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.
Universal Truths, Unacknowledged Legislators: Teaching the First Sentence of Pride and Prejudice
Francis Marion University
1. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) begins with what sounds like a fairly straightforward aphorism: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (Austen 1). This essay discusses how a word-by-word, in-class close reading of this first sentence unfolds historical and formal problems of Romanticism. In our close reading, students and I attend to the opposition of the universal to the particular in the sentence by thinking about how Austen theorizes irony.  Analyzing this opposition through Austen’s formal experimentation, in turn, allows us to see, and question, the gender and class distinctions and constructions of the era. This close reading exercise thus functions as a hermeneutic for our further discussion of the whole novel and of the Romantic period.
2. As all readers of Austen know, the sentence invites our scrutiny since it welcomes us into the novel by setting up irony as the dominant mode of what will follow even as it quickly displaces us outside the sentence’s sweeping universalism when the following sentences immediately deposit us into a fully-imagined world:
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
"My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
"But it is," returned she; "for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it."
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
"Do you not want to know who has taken it?" cried his wife impatiently.
"You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it."
This was invitation enough.
"Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week." (1)
3. This famous sentence has been much discussed in Jane Austen scholarship, an indication not only of the forceful first impression its aphoristic energy leaves on the reader but also its interpretive permeability and potentiality. In a collection on teaching Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Kenneth L. Moler discusses examining in his classes the sentence’s allusions to Enlightenment thinkers George Berkeley, David Hume, and Adam Smith, an exercise meant to provide historical and intellectual context for the students.  Similarly, Felicia Bonaparte reads Austen as drawing on Hume’s empiricist skepticism in the novel’s underlying epistemology. In Bonaparte’s view, objective reality does exist for Austen, even though it is never completely knowable since the possibility of wrongly interpreting the world also exists. Proof of this, according to Bonaparte, is that “the very circumstance that one text can yield two utterly different readings plainly indicates that Austen knows how uncertain meanings can be” (153). Edward O’Neill’s nimble article, “‘Found Wanting?’: Second Impressions of a Famous First Sentence,” argues that the sentence turns on the twined meanings of “want” as both “lack” and “desire” and the way that this entwinement threads the plot of the novel by entangling the characters in both meanings at once (a point taken up below). For William Galperin, the paradox of this sentence hinges on the “world of possibility” hinted at by the probable certainty the sentence foregrounds: if the truth must be acknowledged it means that “both men and women […are…] the objects and agents of cultural imperatives” and hence such truths are malleable to cultural contestation and revision (125-126). William Deresiewicz, meanwhile, points out that it is the only one of Austen’s novels that opens with an aphorism, or rather, as he also points out, a mock aphorism, “for it is immediately intimated that this ‘truth universally acknowledged’ is in fact nothing more than one of the fixed opinions of the ‘neighborhood’ of ‘surrounding families’ amidst which the novel’s action is to take place.” As he puts it later in the same article, “what is presented in these first scenes is more than anything the story of a community: of communal expectations, communal conventions, communal activities” (503). For Galperin and Deresiewicz, in other words, the sentence decidedly establishes cultural and communal meaning rather than the universality the word choice and aphoristic nature of the sentence would seem to imply. Indeed, in the course of teaching this sentence, as we’ll see below, I’ve discovered that the either/or proposition of communally-forged agreement and universally-endowed edict emerges from close reading analysis.
4. However, for all the various readings of this sentence on offer, Claudia Brodsky claims that “no critic, to my knowledge, has raised the immediate and pragmatic question of what the sentence actually means” (621). While I by no means wish to claim that this essay settles what the sentence means, it may partially address this vexing problem, even as its main goal is to position the reading aporias of this sentence as a propaedeutic to further pedagogical engagement and scholarly reflection. In other words, what follows in this essay—a record of a classroom collaborative explication—is by no means intended as definitive. Rather, I hope it contributes to unsettling our notions about how the sentence creates meaning while gesturing towards how the sentence functions as part of the whole novel and, indeed, how it adds insight into understanding Romanticism broadly understood.
