The 2017 AP English Literature Free Response Questions focus on varying themes and are each structured differently. For an overview of the three prompt types that you may encounter, read The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. Here we discuss the third FRQ prompt which allows you to choose a particular work of literature as the focus of your essay.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is a famous classic novel based on marriage, love, and society. Herein we will discuss how to determine if the given prompt is appropriate for this particular literary work and give you an idea of what to review before your exam.
Pride and Prejudice AP English Lit Essay Themes
To choose a literary work to answer your prompt, it’s important to examine the themes which are outlined in the assigned essay. If the theme is not relevant or well established in a work, you will do well to choose another title to examine. The following are the main themes which you may discuss in your Pride and Prejudice AP English Lit Essay.
Love is an important theme in the story, as it centers around the need for the Bennet sisters to marry, in order to avoid poverty upon the death of their father. Of course, the sisters dream of matches made by love, which would also serve them financially.
Reputation is another prevalent subject which is discussed at length throughout the novel. In the story, Austen often pokes fun at the snobbish way that many people view behavior and wealth. However, she also lends great importance to reputation based on behavior when Lydia’s choice to become Wickham’s lover, without marrying him, threatens the well being of all her sisters.
Social Class is the third central theme in the book. The book focuses on the differences between upper and middle-class individuals in Regency England. While the Bennets may socialize, and possibly marry, above their status, they are treated according to their place in society. Even when someone above their class is kind to them, there is an air of charity and even judgment around it.
How to use Pride and Prejudice for the 2017 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
Pride and Prejudice is a well-known literary work, with which you should be familiar. It may well be a viable choice for the AP English Lit free response question. However, that is dependent on the question. Each year the 3rd FRQ is different, and the CollegeBoard supplies a list of suggested books to reference for your essay. The absence of a book from the list does not disqualify it from use, that being said; it’s important to know how to choose which book to use for the given analysis.
In preparation for your exam, it’s a good idea to read previous years’ free response questions posted on CollegeBoard. The following review is for the 2016 FRQ prompt.
2016 FRQ 3: Many works of literature contain a character who intentionally deceives others. The character’s dishonesty may be intended to either help or hurt. Such a character, for example, may choose to mislead others for personal safety, to spare someone’s feelings, or to carry out a crime.
Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.
Pride and Prejudice is on the suggested list for this prompt, and there are several obvious and subtle reasons for its inclusion. The theme of deception is represented by various characters in the story. The most prominent one is George Wickham, who lies about his past and his social status to gain recognition, trust, and even a woman’s heart. However, the underlying idea that the most dangerous lies are those which we tell ourselves could make for an excellent essay topic. A possible thesis is as follows. In Pride and Prejudice, the worst lies are those the Bennet sisters tell themselves. Their unwillingness to look at the character of a person, unconnected to their social status causes them humiliation and harm.
To support this thesis, you can illustrate how the lies which the characters told themselves, caused them harm or to be further deceived, as is the case with the following quote. Jane does not wish to believe Wickham’s story about Darcy, so chooses to believe neither man at fault, instead of pursuing the truth. If someone had decided to investigate instead of trick themselves into thinking that no one in the upper class would outright lie, Lydia could have been spared the humiliation she later faced.
“’They have both,’ said she, ‘been deceived, I dare say, in some way or other, of which we can form no idea. Interested people have perhaps misrepresented each to the other. It is, in short, impossible for us to conjecture the causes or circumstances which may have alienated them, without actual blame on either side.’” (17.1-2)
In the following excerpt, Jane is tricking herself into believing that Caroline is her friend. Meanwhile, Caroline only keeps her close in order to discourage Jane’s pursuit of her brother’s affections.
“Hope was over, entirely over; and when Jane could attend to the rest of the letter, she found little, except the professed affection of the writer, that could give her any comfort. Miss Darcy’s praise occupied the chief of it. Her many attractions were again dwelt on, and Caroline boasted joyfully of their increasing intimacy, and ventured to predict the accomplishment of the wishes which had been unfolded in her former letter.” (24.1-2)
Next, we see how Elizabeth Bennet allowed herself to be fooled by Wickham’s good looks and apparent social grace.
