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.
PRIDE, PREJUDICE, AND PLOT TWISTS
The plot of Jane Austen’s most famous novel of manners, Pride and Prejudice, is remarkably intricate for a book that has been described as “just a bunch of people going to each other’s houses.” Originally published in three volumes, Austen’s novel is a masterclass in building a distinctive, believable world, populated with a colorful character ensemble that forms a strong narrative spine (or story skeleton).
The novel’s protagonist is Elizabeth Bennet, a headstrong young woman who must navigate a society obsessed with status and marriage. Of course, Austen’s chorus of supporting characters is so vibrant that one could plot a detailed narrative arc for any of them: Elizabeth’s foil-turned-love interest Mr. Darcy, her sisters Jane and Lydia, and even her marriage-obsessed mother. All their interwoven narrative threads serve to form a satisfyingly complex textile.
But despite its wealth of characters and overall narrative complexity, we can still fit Pride and Prejudice into Hannah Sheppard’s pitch test, a tried-and-true creative writing staple:
When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe).
The pitch for Pride and Prejudice would be as follows: When a couple of eligible bachelors come to town, Elizabeth Bennet must overcome her prejudice against one of them, Mr. Darcy, in order to secure happiness for her sister and herself.
Elizabeth’s key goal in Pride and Prejudice is less clear-cut than other protagonists—say, Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale. This reflects Austen’s tendency towards realism in her novels and her deep understanding that our own motivations are usually precipitated by circumstance.
As a result, Elizabeth’s journey takes the shape of a series of situational short-term goals: to make it through social events with minimal embarrassment, to assist Jane in her romance with Mr. Bingley, to save Lydia’s reputation after her botched elopement, and so on. However, if we were to assign an overall aim to Elizabeth, it would be to obtain happiness for herself and her loved ones—without sacrificing her principles.
Though we never directly witness the “stasis” of Elizabeth’s day-to-day life, we can reasonably assume the status quo: she finds the typical obsession with marriage and men to be somewhat silly, and considers herself above it. She’s confident in herself as a good judge of character, and thinks she has the world figured out—or at least the social world of her little section of England.
“Enter late, exit early” is oft-given advice when writing short stories, but Austen applies it to novel-writing too. The novel’s iconic opening immediately gives us a juicy inciting incident: the entrance of a highly eligible bachelor, Mr. Bingley, into the neighborhood. This throws Lizzy and her sisters headlong into a newly invigorated world of courtship and social climbing.
Point of no return
The point of no return occurs at a subsequent village ball, during which there are two crucially intertwined incidents. One of these is that Bingley’s friend Mr. Darcy insults Elizabeth without knowing she can hear him, at which point she (understandably) forms a strong personal grudge against him.
The other, of course, is that Bingley dances with Jane and they begin to fall for each other—and since Lizzy loves Jane dearly and will do anything to secure her sister’s happiness, this means that she cannot simply disregard Darcy, who happens to be Bingley’s best friend. From this point onward, like it or not, their lives will be inexorably intertwined.
Elizabeth’s hopes to remove herself from Darcy’s sphere are continuously dashed by outside influences. These include: Jane’s illness and long stay at Netherfield, during which Lizzy visits and must interact with Darcy; a Netherfield ball at which Darcy asks Lizzy to dance, much to her confusion; and the less-pressing but still significant issue of his omnipresence (in conversations with Mr. Wickham, Mr. Collins, etc.) even when he is not physically there.
Through it all Lizzy remains polite, even charming—not wanting to jeopardize Jane’s chances with Bingley, or indeed to embarrass herself in mixed company. But though we get glimpses of Darcy’s growing, if conflicted, attraction to her, we understand that Elizabeth continues to dislike Darcy. Even after they dance and converse in a lively manner, she sticks to her initial assumption that he is haughty, particular, and does not find her attractive.
In a novel that is concerned with challenging preconceptions, it’s fitting that Austen employs not one, but two midpoint reversals. The first twist in the tale comes when Bingley abruptly leaves Netherfield, seemingly never to return. Jane is bereft, and Lizzy’s attempts to comfort her are complicated by another twist: Darcy’s unexpected proposal.