5. Brodsky also points out that Pride and Prejudice locates within the Romantic period a paradoxical nexus: the so-called transition from the romance genre and eighteenth-century sentimental fiction to a historical realist fiction focused on particulars even as it is undergirded by the same universal ahistorical tenets it purports to gainsay. According to Brodsky, realist fiction, despite its protestations to the contrary, nevertheless relies on a historical pretension that disguises its ahistorical elements by pretending they do not exist, a feature which grants the fiction verisimilitude to stand as a chronicle of people and events living in a particular place and time. In teaching Romanticism, we grapple with a literature that reflects radical reformations of how life is mimetically represented and empirically understood. It follows then that just as literary representations of life change in the period, so do, correspondingly, interpretive reading strategies. Therefore our explication of the text seeks to act as a meta-commentary-in-action on how Romantic-era irony, as exemplified in Pride and Prejudice’s first sentence, historically revises the way we read and document the world and the people in it.  For students, the takeaway is that fictional tropes like Romantic irony are not simply useful in discussing literature but extend outward to the world around us. Consequently, I use this assignment to push the notion that studying Romanticism is not just something we do in a classroom setting but is one of the complex ways we understand and negotiate the discursive cultural spheres that are our lives.
6. In thinking about how teaching the sentence tells us something larger about Romanticism’s discursive cultural capital and revolutionary roots, it might be useful to think of the sentence as staging a face-off between Hegelian and Marxist historicism. Marx, at least according to him, famously turned Hegel on his head, inverting his upwardly ascendant historicism away from world-historical Geist to the social world of capitalist production and the workers who turn the levers and gears of industrialization. “Doing” history, in Marx’s conception, requires pointing our analytical lenses to the microscopic and microcosmic realities of individuals in a materialist world composed of institutions we’ve created rather than steering toward the macroscopic historical telos of Hegel. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, inspired by the French Revolution’s promises of political democratization and individual liberation, had, in their earlier Lyrical Ballads (1798), made a similar suggestion: history takes place not at the level of universal abstraction but at the level of individual lives, even if they are lives typically ignored by historiographers in favor of the powerful. Because we as a class have discussed these ideas before we ever get to our analysis of Austen’s first sentence, it allows me to offer, as an initial proposition, that Austen’s first sentence shows how Romanticism challenges top-down historicism with a bottom-up approach that, while hardly Marxist or even proto-Marxist, will align more clearly with Marxist history as well as, in her own time, Wordsworthian poetic praxis. The study of this sentence can thus be seen to engage in a bit of hyperbole, as a synecdochal representation of the idea that, with Austen and Romanticism, we have in fact become modern if we define modernity as an episteme of both individual and communal self-consciousness and self-awareness.
7. As I mentioned above, the first sentence defies readers’ expectations, a move that seems only appropriate given that the novel itself is about misreading people—and in the crucial scene where Elizabeth receives Darcy’s letter, about reading, misreading, and rereading a text—which means that Pride and Prejudice’s first sentence’s ironic posturing actually teaches us the explicatory skills we need to read the book. This lesson occurs in part because the weird distance that the sentence creates between itself and the rest of the novel, even as it is an essential part of that novel, is a type of irony wherein whatever the first sentence claims to be doing looks retroactively suspicious. It is as if the first sentence remains atop its own battlements besieged by, and defending itself from, the army of sentences challenging it from the ground below. As such, the very act of reading the novel, in turn, mirrors how irony works. Irony institutes a critical self-consciousness of how we assert ourselves rhetorically and the novel is about—among many other things—how we have to use irony in order to pass into the sincerity of truth, beyond our first impressions (Austen’s original title for the novel) and into a legible understanding we can adequately defend. Between the first sentence and the second, the novel teaches us how to read it, just as Elizabeth, by moving beyond her own ironic self-distancing and first impressions, learns to read people and texts accurately (Darcy’s letter, Darcy himself, Wickham). The exercise I describe below therefore aids in wrapping our minds around the elusive nature of Romantic irony and the reading strategies it affords our analytical abilities. 
8. This explicatory exercise has worked for me in several different classes, although some of them are not explicitly classes on Romanticism. I have used it in two different types of Writing about Literature courses at Loyola University New Orleans. The Writing about Literature course was intended primarily for sophomore-level students, but junior- and senior-level students often enrolled as well due to the general university requirements that mandated all students must take one Writing about Literature course. In these courses the Pride and Prejudice example functioned mainly as a close reading exercise.
