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Criticism of Regency England Through Elizabeth Bennet’s Identity

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Words: 1173 |

Pages: 3|

6 min read

Published: May 24, 2022

Words: 1173|Pages: 3|6 min read

Published: May 24, 2022

Throughout the novel, Austen constructs the protagonist in defiance to codified behaviours in regards to women’s social decorum that characterise Regency England in order to illustrate a forging of a female identity in an environment of changing values such as the disintegrating class structure, a new social mobility, and increasing personal autonomy. Elizabeth Bennet’s insurgence of agency is seen throughout the novel and can be particularly seen in Chapter 8 through her walk to Netherfield, an act against the social decorum of the time. Through the characters' responses to Elizabeth's deciding to walk to Netherfield Park, we can see that Austen challenges societal expectations by having Elizabeth conduct herself this way. This action is first commented on by Elizabeth’s mother, a woman who is ironically is characterised by her care for social proceedings, she says, 'How can you be so silly ... as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt! You will not be fit to be seen when you get there.' Both responses from Elizabeth's parents suggest that walking a distance of three miles is uncommon; her mother's response suggests that it is frowned upon, particularly in how it will affect her appearance, and her father's assumption suggests that walking is considered out of the question so she must want the carriage. Claiming that she does 'not wish to avoid the walk. The distance is nothing when one has a motive; only three miles”. However, Elizabeth expresses a more practical opinion of walking than her mother. By describing Elizabeth 'jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity', Austen shows a fondness in Elizabeth for exercise and the outdoors and creates a positive reading of Elizabeth's experience that contrasts with the negative responses her walk receives, just one of many nonconformities Elizabeth undertakes in her separation from the norms of women in Regency England. 

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Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley's contempt is deepened by Austen when she writes of the two discussing Elizabeth's arrival critically. Miss Bingley claims that Elizabeth 'has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild.' Caroline's specific address to Elizabeth being an 'excellent walker' - a term not necessarily meant in a complimentary kind of way from Caroline, suggests the same sort of poor opinion of walking that we found in Mrs. Bennet's reaction. Caroline's comments specifically criticize what walking did to Elizabeth's hair, petticoats, and stockings. In a society where appearances meant everything, it was distasteful and inappropriate for a woman to fall into disarray - a point made salient by both Caroline and Elizabeth's mother. Caroline further exclaims, 'To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum.' In criticizing Elizabeth's independence through Caroline, a character with high expectations for appropriate behaviour, Austen criticizes society's view of an independent woman. Not only is it considered inappropriate to engage in activities where one's appearance can fall into disarray, but it is inappropriate to exude an independent spirit. 

Overall, her walking shows her difference in society and her independence from codified behaviours for women in Regency England in order to forge her own female identity and show a rise of the individual and the need increasing personal autonomy of women. In addition to the increasing of personal autonomy Austen creates through Elizabeth’s actions, Austen critiques the social norm through unveiling the performativity the people of Regency England conform to in their upholding of the restricting social etiquette of the time. This is particularly shown through, “I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! ” This quotations acts as an acknowledgement of performativity of conformity to codified behaviours in phrase “keep my countenance” and how countenance is revolved around the keeping with social constructs and codified behaviours – values that Elizabeth breaks in her autonomy.

Austen characterises Elizabeth Bennet in defiance of various social constructs put in place for women such as the matrimonial and social values of Regency England to illustrate a forging of an autonomous heroine in a society ingrained in social tradition. This in Chapter 19 through her refusal of the marriage proposal offered to her by Mr Collins through its significance as a rejection of the matrimonial values that are so deeply embedded in Regency England social etiquette. Critiquing of this social etiquette can be seen through Austen’s construction of the nature of the proposal, through the description of Mr Collins as her prepared to ask Elizabeth, “he set about it in a very orderly manner, with all the observances which he supposed a regular part of the business.' This quotation suggests the transactional nature of matrimonial values in Regency England. Elizabeth's romantic view of marriage results in her feelings of shock and disappointment when Charlotte decides to marry Mr. Collins. Blind to Charlotte's practical reasons for accepting Mr. Collins, Elizabeth cannot conceive of Charlotte being happy in such a marriage.

In turn, Elizabeth's view of marriage and response to Charlotte's concept of marriage serve an ironic contrast, especially considering Elizabeth's family and future prospects. Nineteenth-century readers would understand the riskiness of Elizabeth's idealistic position. As Mr. Collins is quick to point out, Elizabeth will have a severely limited income when her father dies, and the estate passes to Mr. Collins. Most young women in her situation in nineteenth-century Britain might dream of marrying for love, but would accept the necessity of marrying for security, as Charlotte does. Consequently, for Austen's readers, Elizabeth represents an ideal view of the world, while Charlotte represents reality. The contrast between the two offers biting social criticism as it critics the value of marriage and the gender roles gender roles that are tied into the power struggles of financial security women seek from men. Elizabeth acts in total defiance of these values, “You would not make me happy and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so. 

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Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen provides “unromantic corrections” to the themes and stereotypes that fill the society of Regency England and the romance genre itself. This can be seen through the “rise of the individual” as a result of the changing values and increasing modernity of Austen’s time context. Themes of criticism and satire are portrayed through the characterisation of the heroine of the novel, Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth Bennet is placed in defiance to the matrimonial values, codified behaviours and other social structures and pressures that she is placed under as others use them to dictate her life, as Austen forges and identity for the protagonist. This can be seen through her agency of her mobility, specifically through her walk to Netherfield to aid her sister, Jane. This can also be seen through her refusal of the marriage proposals offered both by Mr Darcy and Mr Collins.

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Criticism of Regency England Through Elizabeth Bennet’s Identity. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 22, 2024, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/criticism-of-regency-england-problems-through-elizabeth-bennets-identity/
“Criticism of Regency England Through Elizabeth Bennet’s Identity.” GradesFixer, 24 May 2022, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/criticism-of-regency-england-problems-through-elizabeth-bennets-identity/
Criticism of Regency England Through Elizabeth Bennet’s Identity. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/criticism-of-regency-england-problems-through-elizabeth-bennets-identity/> [Accessed 22 May 2024].
Criticism of Regency England Through Elizabeth Bennet’s Identity [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 May 24 [cited 2024 May 22]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/criticism-of-regency-england-problems-through-elizabeth-bennets-identity/
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