The Menlo Roundtable

Pride and Prejudice and the Empowerment of Individuals

Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice was written when Romanticism was at its peak. Romantic artists and thinkers emphasized the importance of individuality and valued emotions as important drivers of behavior and understanding.

While Romantic philosophers, thinkers, and artists were largely unified in their interest in individualism, there was little consensus on what roles individual people should play in society or how people should relate to the vastness of nature and time. Artists such as Jacques Louis David, with his paintings Death of Marat and Napoleon Crossing the Alps, and Ludwig van Beethoven with his Eroica symphony suggested that individual people could possess great power and unleash larger-than-life forces. Alternatively, the concept of the sublime, developed by philosopher Immanuel Kant, encouraged individuals to contemplate their own insignificance in comparison to nature. Caspar David Friedrich, a German Romantic painter, explored the sublime in such paintings as Monk by the Sea and Abbey in the Oakwood, by depicting humanity as being almost swallowed up by nature’s vastness. Jane Austen addresses both these opposing pillars of Romantic thought in Pride and Prejudice. She ultimately empowers the individual by celebrating her protagonist Elizabeth’s refusal to compromise her principles for societal norms and by depicting her actions as heroic. In her emphasis on the fulfillment that comes with rich interpersonal relationships, Austen challenges the ideas of some in her cohort of Romantics; she veers from Kant in his conception of the “sublime,” and from Friedrich in the message conveyed in Monk by the Sea that individual human life is insignificant in comparison to nature.