9. On the other hand, when I used this exercise in a class fully devoted to Romanticism, more than simply helping us think about how Romantic irony works, it also instanced how Romantic legacies continue to shape our world. The Romantic period is, obviously, a time of radical literary experimentation ranging from Charlotte Smith’s origination of the Gothic sonnet (1784) to Blake’s thoroughgoing weirdness in his marriage of poetry and art (and heaven and hell) to Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s groundbreaking literary experiment, Lyrical Ballads, to Byron’s creation of a novel-in-verse mock-heroic epic, Don Juan (1819-1824). Free indirect discourse, a key innovative feature of Austen’s style, places Austen on this list of Romantic literary radicalization.  As is well known, free indirect discourse combines third-person and first-person narrative technique so that the omniscient narrator sometimes seems to be speaking for the characters while the characters themselves sometimes appear to adopt the narrator’s voice to speak as an “I.” This narrative chiasmus makes the first sentence all the more confounding. To return to the earlier martial metaphor, from its battlement, the first sentence surveys the novel it sits atop. However, given the way free indirect discourse crosshatches first- and third-person voices, the idea of division, of battle lines drawn up, ready to face off, suddenly seems both facile and newly complicated, as two voices issue forth from one mouth (to mix several metaphors). The interstices of this chiasmus, this narrative and stylistic chimera, produce Austen’s irony because the impersonal voice of the first sentence gains its fully robust ironic energy only in contrast to, and in tandem with, the very personal voices present in the novel. Austen’s irony is thereby stylistically undergirded by the same thematic conflict between the universal and the particular that the first sentence—in part through the emergence of the irony that emerges from this stylistic paradox—suggests the novel will labor to resolve.
10. In all of these courses, to begin the exercise I ask students to explicate, for ten minutes overall, each word in Austen’s sentence. Because I stress writing as a learned skill that requires actually engaging in a variety of different types of writing—brainstorming, discovery, note-taking, sketching, rough drafting—they do not simply list random thoughts but write about each word in explicatory paragraph style which requires thinking through nuanced connotations and denotations. This in-class activity fosters our subsequent group discussion by creating concrete definitional and conceptual examples with which to work. Typically, I assign this exercise midway through the semester (somewhere between weeks seven and nine) so that, by that point, students and I will have discussed what “explication” means and how to write one. Indeed, students have already written one paper (three and a half to four pages) exclusively devoted to explicating one passage from a previous text. The Pride and Prejudice exercise, then, is designed to supplement and expand on earlier explication discussions and assignments and to do so by providing an actual example of close reading in action.
11. I sometimes use the following literary example to illustrate what I wish students to focus on in close reading. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), Lord Peter Wimsey, aristocratic sleuth and “new-wedded lord,” finds a corpse in the cellar of his rural honeymoon home. During the course of their investigation of the murder, Wimsey details his detective methodology to his wife, Harriet Vane:
12. In this way I use the exercise to showcase what I call “being a reader.” As I’m sure many teachers are aware, students often think there is a solution to a text, some type of roadmap they need to be given in order to follow and arrive at the final destination of the text’s “true” meaning, a definitive path to a true definition. “Being a reader,” I stress, entails approaching the study of Romanticism and literature in general as an interpretive, productive endeavor (in fact this is an important lesson deriving from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, discussed below). I try to show, through empirical and democratic writing and conversational exercises like this one, how literary tropes and texts work to produce meanings as opposed to many students’ initial inclination to cursorily gloss, or paraphrase, a text’s meaning. Setting myself up as a reader, or interpreter, of literature, just like they are, helps students to see not only the difference between understanding a text’s meaning and interpreting a text for multiple meanings, but also the value of interpretation, key to entering into formal literary discourse. At the same time, as in the prosecutorial metaphor above, there are multiple readings of a text that one can produce, but each reading must be backed up with a persuasive chain of textual evidence in order to convince anyone. Here, however, the prosecutorial metaphor falls apart since, presumably, there can only be a guilty or not guilty verdict in a criminal trial—and this verdict is either correct or incorrect—whereas there can be several convincing and competing interpretations of a given text. So rather than claim absolute matter-of-fact status for our interpretation, this exercise illustrates the multiplicity of meanings in Pride and Prejudice’s opening sentence, allowing students to hear different interpretations and progress the class forward from my telling them about interpretive reading strategies to showing them interpretation in action.
13. The short writing assignment we begin with primes our class discussion. After they have finished writing, we then proceed word by word, to explore the nuances, implications, and even the digressions that arise during this procession through the sentence. Accordingly, the rest of this essay will follow a similar pattern for several paragraphs, addressing each word in turn before pivoting to a broader thematic analysis of the sentence’s interconnectivity while making some preliminary suggestions as to how this reading speaks to the novel as a whole. And although this pedagogical exercise’s emphasis on close reading might seem to agree with Raymond Williams’s remark that “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen chose to ignore the decisive historical events of her time,” students and I disagree (113). Peeling back layers, as it does, our reading addresses, slowly, with each piece of oxidized skin, the gender and economic implications of the novel, implications we spend even more time addressing in later class discussions than I describe here. 
