By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice regularly makes to lists of best and best-loved books. That’s no easy feat for a story first published in 1813. Just after it was published, Austen worried in a letter that her novel might be considered too ‘light and bright and sparkling’. However, just its opening sentence is packed with so much meaning. Let’s dig in.
The First Line of Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice begins like this: ‘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 line may sound simple enough. It’s certainly quoted constantly, especially those first six words, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’. Its repetition has led to its seeming almost banal. That’s a shame, because it holds terrific power, humor, and critique.
This sentence is often also misread, or rather under-read, as a straightforward statement of the author’s point of view. That’s just not the case. Notice that the narrator doesn’t state, ‘This is true’. Instead, she suggests, ‘This is acknowledged to be true’. There’s a decisive slippage.
It has to be recognized that the line recycles what was then a popular cliché. The phrase, ‘a truth universally acknowledged’, was a common one in 18th-century texts of all kinds, from the political and religious to the historical and philosophical. The phrase, ‘acknowledged truth’, was used to try convince readers that everyone believed such and such a thing.
Perhaps that’s why some misread the first line of Pride and Prejudice as the narrator’s sermon on the benefits of marriage. That’s a misreading because the narrator later describes some marriages using the adjectives ‘evil’ and ‘unsuitable’. This novel isn’t offering a blanket endorsement of marriage. It may end with two happy marriages, but it has plenty of unhappy ones.
Interpretations of the First Line
The novel’s first line could be read instead as the narrator’s voicing the perspective of the weak-minded, marriage-obsessed mother, Mrs. Bennet. That’s plausible, because Mrs. Bennet delivers the novel’s initial line of dialogue two sentences later. Hers is the first ‘voice’, other than the narrator’s, that appears in the novel.
Another possibility is that the first line is offering us mock-wisdom, perhaps voicing the skepticism of marriage associated with Mr. Bennet or Elizabeth. Their later agreement that Elizabeth shouldn’t marry Mr. Collins shows that they do not subscribe to the philosophy that all marriages are good marriages. Elizabeth disagrees with Charlotte Lucas, who eventually marries Mr. Collins. Charlotte says, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance,” which Elizabeth declares to be unsound reasoning.
Really, the first line of Pride and Prejudice could plausibly be read with any one of these interpretations, on a continuum from straight to sarcastic. The line’s universally acknowledged truth purports to be about a single man. But significantly, the narrator never tells us that the man himself wants a wife.
The First Line From Critics’ Perspective
That’s one reason why critics read the first line as an example of Austen’s masterful irony. It’s a critique of the then-prevailing economic basis of marriage. What’s important to understand here is that primogeniture kept the family property in one place—traditionally, in male hands.
The single man in possession of a good fortune from Pride and Prejudice’s first line was most likely the oldest son of a landowner, called a ‘gentleman’. Notice that the single man’s wealth is singled out as his second most important characteristic, after his marital status.
The woman’s place here is even more revealing. She’s the next thing he must acquire. Like the fortune, she’s a possession. And the wife gets no adjective whatsoever! Fortunes must be good, but husbands and wives could be of indeterminate quality.
Some may think this interpretation is going too far. After all, it’s possible that the first line of Pride and Prejudice is merely meant as humor. Neither the possession-like wife, nor the single man with money, had their feelings consulted at all. Instead, the line describes a ridiculous fantasy about a marriage that may satisfy everyone except the bride and groom! That’s funny.
Economic Complexities through the First Line
The first line sets up the financial difficulties that the Bennet family finds itself struggling with through much of the novel. Their long-term prospects are not pretty. Mr. Bennet’s estate, Longbourn, has been entailed according to the tradition of primogeniture. Their clergyman cousin, Mr. Collins, will inherit the Longbourn property on Mr. Bennet’s death. Mr. Collins is also in want of a wife, because he wants to please his powerful patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
When Elizabeth refuses Mr. Collins’s proposal, she in effect cuts off the option of her nuclear family remaining on the Longbourn estate after her father’s death. By putting her own happiness first, she effectively ensures they will be forced out of their home at some future date. That’s a very bitter pill for her mother to swallow.
In the event that Mr. Bennet dies first, his wife and daughters will have only the lump sum of Mrs. Bennet’s independent fortune to live on: That’s 4,000 pounds total—not a per year income. So that’s 200 pounds a year. Given what we’re told about the family’s finances, that means the Bennet women would have to live on a tenth of their current income and do so without a home. That’s quite an economic come-down. Her daughter’s future economic prospects are very modest as well.
However, it all turns out financially, and happily, in the end, with Elizabeth and Darcy marrying, and previous objections overcome. That outcome, we might say, proves the novel’s first line to be true. But Austen’s fiction also reflects the reality that marrying for money, presented as a family duty, was not a necessary evil but merely an evil, especially for women.
Common Questions about the First Line of Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice begins with this 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 single man in possession of a good fortune from Pride and Prejudice’s first line was most likely the oldest son of a landowner, a ‘gentleman’.
In the event that Mr. Bennet dies, his wife and daughters will have only the lump sum 4,000 pounds—not a per year income.