Pride and Prejudice: Setting as Characterization

Instructor: Courtney Bailey Parker
This lesson will provide an overview of how setting in Jane Austen's ''Pride and Prejudice'' plays a significant role in how readers perceive the personality and values of the novel's characters.

Setting as Characterization in Pride and Prejudice

We don't often think of setting as a major player in a novel, especially when we compare it to the human characters that keep the drama going. But setting, which tells us details about the time and place where a story happens, is often just as important as the literal characters. Jane Austen's novels, including Pride and Prejudice, invite readers to consider how setting actively and passively intervenes with characters' personalities, values, and (yes) prejudices. We could even go so far as to think of Austen's setting as a character unto itself.

Austen uses the setting of a neighborhood in the English countryside to help shape her characters' stories. By focusing on such a specific, small-scale setting, Austen is able to create a microcosm of the world at-large. Country living in late eighteenth-century England is characterized by small circles of friends, strict hierarchies based on money or family heritage, social decorum, and the quest for an economically stable marriage. In the conflicts and joys between a few country neighbors, Austen lets us look at human drama through a magnifying glass, all while letting her setting play a key role in characterization.

The Significance of Named Estates

One reason it feels natural to think of setting as its own character in Pride and Prejudice is that each location in the novel has its own name. Instead of calling a place 'the Bennet home' or 'the house that Mr. Bingley rents,' each estate has a particular name like Longbourn, Netherfield, or Pemberley. In a way, these estates act as representatives of their inhabitants. Longbourn, for example, is a smaller estate packed to the brim with marriageable young women. We can infer that the house is loud, scattered, and perhaps a little materialistic, much like the estate's flighty matriarch, Mrs. Bennet. Furthermore, the cramped nature of a home with five daughters makes a statement about the economic status of the Bennet family, and other characters in the novel view the Bennets through the lens of that estate.

The same is true for the pompous clergyman Mr. Collins, who proposes marriage to Elizabeth Bennet but is rejected. Mr. Collins occupies a small, comfortable vicarage (a home set aside for a clergyman), a setting that suggests his own characterization as a modest and safe potential marriage partner. But Mr. Collins also exists in the shadow of Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Rosing's Park, the 'great lady' of the neighborhood to whom he must constantly defer. Interestingly, the name of his home is almost always described as 'Hunsford parsonage near Rosing's Park,' a description that further underscores his subservient relationship to Lady Catherine. Mr. Collins' situation may represent a safe marriage choice, but it is certainly not a free one.

Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth at Pemberley

There is no better example of a setting playing an active, character-like role in Pride and Prejudice than Elizabeth Bennet's first visit to Pemberley, the large and expansive estate belonging to the ominous Mr. Darcy. At this point in the novel, Lizzy has already denied Mr. Darcy's marriage proposal based on the belief that Darcy separated Lizzy's sister, Jane, from Mr. Bingley. Additionally, Mr. Darcy didn't do himself any favors by referring to Lizzy as 'tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me' when they first met at a country ball. Not a great first impression.

Traveling with her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and believing Mr. Darcy to be away from home, Lizzy wanders the Pemberley estate in awe of its beauty and dignity. She's even surprised to learn that Pemberley's servants have an honorable view of Mr. Darcy and his younger sister, Georgiana. This bit of information is important, since servants can act as an honest mouthpiece for the estate. But the grounds surrounding Pemberley are what really seal the deal for Lizzy. The grounds are unpolished, un-manicured, and beautiful in their unruliness. Mr. Darcy's inclination to let nature be nature on his estate reveals his own Romantic sensibilities, something Lizzy never would have known had she not explored Pemberley for herself.

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