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The Question of Status and Class System

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While the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen does not openly display Marx’s idea of the oppressed and the oppressor, it does clearly demonstrate Marx’s ideas of society as a history of class struggle. Austen portrays class divisions and struggles through the relationships between the characters in the novel, chiefly the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth. When subjected to a Marxist reading, Pride and Prejudice reflects how relationships were determined by wealth and class status in pre-industrial England. Subsequently the novel also displays the emergence of the bourgeoisie (the Gardiners) and how they affect class relations.

Although Pride and Prejudice was written before the bourgeoisie become the dominant class of the western world, the industrial revolution had already begun and so had the emergence of this social class. Therefore the principle of personal worth being decided by ‘exchange value’ (p. 82 The Communist Manifesto) can still be read in the novel and Marx’s criticism of the bourgeoisie can still be applied. It was obvious from the novel’s orientation that relationships were determined by a character’s ‘exchange value’ or in other words, their wealth and social position. This was overtly present in relationships between men and women in 18th Century England. The novel’s opening lines set the criteria for future relationships: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’. This line implied two central concepts, the first that Mr Bingley is only an acceptable husband as a result of his fortune. Secondly, women were expected to marry a wealthy man who could provide for them until death. Mrs Bennet, with five eligible daughters of marrying age, desired that all marry as ‘highly’ as possible because the girls would not inherit any money from the family. When it first becomes clear that Mr Bingley has purchased Netherfield Estate he is immediately categorised as a potential husband for the Bennet girls. Mrs Bennet says of Bingley ‘A single man of a large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls’. Clearly his worth (at least initially) was monetary rather than based on upstanding personal traits or reputation.

It’s apparent that a man’s personal fortune largely dictated how a community accepted him. Even the men of the town viewed Mr Bingley as a gentleman due to his wealth as they spoke highly of him. However, as soon as the wealthier Mr Darcy was introduced the praise and admiration was bestowed on him:

‘Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room…by his noble mien; and the report…of his having ten thousand a year…the gentlemen pronounce him to be a fine figure of a man’

From the first introduction of Mr Darcy to the other characters (and the reader) he was seen as the ideal man and husband due to his fortune. Even though his character was denounced soon after this introduction (for lack of manners) he was still primarily judged by his material possessions ‘not all his large estate in Derbyshire could save him’. However, it was ‘his large estate in Derbyshire’ that did save him in the novel. It was upon Elizabeth’s visit to Darcy’s estate (after her rejection of his marriage proposal) that she began to change her mind about his character and their relationship, as it states ‘ “And of this place” thought she ” I might have been mistress!”. One might make the assumption that Darcy and Elizabeth’s union by novel’s conclusion reinforces that his wealth was important and that his pride was not sufficient in alienating him from the rest of the community. In fact his pride was a result of his large fortune and Elizabeth came to understand and forgive his pride.

Of course, social positioning was just as important as wealth and most of the time the two came hand in hand. Darcy belonged to the aristocrats and thus had considerable social power and influence while Elizabeth belonged to a class below (landed gentry), resulting in conflict between the two characters. Darcy’s rejection of Elizabeth upon their first encounter (due to her class) was an example of the struggle between classes. Darcy had several reasons to reject Elizabeth, namely her own social position, that her uncle made his money rather than inherited it (an example of the emerging bourgeoisie) and that her family did not behave accordingly:

‘The situation of your mother’s family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of the total want of propriety… by your three younger sisters’

In the novel’s context, English society did not believe in transgressing classes; it was expected that one would remain in the class they were born into. This was represented in Pride and Prejudice through Miss Bingley’s objection to Jane and Bingley’s union, and Lady Catherine’s objection to the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy. Lady Catherine’s anger at this possible social faux pas can be seen through her conversation with Elizabeth on page 365: ‘Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never be mentioned by any of [Darcy’ family and friends]’. Lady Catherine is not only incensed by Darcy’s love of Elizabeth but equally by the subsequent rejection of his cousin ‘Are you lost to every feeling of propriety and delicacy…from the [Darcy’s] earliest hours he was destined for his cousin’. This statement reinforces how class transition was frowned upon and hence it was a disgrace if one was to marry below their class.

On the other hand, if one continues a Marxist reading, Darcy’s acceptance of Elizabeth and her family demonstrates Marx’s hypothesis that as the dominant class begins losing its social dominance it must align itself with the emerging class; in this case the bourgeoisie. As Marx stated on page 91 of The Communist Manifesto:

‘A small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift and joins the revolutionary class…just as a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie’

In Pride and Prejudice Darcy can represent the ‘section of nobility’ that went over to the bourgeoisie, while the bourgeoisie are represented by the Gardiners. After Darcy’s original dislike of the Gardiners he comes to accept them: ‘his being now seeking the acquaintance of some of those very people, against whom his pride revolted’. Darcy’s acceptance of the Gardiners can be read as an example of the bourgeois revolution Marx discussed in The Communist Manifesto (p. 91). Darcy can also represent the disappearing nobility in pre-industrial England and the changes that took place within that class in order to survive the industrial (and as Marx saw it, bourgeois) revolution. Effectively this is demonstrated by his acceptance for Elizabeth’s family and his willingness to marry for love rather than to cement his own social standing.

Although Pride and Prejudice was written before Marx’s manifesto one can clearly see evidence of his theories regarding class struggle as the ‘history of all hitherto in society’. Employing Marx’s ideas one can suggest that Darcy and Elizabeth (as the novel’s protagonists) demonstrate Marx’s ideas regarding class struggle, wealth as personal worth and the acceptance of other classes in order to survive. Whilst to many Pride and Prejudice might be read as a romance, it was also a critique of the world Austen constructed in the novel. Thus, it is a novel that displays the class struggles Marx believed existed throughout history.

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The Question of Status and Class System. (2018, May 22). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 19, 2022, from
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