14. The first word, “it,” usually proves easy enough for students, who define it as a neuter pronoun in need of a referent. This is fair enough out of context, but, “it” quickly becomes more complicated as the full context of the sentence unravels. That is to say, depending on how one understands the first and second clause of the sentence, “it” can vary as to not only what it refers to, but also in how it refers to it—a point that we will “unfold” or “unroll” (from the Latin explicare), as I tell my students, as the discussion progresses.
15. As President Bill Clinton famously claimed, much depends on what the definition of “is” is. “Is” is, most obviously, the most ubiquitous verb in the English language and the one that for students proves the most intractable to concrete definition. The superficially simple question, “What does ‘is’ mean?” genuinely baffles. For students, the verb’s meaning seems self-evident. Hence, they typically offer variations on “it just means ‘here’ or it just means ‘present.’” But whenever I conduct this exercise, I always, frustratingly enough for the students, refuse such answers, pushing them to drill down further. Such a process leads to unexpected insights. As one exasperated student, a soon-to-retire police officer, eloquently and quite commonsensically put it after an intensely confusing back-and-forth, “‘is’ just means that you is.” “Well,” I said in response, “but what does it mean to ‘is’? This table here ‘is,’ right? But what does it mean? What is ‘is-ing’? What are you doing if you are ‘is-ing’? I am is-ing right now? What happened? What is happening? Or let’s put it this way, what is the is-ness of ‘is’?” These counter-questions, which we always go through in each class, usually result, through some circumlocutory means, in the definition “to be.”
“Which means,” I ask, “exactly what? What does it mean ‘to be’”?
“It's the future tense of ‘is,’” someone says.
“Right. Well, a bit more accurately, it’s the infinitive of “is.” But what does ‘to be’ mean? To say ‘is’ means ‘to be’ only substitutes one tense of the word for another.
We could just as easily say that ‘is’ means ‘you are and you were.’”
16. So far, so good. We’ve worked our way to a definition and usually done so, if the police officer’s comment above is any indication, with both considerable good-humor and productive frustration. And yet…we are not finished with the verb “is” quite yet. After all, what else, beyond its ontological meaning, can the verb “to be” do? It can, of course, work as a copula, linking words in an A=B relationship. Additionally, as we think through it, ‘is’ can be a passive verb, depriving a sentence of agent and action. But is this how it functions in the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice? Is there a subject? An actor or agent?
17. At this point we forestall the answers to those questions and this allows us to begin opening up the complexities of the sentence to larger thematic scrutiny. If “is” means “exist” in the sentence, and also acts as a linking verb connecting the pronoun “it” with its referent “truth,” then the first part of the sentence translates as “a truth exists.” This translation would seem to lend to the “truth” an ontological status beyond cultural and social constructivism because it is indicative of something indubitable, something indisputable, something incontestable and yet numinous—a pure transcendental truth. At this point students and I find that we are back in the realm of universals and particulars, although, really, we have never left it.
18. On the other hand, this reading of “truth” as transcendental is itself challenged by the “is-ness” of is in that the passive construction here couples it to not just “truth” but to “a truth” that itself depends on being “universally acknowledged.” The article “a,” which we were initially tempted to traverse, deflates the universalism of the hypostasized truth we contemplated moments before. This instance of “a” felling the expansive infinity embedded in the word “truth” proves illuminating, as the puny confronts the cosmically giant, “a”’s David to the truth’s Goliath. Like the shocking outcome of the Israelites’ encounter with the Philistines, “a” versus “truth” indexes an unexpected result as “a”’s deflationism effectuates an emerging interpretive divergence. With one puny stone a-sling, a particular truth fells a universal truth, we might say.
19. Students’ definition of “universally” bears out this divergence. Whereas in the above explication of “is” a reified truth appears, the phrase “universally acknowledged,” as students quickly realize, suggests that someone or something, either a human or non-human agent, must be doing the acknowledging. One definition they offer is through inference by way of textual elision. Isn’t it curious, after all, that the acknowledgement of this truth, despite its claimed universality, is not ascribed to anyone either grammatically or thematically? However, my students argue, “a truth universally acknowledged,” since it is acknowledged, must be acknowledged by someone. Hence, there is not necessarily anything transcendental about it but rather something stubbornly human. And if this truth is a mere commonplace contra what we speculated that “universality” meant, then the truth becomes, or rather is, only a truism, a maxim, or a bon mot made up by a given community of humans (in this case, of course, it would be the Netherfield coterie).
