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Does Jane Austen Criticize Women’s Views on Marriage of Her Era in “Pride and Prejudice”?
Jane Austen remains one of the most popular female writers even today, although literature has ceased to be the only male activity. It is known that Austen spent her whole life in the countryside of England, belonged to the middle class, was never married and wrote a lot. One of the most outstanding novels written by her is Pride and Prejudice. A large number of readers perceive this novel as a witty and romantic love story, but close reading indicates that Pride and Prejudice can be seen as a work of art in which the author socially and critically examined the origin of marriage and premarital practices among middle-class people in England in the late 18th – early 19th centuries. Austen offers to look at different attitudes and different couples in her book to criticize and analyze marriage and its role for women. In fact, it does not need to be considered that Austen neglected or criticize women of her time for their desire to marry. It should not be forgotten that the central line of the novel is dedicated to the love of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Such attention to their romantic relationships clearly hinted that Austen recognized marriage, the desire to marry, but the cause of marriage should be love.
For a more in-depth understanding of the novel, it is worth remembering that it was published in 1813 when any discussion on women’s emancipation and their rights did not exist (Mullan). The English middle class was a society built around the male subject: they had the opportunity to receive education, inheritance, enjoy social mobility and had the right to travel freely. All these possibilities were closed to women of that period, for whom the only opportunity to change their environment, social status and a financial condition was associated exclusively with men, at first with the state and affairs of the father, and then husband (David 100). Consequently, marriage was the only possible mean for women for changing one’s life and social status.
Ascertaining of such a situation is present not only in the texts of Austen but also in most of the outstanding English novels of the period in which women were portrayed exclusively as things or extras that help a man gain greater solidity, coziness and become a father without any rights or liberties to live own life. Thus, Austen’s women did not have the right to build their personal lives pursuing their careers or other manifestations of self-expression, the only possible way out for women was marriage, in which men often perceived them as a thing that is peculiar to have after reaching a certain age and status.
Austen’s Pride and Prejudice depicts four couples who have different types of relationships but end up getting married. Like any great novelist, Austen has the remarkable ability to portray each character convincingly, referring to a specific type of people. Consequently, all eight young people in the novel are characters who represent typical even for today’s world views on the wedding. It is worth starting with the couple of Mr. William Collins and Charlotte Lucas, which is the most pragmatic couple and argue that marriage is not about love and happiness, but about “market” relationships and work that needs to be done within a marriage. So, Charlotte says: “I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people state” (Austen), showing that this woman perfectly understands the social restrictions that society imposes on her, and, therefore, deliberately agrees to fulfill the role of wife and mother as a job in return for her own home and improvement of social status. In fact, this attitude to marriage always prevailed in history, because previously the parents of the newlyweds chose couples for their children, starting from the thoughts about the economic, social background of hypothetical sons-in-law/daughters-in-law (Mullan). Thus, this type of marriage is the most classic and widespread. It is important to note that Elizabeth is sad for the fate of her friend because Mr. Collins is exceptionally boring and miserable person, but she understands the rationality of such relationships.
The other pair is Lydia and Wickham who married only for the sake of hiding their shame. So, Wickham had debts and money that he got for agreeing to marry Lydia was used to rebuilding his reputation. Lydia married only because her family agreed to pay for her disgrace-escape and premarital sexual relations. In the context of Lydia, one needs to talk about Mrs. Bennet, whose only desire is to marry all of her daughters to protect them from poverty and lack of the home. An important point in this story is that the daughters had no right to inherit the house in which they lived because they were women. So, Mrs. Bennet continually dreams about the wedding of her daughters and all her thoughts and movements aimed only at this. In this desire, Mrs. Bennet becomes quite primitive and vulgar and takes little account of the wishes of her children and etiquette. That is why vulgarity and frivolity of Lydia can be explained by the influence of the mother, who was very happy with the fact of her marriage. It is worth noting that although Austen portrays the Mrs. Bennet as the pretty pathetic person, readers can not notice author’s disdain or hatred toward this heroine. Austen understands the context, the fate of women, and, therefore, understands the intentions of the mother of the family.
The analysis of two couples, Jane and Bingley and Darcy and Elizabeth, can be combined because the driving force of both marriages was a common sense of attraction and love. At the same time, the marriage of Jane and Bingley arises by chance, because both Jane and Bingley are quite simple people and artlessly executors of another’s will. Thus, under the influence of the environment, Bingley abandons his desire to marry Jane, but then, under the influence of Darcy, returns to his plans. Thus, this couple perceives marriage as a way to live a happy life without any consideration or critical analysis. The leading couple, Darcy and Elizabeth, is central to the novel, and their relationship history is the most dynamic part of the plot and illuminates not only marriage issues and its role but also another important topic in the book – pride and prejudice. There is a tradition to find similarities between Austen and Elizabeth (Johnson 213) because these women believed that they need to marry for love, understand the nature of marriage and the meaning that society gives to it.
Thus, Austen depicts the world as she knows and understands it. The women’s world was focused on the marriage, so Austen could not criticize these women for their desire to get married. However, this does not mean that the author does not question the role of the institution of marriage and does not criticize the society, which perceived women only as mothers and defenders of home comfort. In the film adaptation of the novel, Pride & Prejudice, made in 2005 by Joe Wright, one can easily see a striking disparity in the way how young and energetic women are compelled, despite their own will and talent, to tie their lives to men who do not really stand for them. The main idea of the novel is the criticism of the obligatory marriage and the absence of any other way out for the woman, although Austen recognizes and approves the marriage that arose out of love.
In the end, Pride and Prejudice is a novel about the marriage made because of love with the background of other couples, whose marriages are results of suppressive pressure, lack of critical thinking or a desire to escape from demands and gain a new status. It can not be said that Austen criticizes the women of her era and their obsession with marriage because she understood the context of such desires and the punishment for refusing to follow the generally recognized rules. Consequently, Pride and Prejudice can be read as a critical and ironic work on the institution of marriage in England at the end of the 18th-century and the beginning of 19th.
Austen, Jane. “Pride And Prejudice.” The Project Gutenberg, 2016, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1342/1342-h/1342-h.htm.
David, Deirdre. The Cambridge Companion To The Victorian Novel. 1st ed., Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Johnson, Claudia L, and Clara Tuite. A Companion To Jane Austen. 1st ed., Chicester, Wiley-Blackwell (An Imprint Of John Wiley & Sons Ltd), 2012.
Mullan, John. “Courtship, Love And Marriage In Jane Austen’s Novels.” The British Library, 2017, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/courtship-love-and-marriage-in-jane-austens-novels.
Wright, Joe, director. “Pride & Prejudice.” Studiocanal, Working Title Films, 2005.