Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice focuses largely on
social status and class. It is one of the most influential factors within the
novel. Although love is seen to be largely significant in today’s society, this
was not the case in the 18th century. In Austen’s time, love and marriage were
considerably different than today. Most marriages were seen as a financial
decision and were not based on love. Jane Austen uses her character’s
relationships to emphasizes the idea that marriage was based significantly on
money and social status, but also shows that these social norms can be broken
when love becomes a contributing factor.
Marriage in Austen’s
time would often be seen as a form of a financial negotiation. For a woman, a
man’s income was what they had to depend on. Marriage could almost be seen as having
to use strategy to get a proposal. The odds of money and class are stacked
against women, and they must learn the best way to fight these odds
(Schneider). Many women want to marry higher in social class to have a better
life for themselves, as well as their families. Usually for men, the woman’s
dowry was a large influential factor regarding marriage. In Pride and Prejudice, this form of marriage can be shown through
the relationship of Lydia and Wickham. Their marriage was based solely on
money, and Lydia’s foolish admiration for Wickham. Wickham decided to marry
Lydia for money, which he did not have. In order to go through with the
marriage, there was a payment that needed to take place. Mr. Darcy was willing
to pay off Wickham’s debt and give him one thousand pounds to marry Lydia
(Austen Chapter 52-53). This is a prime example of a financial arrangement
relating to marriage.
for women is represented as an ultimate goal in their lives. It was virtually
impossible to live independently, more so for women of the genteel class. These
women were not allowed to participate in professional careers or degrees. The
only occupation that was accepted was a governess, but they were not highly
respected. Women depended on marriage for money and the men were the providers.
For example, Charlotte Lucas married Mr. Collins, not for love, but for
financial reasons. She was getting old and needed someone to support her.
Marriage was a necessity for women who could not live independently. Charlotte
was under pressures of her family and society to marry, and she saw Mr. Collins
as her last and only option. When Charlotte is speaking to Elizabeth in the
novel, she states, “I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am no
romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and,
considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am
convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can
boast on entering the marriage state” (Austen 96). Nevertheless, Charlotte
soon comes to the realization that Mr. Collins is an intolerable and awful man,
and sometimes is embarrassed to be married to him. Despite the fact that she
does not want to be married to him, Charlotte has to accept their marriage
because the only other alternative to this is a life of poverty and social
individual fulfillment is one of the most vital parts of a marriage (Moe).
Charlotte does not receive fulfillment for herself, but only financial
conforms to what society wants and accepts loneliness in her marriage instead
of social isolation in her life.
men were used to improve the wealth and lifestyle of a woman, men participated
in a similar behavior involving women to help them improve their social status.
Men looked for a woman who had many accomplishments, not necessarily someone
that they loved. They wanted someone with intelligence and a good personality:
“A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, dancing, drawing,
and the modern languages” (Austen 35). Not only did men look for
accomplishments, but they also looked for beauty. For example, Mr. Bennett
followed the trend where he married based on appearances. Mrs. Bennet was
beautiful, but she was foolish and frivolous, resulting in a poor marriage.
Elizabeth is described as “witty, self-confident, with dancing eyes and independence”
(Morgan). A woman in the marriage was meant to be presented well, not to
embarrass the husband. Due to this, men did not search for someone to be their
soulmate, rather, a woman who was presentable to others. Not only did Mr.
Bennet marry a beautiful woman, but Mr. Bingley did as well. In this time
period, marriage tends to be decided by a woman’s charm and accomplishments.
People of the
gentry and common people had equal access to each other’s worth in places such as
balls and assemblies in the novel. This can be depicted through the
relationship of Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley. This couple emphasizes the
idea of love at first sight. The foil couple to them, Elizabeth and Darcy, are
extremely prideful and hold prejudices against one another. While in this
relationship of hate and respect, Elizabeth is given the chance to save her
family’s sinking reputation and financial stability by marrying Mr. Collins,
someone respectable in society. Mr. Collins arrives at the Bennet household in
search of a wife. Initially, he is interested in Jane, but she is already
taken. His attraction then turns to Elizabeth. He begins to take great interest
in her. His proposal to her is extremely unpleasant, and he is, of course, too
ignorant to realize it. This leads Elizabeth to find her wealthy cousin
conceited and pompous. Her rejection towards Mr. Collins’ proposal was
extremely revolutionary in this time period. While Mr. Collins is
discussing the proposal, he states, “is by no means certain that another offer
of marriage may ever be made to you” (Austen 83). Mr. Collins was a worthy suitor, and
Elizabeth’s rejection was seen to be extremely controversial because this may
be the only proposal she received. Even though
in today’s society, most people would reject someone that they do not love, it
was not as simple in Austen’s time. Mr. Collins could have provided Elizabeth
with a house, a better lifestyle than the one she was currently living, and long-term
stability for her and her family members. Despite these factors, she knows that
she will never be happy with this man as her husband, and does not do as
society would want. However, she chooses to stay independent and risks her
family’s reputation. The attitude and behavior exhibited by Elizabeth is deemed
inappropriate by social standards.