20. And yet, and yet, as Byron might say, and as students do say, “universally” can, and perhaps simply does, undeniably imply a cosmic transcendentality, the initial interpretation to which “is” defined as “exists” led us. For “universally,” as students have pointed out above, can mean “cosmic and transcendental”—a kind of platonic universal truth—but since this truth is “acknowledged” and since “acknowledged” can also imply that someone must be doing the acknowledging, then humans may simply acknowledge this truth in the sense that they accept that it does exist. Rather than the above solution, in which “acknowledged” means the Netherfield residents generated said truth via communal intersubjective agreement, the world of this scenario is filled with characters who point upward to the heavens, like Plato in Raphael’s School of Athens, sure of, and accepting of the fact, that answers descend from the mysterium tremendum.
21. In the classroom we now find ourselves in a position aptly described by Claudia Johnson, who writes that “Austen has contrived Pride and Prejudice in such a way that virtually every argument about it can be undercut with a built-in countervailing argument, a qualifying ‘on the other hand’ which forestalls conclusiveness” (77). The novel’s other-handedness means that “the intricately counterbalanced construction of Pride and Prejudice obliges us to regroup and reassess characters and issues, to broaden our judgments and to accept contradiction” (77). Likewise, our class has discovered three (for now) contradictory interpretations:
a) It is a transcendental truth universally acknowledged as cosmic law, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
b) It is a transcendental truth universally acknowledged by a given community, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
c) It is a communally constructed truth universally acknowledged by a given community, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
22. At this juncture I usually ask students if we can find any textual evidence or interpretive imperative in the rest of the second clause of the sentence that will persuasively bolster one reading over the other. Helpfully, my students have had a fairly keen, though not fully developed, awareness of class-consciousness pegged to gender roles, which emerges when we come to “single man.”  At first glance, given the contextual provision supplied by the marriage proviso, this adjective-noun combination appears to be comparatively noncontroversial in meaning. And yet, each time I’ve led students in this discussion, pinning down what a “single man in possession of a good fortune” means poses marvelous explicatory hurdles. For what does “single” mean after all? Does it mean singular? Individual? Sole? Alone? Eligible? Exemplary? Much debate ensues regarding this word, none of it definitive. However, it is notable that the word’s prodigious denotations reintroduce the bipartite crossroads of particularity and universality—either this single man or all single men everywhere—that paused our explication above. This particular-universal distinction continues, as we discover, with the modifiers surrounding “single.” We find “man” pretty self-evident (though perhaps we should not). But whatever “single” means here, “good” leads down several rabbit holes (should we take the blue or red pill?) that return us, also, to the platonic philosophical themes evoked by “universally.” Several definitions are readily available to us: “nice”; “significant”; “sufficient”; “beneficial”; “morally correct.” Less obviously, students find that “good” might mean “prosperity” or even “luck.” Hence, we arrive at “a single man who is fortunate” rather than a single man possessing wealth. But whether or not the single man merely has good fortune or has significant wealth, students identify the sentence’s emphasis on the man—and either his bachelorhood or his exemplarity—as raising real concerns about gender subordination as tied to class privilege (or lack thereof, as the case may be). On this reading, the sentence’s straightforwardly single-man insistence suggests a raft of slippery issues: namely, that the novel believes rich men are the rightful arbitrators of what women want.