“As to his real character, had information been in her power, she had never felt a wish of inquiring. His countenance, voice, and manner had established him at once in the possession of every virtue.” (36.4)
In the following passage, Elizabeth is coming to realize how foolish she had been, tricking herself into trusting based on social class.
“’How despicably I have acted!’ she cried; ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blamable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either was concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.’” (36.18-19)
The self-deception of Elizabeth Bennet is finally realized by our protagonist to have even affected the way she viewed her own family.
“But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents, which, rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.” (42.3)
Of course, many of the characters suffered from self-delusion, as seen in the following quote.
MY DEAR HARRIET,
You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton, for there is but one man in the world I love, and he is an angel. I should never be happy without him, so think it no harm to be off. You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater when I write to them and sign my name Lydia Wickham. What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing. […] Your affectionate friend, LYDIA BENNET.” (47.60)
All of the evidence above would be easily used to illustrate how self-delusion caused the Bennet sisters to see their lives and acquaintances differently than they really were, and ultimately caused them harm.
2015 FRQ 3: In literary works, cruelty often functions as a crucial motivation or a major social or political factor. Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim.
Although Pride and Prejudice is not on the suggested list for this particular prompt, you can still write a well-thought out essay for the novel. Cruelty is a subtle theme throughout the story. A possible thesis is as follows. In Pride and Prejudice, the theme of cruelty is most obvious in the subtle ways in which society and upper-class individuals degrade the middle and lower classes. Being wealthy is believed to make you an inherently better person, while the converse is also true.
To elaborate on this thesis and explain what it reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim, you will need to choose your examples and expand upon them. In the following quote, Lady Catherine is said to like being superior to those below her.
“Do not make yourself uneasy, my dear cousin, about your apparel. Lady Catherine is far from requiring that elegance of dress in us which becomes herself and her daughter. I could advise you merely to put on whatever of your clothes is superior to the rest—there is no occasion for anything more. Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.” (29.6)
Even in the following excerpt, Mr. Darcy is proposing to Elizabeth, but the most important issue is the difference they have in social class.
“He spoke well; but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed; and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.” (34.5)
The cruelty of society is so all-encompassing that when Lydia runs off with Wickham, it’s said her death would have been better for the family.
“’The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this. […] Howsoever that may be, you are grievously to be pitied; in which opinion I am not only joined by Mrs. Collins, but likewise by Lady Catherine and her daughter, to whom I have related the affair. They agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others; for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family?’” (48.11)
Additionally, in the following passage, Mr. Collins is offering unsolicited advice to Mr. Bennet, regarding Elizabeth’s marriage to Mr. Darcy.
“After mentioning the likelihood of this marriage to her ladyship last night, she immediately, with her usual condescension, expressed what she felt on the occasion; when it became apparent, that on the score of some family objections on the part of my cousin, she would never give her consent to what she termed so disgraceful a match. I thought it my duty to give the speediest intelligence of this to my cousin, that she and her noble admirer may be aware of what they are about, and not run hastily into a marriage which has not been properly sanctioned.'” (57.24)
Pride and Prejudice has many themes you may find helpful for the last Free Response Question on the AP English Literature Exam. When reading the prompt and deciding on what literary work to use for your essay, remember to choose a subject where the theme outlined in the given instructions is prevalent.
In the case of Pride and Prejudice, love, reputation, and social classes are a few of the more prominent themes discussed. However, as we saw with the 2015 prompt example, this story has many underlying themes which you may examine for your Pride and Prejudice AP English Lit Essay.
For more help preparing for your AP English Literature exam we suggest you read The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs and The Ultimate Guide to 2015 AP English Literature FRQs. And, for writing advice for the AP English Lit free response questions, Albert.io’s AP English Literature section has practice free response sections with sample answers and rubrics.
