The tone of Pride and Prejudice is often critical and even biting. While Pride and Prejudice is popularly considered a love story, the narrator’s attitude toward various characters and events is often sarcastic. There are three main areas where the critical tone of the novel is made very clear: the representation of foolish characters, the attitude toward pretensions about social class, and the critiques of gender roles. Many of the characters in the novel are ignorant or foolish in some way. Examples include Mrs. Bennet, Mary Bennet, and, of course, Mr. Collins. Dialogue spoken by these characters often highlights their lack of intelligence or judgment, contributing to a critical, even mocking tone. For example, when Lydia brags that she now occupies a higher social position than Jane because she is now a married woman and Jane is not, Lydia shows that she is ignorant about the scandal and embarrassment caused by her position. At other moments, the narrator simply makes blunt and unkind statements about these characters, such as when Mr. Collins is described as “a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.”
While the critical tone mocks characters, it also highlights social injustices. The novel implies that characters who have more money or higher social status are not inherently better or smarter, and Austen directs a very critical tone toward the characters who fixate on social status. Mr. Collins fawns over his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and is constantly reciting details about what she owns and how she behaves, without realizing that he is embarrassing himself by doing so. Likewise, Lady Catherine herself is shown to be very arrogant and rude. For example, the first time she meets Elizabeth, she asks many inappropriate questions, such as “how many sisters she had, whether they were older or younger than herself, whether any of them were likely to be married.” By having an upper-class character behave in a rude and socially inappropriate way, Austen creates a tone that is critical of class divisions.
Likewise, the novel’s tone can be quite sharp when discussing the ways in which women’s lives were limited during the story’s time period. Because marriage was usually the only way a woman could obtain economic stability, there was often pressure for a woman to simply accept the first financially stable suitor who offered to marry her. Mrs. Bennet’s exaggerated reaction of horror when she finds out that Elizabeth has refused to marry Mr. Collins reveals just how important it is to her that Elizabeth gets married, whether she likes the man or not. The novel also takes a sharp tone toward the high expectations placed on women to be perfectly behaved and highly skilled in ornamental but useless accomplishments. When Darcy gives his idea of what an accomplished woman is, Elizabeth responds sarcastically by saying, “I rather wonder at you knowing any.” This comment reveals that she is aware of the unrealistic expectations placed on women at this time and contributes to the novel’s tone of sarcasm and criticism.