23. Although we do not discuss the rest of the novel during this class period, if we did we would discover, of course, that Elizabeth Bennet, rather than a wealthy man (Darcy, say), is the novel’s primary focus. Our acontextual reading of this sentence affirms how our expectations are ironically contended with and shortly overturned as the narrative voice subtly shifts from third-person impersonality (and universality?) to a point-of-view at ground level before, as Alex Woloch argues, it shifts again when Elizabeth assumes narrative control in chapter 7.  Woloch shows how the Bennet sisters, in literally arriving at a crossroads, also arrive at a narrative, stylistic, and thematic crossroads, with Elizabeth claiming control of several action gerunds, a verbal transition that asserts her agency:
24. One way students and I parse this universal/particular interpretive puzzle is to continue to interrogate, by means of addition, the sentence’s further class implications beyond the “single man.” In Jose Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1998), the proofreader Raimondo Silva, assigned in the novel to correct a book of the same name, inserts the word “not” in a crucial sentence, thereby altering the historical record of the invasion of Portugual by preventing, on the page, the Crusaders from aiding Alfonso I in reconquering the city and converting it back to Christianity—a seismic event in Portuguese history. Although our exercise does not carry the same seismic tremors, we follow Saramago’s proofreader in his textual surgery of insertion and alteration to further explore the class concerns the sentence leaves unresolved. Do single men not in possession of a good fortune want wives? Or is this a society in which only rich men can be in want of a wife? Here we insert “not”:
25. However, students have come to several realizations and conclusions. The universals of the cosmos, and the particulars of rural cultural existence, translate into a classical cultural debate that students express in contemporary popular parlance as the difference, and perhaps even the historical transition, between “needs” and “wants.” My students’ explications of “want” mirrors that of Edward O’Neill, who sees it as either “lack” or “desire” (77). He writes, “Either a single man lacks a wife by definition, or might be supposed to “want” in the sense of desiring one—a more genuine, and more exciting, conjecture” (79). An illustrative example of “want”-as-lack occurs in the film Shakespeare in Love (1998), when Richard Burbage cries out, “Mistress Roselyn! My sleeve wants for a button!” In this case, the sleeve needs a button to close—it lacks what it needs to properly function. Desiring, alternately, requires a cognitive, if not emotional, or even physiological, response, with a fixed goal as its hopefully attainable endpoint. What is desired isn’t lacking in the sense of something needed—like in the button example—but rather something simply consciously sought after for, well, whatever reason whether that be sexual or social gratification, monetary fulfillment, power mongering, or what have you. But for O’Neill, the irony of the sentence, and perforce the novel, is that the novel’s prime concern is with wives who “want”—either by lack or desire—single men in possession of a good fortune. This reading reverses the apparently androcentric propulsive plot the sentence has set the stage for (i.e. the male actors strutting the boards above).
26. Taking up O’Neill’s gynocentric reading pressures the preposition, “in,” that props up the word “want.” The preposition, as we discuss, can, and maybe conclusively does, cancel the debate between lack and desire. Whether “in” equals lack or desire, if the preposition translates to “in an existential state of being in want,” then this refers us back to the idea of cosmic law—what governs human life in every community everywhere. But if “in” translates differently, as something along the lines of “within a mental space of willing choice,” then “in” ascribes decision to human beings, granting them the autonomy the existential above option rules out. Wanting a wife is not just a natural phenomena hardwired into male brains; it’s a result of a given community’s normative beliefs and values. Taking “want” in this fashion sides with the particularities of history, understanding social mores as definers of life’s love matches. Such a reading can support the above suggestion that this line comes from Elizabeth: it ignores individual choice, what many would argue Elizabeth possesses, as she marries, technically speaking, above her station but only once she decides to do so with the man whom she has begun to—though this is of course debatable—reform. Thus, like we theorized above, the sentence is a provocative proposition, one Elizabeth throws down like a gauntlet so that she may challenge it in the coming pages. This reading, though strange and unlikely-sounding, is nevertheless in keeping with the nature of Elizabeth’s (and Austen’s) irony and wit.
27. “But this would mean…” one student said haltingly, a bit amazed, “that ‘in’ is the most important word in the sentence.” “In” then. To our total surprise “in” turns out to be the textual crux of the passage since it determines how we understand “want,” which, in its divergent lacks and desires, manages how we interpret just exactly what the single man—and by her absence, Elizabeth—is doing. Close reading, as we see, requires attending even to the most irrelevant looking and mechanically functioning words of a text for these words might prove to be more important than whatever initially jumps out at us (“truth,” “universally,” and “acknowledged”).
28. Having arrived at this critical juncture, students, hopefully, can derive a few bits of insight about the “close” and the “reading” of close reading. In fact, we actually perform a contracted close reading of “close reading.” What do these words mean when put to work together? By modifying “reading,” “close” transforms “reading” into something more than the mundane (which of course is not mundane at all) activity of reading words on a page. Instead it presses us down into that page. With close reading we are suddenly down in between the letters on the page, brushing our fingertips against the curlicues of s’s and the low-hanging arms of g’s, exploring at the most minute level not only definitions and semantics, but also the phonemic and morphemic aspects of words. That the miniscule proposition “in” possesses enough strength to prop up the entire sentence and govern its meaning demonstrates just how close one has to get. Moreover, we see at this juncture that even the most seemingly insignificant words can direct interpretive possibilities if attended to particularly. As such “reading,” in its turn, modifies “close” by creating a dialectic synthesis—a specific type of analytical activity—that moves us from grammar to thematics, semantics to styles. By reading close we look for how things like word order and word choice (to take but two examples) create theme and style (to take two more) without ever appearing to consciously do so. After all, words are of course subject to many different orders and choices. Reading close teases out from these orders and choices the whats and hows of meaning at what looks like a larger, higher-order level—theme and style seem like “big” things after all—even as they emerge only from smaller, subatomic levels which, given their actual importance, are just as large, when one thinks about it, as the things they produce. “Close” reading, “reading” close, are both instances, we might say, of particulars and universals revealing themselves as irreducibly scrambled. But this scrambling is, in its turn, all the more reason why close reading is necessary. Such notions are, no doubt, well known to literary scholars, but for students being inaugurated into textual analysis, especially early in the semester, encountering these close reading conceptualizations prove to be eye-opening and foundational to future literary investigation.