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In which ways is Elizabeth different from the rest of the Bennet family? What does the contrast reveal about her character?
Elizabeth is one of the only characters in Pride and Prejudice who changes significantly over the course of the story. Her distinctive quality is her extreme perceptiveness, which she uses to assess others at the beginning of the novel and understand her own flaws at the end. Most of the other Bennets are stuck in their ways - Jane is eternally optimistic, Lydia and Mrs. Bennet are frivolous, Mr. Bennet is sarcastic and cynical, and so on - but Elizabeth regularly reflects on the events in her life. She learns to question herself whereas most of the others act as though they have settled on a certain worldview. Elizabeth is therefore a true individual who adapts to the world around her, and seeks constantly to better understand her desires so that she can find happiness.
Overall, do you believe Austen has a conservative or radical approach to the issue of class? Why or why not?
Ultimately, Pride and Prejudice takes a moderate stance on class differences. Austen never posits an egalitarian ideology. However, she does criticize the society's over-emphasis on class instead of individual moral character. Darcy's journey from extreme class-consciousness to prioritizing manners over money is the best example of Austen's criticism. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is affected upon visiting Pemberley. The grand estate does have an impact on her already changing feelings towards Darcy, which is one example of Austen justifying the appeal of the upper class. Overall, Austen accepts (and even appreciates) the existence of class hierarchy, but also offers a warning about how class-based prejudice can poison society.
Explore Austen's portrayal of the women in the novel. In what ways does she sympathize with their plight, and in what ways is she unsympathetic?
Austen's attitude towards women is quite complicated. Generally, Austen is critical of the gender injustices present in 19th century English society, particularly in the context of marriage. She is able to voice this criticism through characters like Charlotte Lucas (who marries Collins because she needs security) and even Mrs. Bennet (who, though ridiculous, is the only one to speak out against the entailment of Longbourn). Furthermore, Austen's caricatured portrayal of the younger Bennet daughters is evidence of her disdain for frivolous women. Her opinion was perhaps more in line with Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth, or even the dour Mary. While Austen seems to accept the limitations of her gender, she criticizes a society that forces women to emphasize their least flattering characteristics.
Elizabeth has a markedly different attitude about marriage than other characters - notably Charlotte and Mrs. Bennet - have. To what extent is she unfair in her assessment of their attitudes, and to what extent might they benefit from employing her perspective?
Charlotte and Mrs. Bennet both believe that marriage is a business transaction in which a woman must be the active party in securing a good match for herself. This pragmatic assessment stands in stark contrast to Elizabeth's more romantic worldview. However, at this period in history, at least in certain higher classes, if a man chose not to marry, he only risked loneliness and regret. Meanwhile, a woman in the same situation could lose her financial security. Therefore, it is understandable why Charlotte and Mrs. Bennet believe that a woman must consider employing manipulation for the sake of her future. Charlotte deliberately draws Mr. Collins's attention in order to secure a proposal. However, Jane does not follow Charlotte's advice and nearly loses Bingley's love in the process. Lydia takes a drastic action that forces her marriage to occur. It is only Elizabeth who operates entirely outside the societal norm, but Austen makes it clear that her situation is quite unique.
Some critics applaud Austen's ability to craft psychologically complex and believable characters, while others believe she mostly creates well-drawn comic stock characters. Which argument do you support?
Though this question asks for an opinion, a strong thesis would be that Austen straddles the line between comic stock characters and psychologically complex ones. Elizabeth Bennet has a magnetic and singular personality, as does Darcy. They are arguably one of the most beloved literary couples of all time. On the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine are almost trapped in their exaggerated personality traits, which Austen often uses for comic (and satirical) effect. However, Austen reveals a keen perception of human psychology, even through these supposedly two-dimensional characters. Mr. Collins, for instance, reflects the truth of a class-obsessed society. Mrs. Bennet embodies the desperation of women to find a good marriage. Therefore, Austen does create unique stock characters that emphasize certain aspects of human psychology while also providing comic relief.