While perhaps less shocking to us as readers, who have gotten an inkling of Darcy’s true feelings from our glimpses into his POV, the proposal blindsides Elizabeth. She is already upset with Darcy for dissuading Bingley from Jane, and the final straw is when he randomly proposes, insulting her family and social standing all the while. Lizzy unleashes a torrent of rage upon her would-be suitor (fair enough, in this writer’s eyes!), and they part on very poor terms indeed—a fine outcome for Lizzy, as Jane and Bingley are no longer an item.
All is lost
At this point, Jane is heartbroken and Elizabeth’s worldview deeply shaken, both by Bingley’s sudden abandonment and Darcy’s out-of-the-blue (or so it seems to her) affection for her. This disenchantment compounds when yet another tragedy befalls the Bennet family: Lydia runs away with George Wickham, the militia officer whom Lizzy believed to be respectable and trustworthy—in part because of her own grudge against Darcy, whom Wickham also disliked.
Now Lizzy (and the reader) sees the various ways that her beliefs, biases, and prejudices about people have been wrong. Without a doubt, she’s smart and capable, but she now finds that the truth has often been the opposite of what she had previously assumed. The inevitable result is that she questions her judgment and begins to rethink everything that happened with Bingley and Darcy… especially in the context of a letter from Darcy explaining his past with Wickham and his dealings with Jane and Bingley.
The Bennet family’s resurgence comes from an unlikely source: despite Elizabeth’s misgivings, Mr. Darcy is the one to track down Wickham and persuade him to marry Lydia, protecting her reputation and saving the family from potential ruin. Lizzy must now fully confront the error of her ways, and in the process, admits to herself that she admires Darcy.
The novel’s climax comes with Darcy once more proposing to Elizabeth. Lizzy, having changed her opinion of him (and having learned to be more open-minded in general), accepts. This means conceding that she was wrong about a number of things—specifically, her assumptions about Darcy’s family and his motivations in keeping Bingley away from Jane—and refusing to allow her prior prejudices to keep her from happiness.
The novel is resolved with the weddings of Elizabeth and Darcy, as well as Jane and Bingley, who are reunited with Darcy’s help. Against all odds, the Bennet sisters get their “happily ever afters”—and though it requires some soul-searching on Lizzy’s part, she emerges without having sacrificed her principles, instead having allowed them to evolve.
The secondary storylines in Pride and Prejudice all serve as engaging complements to the main plot. The many relationships which run alongside Elizabeth and Darcy’s often serve as foils to their own, and these couples’ journeys are dramatically intertwined on several levels.
Most significantly, Jane and Bingley’s sweet, pure love provides a nice character contrast to Elizabeth and Darcy’s more tempestuous relationship and judgmental personalities. However, their real contribution to the plot is to foster what might be Lizzy’s biggest misconception of Darcy—that Darcy convinced Bingley to abandon Jane because she wasn’t good enough for him, rather than because Darcy genuinely believed Jane didn’t care for his friend and didn’t want to see Bingley hurt.
Then there’s the pragmatic marriage of Charlotte and Mr. Collins, contrasting Elizabeth’s different approach to relationships and highlighting her desire to marry someone she loves—another plot complication that leads her to reject multiple men. Finally, Lydia and Wickham’s impulsivity threatens the whole family’s chances of happiness, a major problem indeed; fortunately for the reader (albeit unfortunately for them), they seem to be karmically served with what is bound to be an unhappy marriage.
Elizabeth’s main arc takes her from the titular prejudice to a more open-minded approach to life. Her experiences with Darcy and Wickham teach her to be less set in her first judgments of character, and her friend Charlotte’s contentment in a marriage Elizabeth warned her against similarly humbles her belief that her instincts are always correct. Over the course of the novel, Elizabeth learns that she must at times question her own discernment, and try to be less susceptible to believing in initial impressions.
Discussions of Austen’s work often focus on its social commentary, wit, or importance in the romance canon. What’s often neglected is the fact that Austen expertly employs a complex narrative structure to support her themes: that first impressions (the novel’s original title!) are often wrong, and that pride and prejudice hinder one’s life rather than enrich it.
The novel’s most famous plot point, Darcy’s surprise proposal, is a reversal of both the plot and Elizabeth’s narrative perspective up to this point. Her perception of Darcy is suddenly undercut, and the shock of this plot twist reinforces the depth of her misapprehensions thus far. Austen uses the structure of the novel to demonstrate the dangers of judging people and situations before you truly understand them, but makes clear that there’s always room to redeem oneself—so long as others remain redeemable as well.
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading fiction (both contemporary and classic!) and writing short stories.