Universal Truths, Unacknowledged Legislators: Teaching the First Sentence of Pride and Prejudice

The following essay replays a close-reading, word-by-word in-class exercise of Pride and Prejudice's opening sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that single men in possession of good fortunate must be in want of a wife." In our close reading students and I explore how, in Austen's hands, her famed use of free indirect discourse and irony deflate transcendental assumptions about gender and class. With this deflationary gesture, Austen’s turning of these tropes allows us to see, in turn, how her work connects to the biopolitical imperative to extend the lifespan of the human species that Foucault sees emerging in the eighteenth century. On our reading, though, irony, as developed by Austen, provides a powerful tool for questioning such an imperative in our own time of planetary peril.