29. Our class discussion ends with the realization—or at least the communal agreement!—that close reading is a specific critical ability, one useful in discovering the complicated meanings implicitly and explicitly present in every text. Of equal yield from our discussion are the meta-implications of the sentence’s irony, which, on our reading, foregrounds both a theory of knowledge production and references a well-known debate in the history of ideas and philosophy, that between universals and particulars.
30. Pedagogically and epistemologically speaking, then, this exercise lands us at a typical Romantic philosophical flashpoint: is there a transcendental truth, some force beyond the human world that foundationally grounds that world? Our reading opens up that possibility that there are only the truths we make rather than any we can find by seeking truth. In fact, we had acknowledged, as it were, that no truths are ever non-contingent even those as seemingly intransigent as class and gender normativities that ground our being in a reality we have created. Percy Bysshe Shelley famously closes A Defence of Poetry (1821) by claiming that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Shelley’s expansive definition of poetry hails back toward the Greek notion of poiesis, that is, a creative maker, an interpreter of the world who produces, by means of those interpretations, new truths. A final lesson I try to stress with this close reading exercise—one that connects to what I call “being a reader”—is that our multidirectional yet interconnected interpretations of this crucial sentence position us as poets in Shelley’s sense: critical readers who, through our interpretations, create, even as we discover, meaning and meanings about the world in which we live through the lens of a novel set in a world two hundred years removed from our own. That idea might smack of the universalism our exercise has just, effectively speaking, denied any purchase; however, what this claim about poiesis really does is reappropriate Shelley’s universalist thesis by wedding it to the particularities of present-day irony that emerge from the novels of Jane Austen in the Romantic period. “Unveiling” this reading strategy—to use one of Shelley’s favorite metaphors in Defence—amounts to more than just a reading strategy and gets at the heart of what teaching Romanticism teaches us. My more ambitious, upward-and-outward hope for this classroom close reading is that it provides students tools that will pay off as we continue to think about how this period of literary and cultural history shapes us and our present condition. Indeed, Romanticism is often characterized as I have done so here: as a time of self-reflexivity and the directly connected constitution of the fully individuated, modern subject. And Romantic irony has long been recognized as a key mechanism, borne in literary experimentation (a kind of Frankensteinian creature stitched together by various texts) to the emergence of this subject. But if one were to recontextualize what I’m suggesting here in slightly different, more current scholarly terms, we could also see Austen’s irony as tracking with what Michel Foucault calls the birth of biopolitics, the human awareness of ourselves as a species and the concurrent commitment “to make [that species] live,” as Foucault puts it (History 1: 133-160).  Thought of in this way, the first sentence of Austen’s novel allows us to see, through the interplay of the universal and the particular, how larger universalist categorizations like species begin to intersect with the personalized subject. Since students are indeed aware of the times of planetary peril in which we live (despite what depressing poll numbers might assert), illuminating this cross-section—of them as individuals and as members of a group engaged in collective life—seems not only useful but maybe even necessary. As one example, Romanticist Timothy Morton argues that the concept of Romantic irony is crucial to changing our thinking about climate change because it provides us the needed distance to look at ourselves and examine our attitudes and actions (Morton 19, 172-173). Given that rich patriarchal societies are most responsible for climate change, our exploration of the gender and class implications proliferating from this sentence intersects here as well. And while it is perhaps silly if not self-indulgent to place so much weight on one sentence and one lesson, as a popular phrase from modern feminism instructs us, “the personal is the political.” Consequently, if the biggest challenge we face as a species is the climate crisis, then it may well be the case that extending “the personal” to embrace “the species” is the crucial step to “the political” now. Thoughts like these are beyond the stated scope of this exercise, but it may well be that, in some unknowable personal future for a given student, that this exercise will help them ponder their own historical embodiments and individuation and maybe even, correspondingly, to ponder political solutions to the problems our species continues to not only face but cause.