Austen's original draft of this novel was titled First Impressions. Explain why this title makes sense, as explore the reasons why Pride and Prejudice is more apt.
First Impressions describes the main romantic conflict - will Elizabeth and Darcy end up together despite their first impressions of one another? However, Pride and Prejudice suggests a much deeper psychological struggle, more fitting to the complexity of Austen's novel. Whereas First Impressions only implies a story of corrected perceptions, Pride and Prejudice describes a story where the characters must investigate themselves, addressing the unconscious impulses that work to prohibit self-awareness. Finally, the final title is all-encompassing, reaching beyond just Elizabeth and Darcy. It offers a comment on the novel's larger themes like class and the role of women.
Darcy is initially attracted to Elizabeth's "fine eyes." Analyze this symbol, and explain what it shows about both Darcy and Elizabeth.
Despite Elizabeth's obvious coldness toward him, Darcy finds himself increasingly attracted to her, particularly her beautiful dark eyes. The darkness of her eyes also represents Elizabeth's main weakness: the pride and prejudice that cloud her perception. Elizabeth prides herself on her ability to judge others and uncover their motives. However, her prejudgment of Darcy makes her blind to his admiration. In the conversation about Darcy at Netherfield, Elizabeth offers that Darcy's defect is "a propensity to hate everybody," while Darcy perceptively replies that hers is "willfully to misunderstand them." Indeed, while Elizabeth judges Darcy for over-valuing his first impression of her, she exhibits the exact same shortcoming. Ultimately, the darkness of her eyes reflects the complexity of Elizabeth's prejudice, but that complexity is very much what draws Darcy towards her in the first place.
In what ways does Austen portray the family and community as responsible for its members?
Though Pride and Prejudice is largely a story about individuality, Austen portrays the family unit as primarily responsible for the intellectual and moral education of children. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet's failure to provide a proper education for their daughters leads to Lydia's utter foolishness. Elizabeth and Jane manage to develop virtue and discernment in spite of their parents' negligence, though it is notable that they have other role models like the Gardiners. Darcy shares both his father's aristocratic nature and the man's tendency towards generosity, while Lady Catherine's daughter is too frightened to speak. This attitude extends to the larger community, as well. Lydia's time in Meryton and Brighton bring out her worst impulses. Similarly, the community around Pemberley respects Darcy's generosity and follows his lead in being kind and trustworthy.
Though undoubtedly a comic character, Mr. Collins reflects some rather unattractive qualities of his society. Explain this statement.
Mr. Collins is defined by his rambling speeches of excessive formality and his boorishness disguised as faux-politeness. And yet, Mr. Collins is also a reflection of a society obsessed with class, a monster engendered by this singular pressure. Mr. Collins comes from modest means and likely always dreamed of a respectable position. When he attracted an aristocratic patroness like Lady Catherine, he saw only her rank, which made him blind to her harsh and condescending attitude. He compensates for his insecurity by pretending to act like Lady Catherine and those of her class. In this way, Collins and Lady Catherine are examples of the societal acceptance of class without manners but not the opposite.
Explain why Austen ends her novel with a line about the Gardiners, even though they are minor characters in Pride and Prejudice.
The Gardiners are important because they are a middle-class couple that behaves reasonably and virtuously. Mrs. Gardiner is a great role model for Elizabeth, though she reveals little unique personality of her own. Mr. Gardiner proves to be instrumental in saving Lydia from her scandalous elopement. They both acknowledge the importance of class and education, but place a greater emphasis on personal conduct. The Gardiners also externalize Darcy's inner struggle. When Darcy treats the Gardiners well at Pemberley and then later works with Mr. Gardiner to rescue Lydia, it indicates that he has internalized Elizabeth's view of personality and class. The novel thus ends on the Gardiners because is offers a final illustration that Elizabeth and Darcy have reached a happy medium between class and behavior beyond the barriers of pride and prejudice.