Misunderstanding occurs in the
novel when the gentry, specifically Mr. Darcy, tries to fix Mr. Bingley’s
mistake of wanting to marry Jane Bennet, a woman of lesser stature. Mr. Darcy
overhears Mrs. Bennet talking about how much money he and Mr. Bingley have, and
how her daughters were going to marry into such wealthy families. In her
conversation, she says “”Oh! Single, my
dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What
a fine thing for our girls” (Austen 1). This
led Darcy to believe that the Bennet family was only using Bingley for his
money to raise their social rank. Even though this is basically what Mrs.
Bennet was doing, Jane wanted much more than this. Darcy’s behavior exhibits
the idea that two social classes cannot interact, and it causes turmoil between
Jane and Bingley, as well as Elizabeth and Darcy.
the novel, we are also shown attraction and marriage as well. Mr. Darcy has
proposed to Elizabeth, and she rejected him. However, Elizabeth started to see
the change within Mr. Darcy’s character. She eventually falls in love with him,
showing that she has overcome her pride. Relating to marriage, both Bennet
sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, marry into an upper-class family. This marks the
end of the barrier between the gentry and the common people and shows a break
in social standings.
demonstrated in Austen’s work is that social class can define both character as
well as set principles. The defining of character and setting of principles is
done by society who has become subjected to and internalized social class
rules. The social class system is a force that causes people to live in the
confines caused by wealth. However, love casts away all of these social rules.
The idea that you cannot interact with or marry someone below you is blind
sighted by how powerful love is. Austen is sending a message that love can
transcend all things, even the barriers of social class. But, there will always
be a difference in beliefs and attitudes toward this due to the social norms in
the 18th century.
Within the novel, there
are seven marriages total, but the two that correlate the theme of social class
and marriage are Elizabeth and Darcy, and Jane and Bingley. Jane and Bingley’s
relationship is very straightforward. Mr. Bingley is a wealthy man who falls in
love with Jane. The love between the two is clear to anyone who sees them, “No one who has ever seen you together can doubt
his affection” (Austen 91). Jane is a woman below his stature, however, loves him
just as much. The couple desperately wants to be together, but the only thing
preventing this is the social barriers standing between them. In the middle of
their courtship, Mr. Bingley is forced to leave Jane, because she is seen as
unfit for him due to her family’s lack of land and money. In the end, Mr.
Bingley looks past this and married Jane anyway. This proves that love cannot
be repressed within social formalities and wealth.
Another union that went against the
social norms of higher class marrying people of similar wealth was Elizabeth
and Darcy’s. Although their first impressions of each other had them arguing,
they learned that they had many similarities despite their noticeably different
social statuses. Both Darcy and Elizabeth tend to use judgement over
perception. They have a preference to judgment, which makes them similar. For
example, both characters take a situation and decide what they think of it
right away, and little can change their thinking (Rytting). Their compatibility
slowly leads them to come to love each other. There were also societal
obstacles set in place in their relationship, such as the distrust and lowered
opinion Elizabeth had towards Darcy. When they overcame this obstacle, Lady
Catherine became another issue. Lady Catherine is an extremely wealthy and
powerful woman in England. She objected the union of Darcy and Elizabeth
because she wants her daughter to marry him. She even threatened Elizabeth and
told her to deny Darcy’s proposal. However, love overpowers Lady Catherine’s
wishes and Darcy marries a girl who is seen as inferior to him.
Similarly, Austen shows
the reader the impact money and social status have in the public eye. These
variables are a huge part in molding the plot of the story, and also the
connections made. Darcy’s social status and class altered other people’s views
of him, which lead them to misunderstand the type of person he is, just as
Elizabeth did. As opposed to being egotistical as he is usually considered to
be, he is really a genuine and kind-hearted individual. Even the people who
work for Darcy find him to be a very respectable and generous man (Austen
Volume II). This in itself, despite the differences the two have in social
class, makes people much more reluctant to support the relationship of
Elizabeth and Darcy. The topic of class relates to that of status too. In this
novel, the social class lines are unmistakably drawn. Despite the fact that the
Bennets associate with the high society, for example, people like Bingley and
Darcy, they are still viewed by society as below or beneath them.
Jane Austen’s Pride
and Prejudice focuses to a great extent on societal position and class. In today’s society, love in extremely important.
However, in the 18th century, marriage was more solely based on financial
negotiation. Love and marriage in Austen’s time were considerably different
than they are now. Austen uses the character’s relationships in her novel to
show that marriage was based on money and status, but the social norms that
held people to these standards could be overcome when love is present.