What does the opening line of Pride and Prejudice mean?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a
single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

In plain, modern day English this sentence means "Everyone knows rich, single men want to get married."

Think about how that sentiment would go down nowadays. Name one famous, single male celebrity who is desperately trying to marry someone. Doesn't sound plausible these days and, if you'll allow me to play my hand at interpreting Ms. Austen, probably wasn't probable in her time either.

This opening line sets the tone for the whole novel. We can easily discern that this novel is going to be about marriage and because the opening line says it is a truth universally acknowledged we can also suggest that the novel is going to be about gossip or miscommunication.

But the true brilliance of this opening line is the irony. Think about who in today's terms actively seeks marriage. Is it usually the men? No, it is usually not the men. And that was true in her day as well. 

There is that line must be. Must be. As in there is no other choice. He wants a wife. Period. I can't speak for any men, but that doesn't sound right to me. Seriously think about that for a second. Do you think it is more of a matter of women at that time hoping that single rich men are actively looking to marry them rather than the single rich men actually wanting to marry? These women must be crazy.

Spoiler alert: this novel is all about women trying to get married or women trying to marry off their daughters or women trying to wish other people to marry even if there is no hope at all that a marriage will ever take place.

It is a truth universally acknowledged can be interpreted to mean the same thing as "Oh My God! Everyone is talking about ______." For starters if you ever hear that phrase, it generally means that only some people or hardly anyone is talking about ______. Gossip is all it is.

In summary to the discerning reader if you just read the opening line of Pride and Prejudice you will know everything there is to know about the book. There's marriage, there's gossip, there's irony, and wordplay - which really plays into Jane Austen's genius.... which is also a truth universally acknowledged.

Comments

  1. This is a brilliant summary of the opener. However, the irony of it can also be construed as more subtle in its own time than its "modern English translation" offered here. In Austen's times, "...in want of a wife" didn't primarily mean "...[he] wants to marry", but rather "lacks a wife". It's not even implied that every such single, rich man, is necessarily aware of this "universally acknowledged" truth, although the world at large certainly is, and is ready to come to the man's rescue.

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