his character. Transformation has begun.

Three Trials

In the romance genre, these three trials usually involve the would-be lovers becoming closer while also reinforcing why the relationship can’t work. In the case of a romance with another external conflict, the would-be lovers must work through their own rising action in three trials that bring them into contact and build on the initial rejection. Sometimes the trials take the form of three dates. That’s not quite what Austen does here, though both Elizabeth and Darcy experience three distinct trials.

Elizabeth’s trials come before the midpoint and make up most of the rising action in the first half of the book. They come in the form of suitors:

  • Collins: the cousin who is destined to inherit the family estate but who is wholly unsuitable for her. This marriage would be prudent financially, but unhappy.
  • Wickham: an attraction based purely on appearances. Mr. Wickham appears charming but turns out to be a scoundrel. This marriage would be based on physical attraction and would be a disaster.
  • Darcy: the perfect partner, whom Elizabeth hates at first and who is, in terms of class, out of her league. This marriage would be ideal, but societal expectation (represented by Lady Catherine de Bourgh) is against it.

Darcy’s trials happen after his midpoint declaration of love for Elizabeth. Because they make up the bulk of the rising action in the second half of the book, they overlap the external crisis. They come in the form of amends:

  • He writes a long letter of explanation about what happened with Mr. Bingley and Jane, admitting he was wrong in his assumptions of her. He also explains the truth about Mr. Wickham who, it turns out, is unreliable, immoral, and had nefarious designs on Darcy’s sister Georgiana (and specifically, her fortune).
  • He secretly helps with Lydia’s situation when she and Mr. Wickham run away together.
  • He returns to Longbourn with Mr. Bingley to right the wrong of thwarting his relationship with Jane.

While Elizabeth and Darcy don’t exactly declare their love for each other yet, it is clear that she has been affected by his letter and that he’s not prepared to give up on her.

External Crisis

The external crisis comes when Elizabeth receives news that Lydia and Mr. Wickham have run away together to elope and that they are traveling alone (possibly unmarried).

It’s important to understand how serious this was. A young girl’s reputation was everything; losing it would impact not only her but also her entire family. While Austen spends a lot of time making fun of social hierarchy, this part of the novel is deadly serious. No honorable man would marry the sister of such a disreputable girl.

Because Darcy is present when Elizabeth receives this news, she shares it with him. Their reactions are an indication of how much they’ve both changed. Elizabeth feels at least partly responsible because she knew about Wickham’s true character but never said anything to her family. Darcy, too, takes responsibility, saying that he should have exposed Wickham publicly.

Mr. Bennet and Mr. Gardiner are dispatched to track Lydia down in London, where she is presumed to be holed up with Mr. Wickham. But there is little hope of finding them, and even less hope that Mr. Wickham will do the right thing and marry her—especially because she has no money.

This could be considered an all-is-lost moment for Elizabeth. Her feelings for Darcy have now come full circle and she would marry him if he asked. But she now believes there’s no chance of him doing so with a sister whose reputation is so wholly ruined.

What no one realizes is that Darcy is working behind the scenes to remedy the situation. This is part of his second trial.

Pulling Together

Pulling together involves the couple’s response to the crisis, but because Austen weaves Darcy’s trials into the fabric of the rising action, this is really mostly about him.

Despite the odds, Lydia and Wickham are found and return to Longbourn as a married couple. Lydia lets it slip that Mr Darcy was at their wedding. When Elizabeth questions her aunt about it, she discovers it was Darcy who saved her sister. He was the one who paid Wickham’s debts and offered him enough money to make marrying Lydia an attractive option. For Darcy to go out of his way to help Wickham after everything Wickham has done to him and his sister is a remarkable gesture of love to Elizabeth.

The characters of Wickham and Mr. Darcy are set up as opposites. Wickham is good looking and charming and has good social skills, while Darcy seems haughty and awkward and is unable to communicate well. But this novel is at least partly about appearances being deceptive. Darcy’s character turns out to be irreproachable while Wickham is a rogue who is not to be trusted.

Darcy’s third trial occurs when he arrives at Longbourn with Mr. Bingley to correct his earlier mistake.

Climax

It almost seems like things will work out for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, until Lady Catherine de Bourgh pays the Bennets a surprise visit. Throughout the novel she has attempted to exert control over everyone around her and as a wealthy patroness she expects people to do her bidding.

Austen introduces a lovely irony into this climax. It is Catherine de Bourgh’s attempt to end the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth that brings them together. She has heard a rumor that Darcy and Elizabeth are engaged and insists on Elizabeth promising never to enter into such an arrangement. Elizabeth refuses. When Lady Catherine relates this refusal to Darcy, he realizes he still has a chance with her. This is what spurs him to propose to her a second time. This time, she accepts.

The HEA—Happily Ever After

Jane and Mr. Bingley marry. Elizabeth and Darcy marry. Lydia and Mr. Wickham have a rocky marriage, which is pretty much what they deserve. Kitty spends more time with Elizabeth and Darcy and is thus elevated from being Lydia’s silly, irresponsible sister to a more thoughtful and well-mannered young lady.

The only person who doesn’t get what they deserve is poor Mary, who really would have been the perfect partner for Mr. Collins.

Why Pride and Prejudice is a Classic      

Jane Austen’s experimentation with free indirect discourse was something new in the literary world. Free indirect discourse is basically a mash-up of the objectivity of omniscient narration with the intimacy of deep third. It means taking away the filtering phrases (she thought) and allowing a character’s thoughts to simply exist on the page. The resulting prose flows more smoothly and allows the reader a more direct experience of the characters.

It’s important to differentiate this from head-hopping, which involves quick (and confusing) shifts in POV. In free indirect discourse, the characters’ perspectives are filtered through the narrator’s voice. It allows for a more immersive experience than the omniscient narration that was typical of the time.

In terms of genre, Austen certainly wasn’t the first author to think about writing a story in which romance figures prominently as a literary theme. Before her there was Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, and all those troubadours with their love poems. But Pride and Prejudice is foundational to the development of the romance genre in the way it establishes some important elements that have become so popular they are now considered tropes: the meet-cute moment, the enemies-to-lovers transformation, the opposites-attract idea, and of course, the happily-ever-after ending. Romance is not relegated to a subplot; it is the plot.

Pride and Prejudice also distinguishes itself for its frank look at women’s financial and societal circumstances in nineteenth century England. It offers commentary on class differences, the ridiculous expectations and behaviors of the very wealthy, and the unfair inheritance laws.

In conclusion

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen gives us nuanced characters, witty dialogue, unexpected plot twists, and characters who transform in important ways. The narrative structure provides readers with a dynamic and satisfying romance in the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth. It’s a novel that stands up to repeated reading and never ceases to be both relevant and entertaining, proving that simple domestic stories are as engaging and valuable as sweeping epics.


Michelle Barker, senior editor and award-winning novelist

Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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