Marriage, Social Class, And Women In Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

The saga of the Bennet sisters remains, to this day, one of the most beloved novels, with millions of copies still being sold across the world. Published in 1813, “Pride and Prejudice” revolves around Elizabeth Bennet, a spirited young woman belonging to a middle-class family living in Longbourn, Hertfordshire, in England. The novel traces her journey to find love, in the process becomes a scintillating social commentary of the times.

A still from Pride And Prejudice, 2005

The opening lines of the novel introduce us to the Bennet family–the elderly Bennet couple and their five unmarried daughters. With unsurpassed ease and signature wit, Austen makes it clear that the young Bennet women are of marriageable age, and their mother, the inimitable Mrs. Bennet, who has little else to do in life but to get her daughters married off, and married well.

Marriage is one of the central themes of this novel set in late 18th century England. Austen laces, with understated humor, the social understanding that the culmination of a woman’s life lies in marriage. Moreover, marriage is shown to be a socio-economic arrangement rather than a union of souls, and while women could be well-read and well-informed, social expectations would most likely not go beyond finding a good match for them. It is a far cry from contemporary perceptions, especially in the West, where marriage has almost come to become peripheral to a woman’s identity, her independence, and choices in life becoming primary to her existence.

Jane Austen. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Austen herself, of course, broke the glass ceiling in more ways than one. Not only did she take to writing at a time when women writers were still a glaring minority, in fact, reading and writing were not seen as a woman’s cup of tea, she also remained unattached throughout her short life, thus going against the love, family and marriage centric plots of her stories.

However, keeping to the tradition of the time, most of her major publications during her lifetime were published anonymously– some of them cryptically as ‘A Lady,’ thus shielding her from any social animosity that could have arisen from revealing her true identity. One must remember the celebrated Bronte sisters in the early 19th century whose works were published under neutral noms de guerre (assumed names) to avoid social prejudices.

This brings us to the social order, which is again a recurring theme in most of Austen’s novels, and “Pride and Prejudice” is no exception. In fact, “First Impressions”, as the novel was initially named, adroitly encapsulated within it the very core of the story itself. That is, first impressions are not always the last impressions.

Thus, Eliza Bennet’s initial, and thoroughly justified detestation of Fitzwilliam Darcy, undergoes a gradual transformation, just as Darcy’s impression of the Bennets, although not drastically transformed, at least gets tempered by the end of the novel. And weaved into their respective first impressions is Austen’s astute observation of human nature, and her apt use of irony with respect to the social order of the time, marriage and the status of women.

The Bennet Family. A still from Pride And Prejudice, 2005

Women, at the time the novel was written, were not entitled to property rights. Thus, Mr. Bennet’s estate is entailed away from the female line and is expected to pass on, upon his demise, to his distant cousin, William Collins. Collins is a ludicrous mockery of a clergyman whose complete lack of common sense, coupled with his ridiculously inflated opinion of himself makes him one of the most farcical characters in the novel. Elizabeth’s sharp rebuttal of his proposal, the clergyman’s response to being rejected and the Bennet couple’s diverse reactions to the entire episode make for some thoroughly hilarious moments. 

Collins represents a particular social class–the so-called respectable, pompous clergy, financially stable, but with little breeding. His nuptials with the sensible Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s close friend, clearly indicates the society’s perceptions towards a socially acceptable marriage. Theirs is a marriage without passion, offering stability and security, but little else to either party involved.

Mr.Collins proposing to Elizabeth Bennet. A still from Pride And Prejudice, 2005

Collins is in some way an anti-thesis to Darcy, who is the epitome of propriety and respectability. Like Collins, Darcy too is a victim of false pride but unlike him, Darcy’s pride is shown, albeit through biting irony, as arising from his noble lineage and the fact that he belongs to the landed aristocracy. Darcy’s aunt, the wealthy and haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is another satirical figure. Once again, the author seems to subtly make fun of the society’s misplaced regard for the genteel classes. Irony and social critique blend together seamlessly through amusing characterizations and delicious writing.

Lydia Bennet, the presumed anti-thesis to Elizabeth and her sister Jane, can perhaps be seen as representing the darker imagery of the society–the foolish, ignorant young woman who falls into the clutches of the charismatic George Wickham, a degenerate womanizer. The couple presumably dives into what can only be a life of dissipation and misery. Wickham and Lydia’s complete lack of principles suggests a social and moral decay that runs parallel to the elitism signified by the Bingleys and the Darcys.

Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.

In contrast to the Wickhams’ marriage for passion lies that of Elizabeth and Darcy–the ideal marriage filled with love, respect, beauty, material wealth, and most importantly, social propriety. Both Elizabeth and Darcy marry for love. And for that, they stand forgiven in spite of their flawed characters. At the other end of the continuum is Charlotte and Collins’ marriage for convenience.

Despite her highly entertaining style of writing and profound insight into social life, Jane Austen had failed to taste success in her lifetime. Today though, had she lived, she would have been a global celebrity. Her magnum opus, “Pride and Prejudice”, has given readers some timeless characters in the realm of classic English literature.

The head-strong Lizzy and the proud, extraordinarily handsome Mr. Darcy, the soft-spoken Jane and the charming Mr. Bingley, the comical Mr. Collins, the long-suffering Mr. Bennet who has no compassion for his wife’s poor nerves, and the unscrupulous Lydia and Wickham have become so deeply etched into the minds of any Austen lover, that it would be hard to convince us that these are, after all, the mere figment of a person’s imagination. Over 225 years on, Lizzy and Darcy’s love story continues to be every woman’s fantasy. Keeping true to Austen–if such happy prospects were to befall us, we would be very well pleased, indeed! 

 

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