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 Two recent editions offer a variety of different approaches and resources to teaching Austen. See Bridget Draxler’s, Misty Krueger’s, and Susan Allen Ford’s collection and another Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons volume, “Teaching Jane Austen,” edited by Devoney Looser and Emily C. Friedman. Daniel R. Mangiavellano’s essay features a different, illuminating classroom reading of the first sentence, as well as several other scenes in the novel, as well as illustrating how these exercises aid students in developing their own writing. BACK
 Moler: “By the time a class is ready to start on the topic of literary allusion in Pride and Prejudice, we have had a good deal to say about the famous opening sentence and its incisive irony. I show that ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged,’ with slight variations is a formula often used in eighteenth-century philosophical discourses, to introduce the first premise of an argument. I quote passages from Berkeley, Hume, and Adam Smith in which the same or similar forms of words are used. (When general rules…are universally acknowledged…we frequently appeal to them as to the standards of judgment, as Smith writes….). It is then possible to see that, amusing as the passage is to us as twentieth-century readers, its effect of ironic deflation would be even funnier to an audience that would associate the first phrase with works like Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge or Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (89). For more on Austen’s connection to Enlightenment thinkers, see Peter Knox-Shaw’s Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (2009). BACK
 Readings of Austen’s irony are many. D. W. Harding’s influential reading of Austen claims all of her works are ironic in that “her books are, as she meant them to be, read and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked; she is a literary classic of the society which attitudes like hers, held widely enough, would undermine.” The first major study of Austen’s handling of irony is Marvin Murdick’s, who claims that “Austen uses irony to defend herself, to distance herself from taking any concrete position on social, cultural, and political issues.” Robert Phiddian has a more recent reading of irony in both Austen and the Harry Potter novels. BACK
 For accounts of Romantic irony see Anne Mellor, Paul de Man, and David Simpson. Claire Colebrook’s Irony offers a thorough historical and theoretical survey of irony from antiquity to postmodernity. BACK
 D.A. Miller offers a thorough exploration of Austen’s style that argues free indirect discourse allows Austen to hide herself from her novels. Regarding Austen’s style and the first sentence he notes: “whoever wishes to illustrate Austen Style regularly gravitates toward the maxim, assuming that the perfection of this Style is highest, most visible and delectable, in bite-size form. Yet no sooner do we examine this practice of exemplification at any of its numerous sites…than we notice that it apparently suffers from a dearth of good examples. How else to explain why, so often, there seems to be only one such example: the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice…” (40). BACK
 Many scholars have addressed gender in Austen. Some of the more well-known are: Mary Poovey; Claudia L. Johnson; Susan Fraiman; Clara Tuite; Gilbert and Gubar. BACK
 Two places to begin in terms of class criticism on Austen are Marilyn Butler and Alistair Duckworth. Both view Austen as essentially politically conservative, protecting the norms of marriage in Regency society. Later critics like Fraiman and Johnson, who combine an analysis of gender politics with social class, see her as politically progressive. BACK
 Woloch: “This passage functions as an externalization of Elizabeth’s consciousness, so that her ‘something more of quickness’ finds its corollary in her ‘quick pace’ and her ‘impatient activity.’ The dilation of the description—as it drifts into the present tense through a series of participles (‘crossing,’ ‘jumping,’ ‘springing,’ ‘finding herself’)—is unique up to this moment in the text. In fact, this passage stands out within the narrative as a whole. It is a purely unplotted moment in this densely plotted novel, a free space in the narrative—or rather the only ‘plot’ that it serves to advance is precisely the asymmetrical construction of Elizabeth as the center of narrative interest. The passage shows how a thought in Pride and Prejudice, a tendency of consciousness, can become gradually externalized” (80). BACK
 Deresiewicz employs a similar strategy. "It is a truth universally acknowledged": that is, it is a belief ensconced in "the minds of the surrounding families." The novel takes as its point of departure, not customs or conventions, but cognitive processes. In particular, it begins by setting out the kind of cognitive process that crucially characterizes the community's thinking, the deductive logic of the syllogism. As we might reformulate it:
Our "universal truth," "well fixed" as it is in the minds of the surrounding families, serves as the major premise, the starting-point of deduction. "The feelings or views" of the single man in question empirical evidence that may be thought to bear on the issue have no place in the process and are therefore discounted. And because they are discounted, there is no possibility that they will modify the major premise. Without the countercheck of induction, of fresh observation and reconsideration, conjecture crowns itself as certainty ("must be"), and beliefs once accepted harden into "universal truths" (504-505). BACKAll single men in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.Mr.Bingley is a single man in possession of a good fortuneMr. Bingley must be in want of a wife.