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The theme of marriage in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is central to the story. The novel begins with the famous line, “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Austen’s focus on marriage is highlighted by the many limitations it presents. Women in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were restricted in their aspirations for love, as factors like money and security often took precedence over personal desires. The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, challenges the social norm of marriage, as she desires to marry for love rather than wealth. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth and her sisters hold differing opinions and outcomes regarding their choice of partners, making the portrayal of marriage in Pride and Prejudice complex and fascinating. This essay will delve deeper into the topic of marriage in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
The institution of marriage is an important theme throughout Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as it was portrayed as a dominant force during this time. Marriage circulates around each of the Bennet daughters with their mother, Mrs.Bennet being consumed by the desire to see her daughters married to a wealthy man. This can be distinguished whenever the third person narrator states; ‘the business of her life was to get her daughters married.’ This exemplifies that during Austen’s period women believed that they could do nothing but what was expected from them. Due to this, marriages were arranged mostly within the same social class as Charlotte Betts, a literary academic states, ‘a good marriage to a man with a comfortable income was vitally important for a woman as she rarely had any other means of financial support.’ This further adds to the reason why Mrs.Bennet desires to have her daughters marry a wealthy man as he can provide money and security to them. Her actions can also be considered on her behalf a loving act as she wishes nothing but the best opportunities for each of her daughters. This is enhanced through her statement, ‘if I can have one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield and all the others equally married, I shall have nothing to wish for’. Austen therefore expresses that parental approval is vital to a woman’s happiness until she becomes married, as further identified by academic Swords ‘woman can be seen as oppressed victims of a patriarchal society, subordinate first to their fathers and, then to their husbands who had, of course, been selected by their fathers.’ This portrays the many limitations placed on women as it factors in the issue that they could not inherit property as once married, they do not have control over their possessions and their fate becomes their husband’s property.
Elizabeth does not conform to the expectations listed out from her mother as she follows her own morals and does not wish to marry for money. With her rejecting Mr.Collins proposal, it can be suggested that Elizabeth’s actions to not marry him can be seen as one of the most revolutionary things a woman during this period could possibly do. Charlotte Betts expresses in her article about women throughout the Georgian era, ‘many marriages were arranged between families where the bride had little say in the choice of her husband.’ This can show that Elizabeth’s differs from the traditional woman’s role in society as she preferably would marry for love than to indulge in her husband’s wealth. Elizabeth can also differ from a traditional woman’s role in society as she disregards Mr.Collins’ proposal due to the many irrationalities in his tone regarding his proposal to Elizabeth. She does not appreciate that he decided to have ‘set about it in a very orderly manner’ with all the observances which he supposed a regular part of the business.’ For a nineteenth-century man, marriage became an act of economic utility- a strategy by which he could increase his personal fortune. This can be said through Mr.Collins viewpoint of marriage, he overlooks his proposal to Elizabeth as a minor business transaction which is why Elizabeth intends to marry a man who makes her happy, and not purely for the care of financial stability that would be provided for her. However, noted in Elizabeth’s letter to Jane stating the relocation of her family to London, she recognizes that marriage is vital during her time as she is not independently wealthy. She comments in the letter that ‘we are not rich enough or grand enough for them.’ This shows that it is critical to underline that income matters as a ‘good marriage in the society Jane Austen depicts, is always one which enhances status, and status is primarily a matter of wealth.’
In contrast to Elizabeth’s values towards marriage, her closest friend Charlotte Lucas represents a traditional woman’s viewpoint, as she states whenever she discusses Jane Bennet and Mr.Bingley’s wedlock, ‘if she is secure of him, then she will have the leisure to fall in love as much as she chooses.’ Here Charlotte prioritises security rather than love, as (Reena 130) has pointed out, ‘Charlotte finds herself with little to recommend her and even fewer options on the marriage front.’ Underlying the societal views of marriage, Charlotte is not a young woman anymore and would be considered a spinster if she did not accept Mr.Collins proposal. Due to this, she states to Elizabeth;
‘When you have had time to think it all over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not a romantic, you now. 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 can boast on entering the marriage state.’
Charlotte has decided that she wants security to be prioritised before love, she is not as strong willed as Elizabeth as her concern is to secure herself financially without necessarily wanting a happy relationship with Mr Collins. Much like Mr Collins, marriage is a sort of business transaction whereby marriage is a high priority to them. The romantic plots throughout Pride and Prejudice can be seen as ironic in many ways, with Austen showing dismissal of romantic love through characters such as Mr.Collins who has openly suggested marriage being a meer ‘business transaction’ and Charlotte who would signify marriage as ‘decorous’ as she embraces the simulacrum of the ‘Proper Lady’ Poovey has identified. , Mary Poovey’s study of the struggle of three prominent writers to accommodate the artist’s genius to the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century ideal of the modest, self-effacing ‘proper lady.’ Interpreting novels, letters, journals, and political tracts in the context of cultural strictures, Poovey makes an important contribution to English social and literary history and to feminist theory.
Unlike Elizabeth who has chosen to marry ultimately for love rather than anything else, her sister Lydia Bennet can prove that the societal views of marriage during the eighteenth and nineteenth-century suggested that scandal might prove the death of reputation. This is evident whenever Lydia Bennet elopes with Mr.Wickham. being an officer who was coloured by his contemporary reputation for sexual dalliance. Lydia was captivated by the officers dazzling uniforms, likewise to her mother, Mrs.Bennet who admits that she remembers ‘the time when I liked a red coat myself very well.’ Like her mother, Lydia does not think, therefore she simply acts on her impulses that lead her to near ruin which positions her family in despair due to her being a respectable lady who ends up marrying a common soldier. Tim Fulford further adds that ‘from the beginning soldiers are seen in terms of the romantic naivete of the younger sisters and of the nostalgia of Mrs.Bennet, who has learned nothing from her greater experience.’ A woman’s reputation depended on her social status, this was especially true for the women who were young and unmarried. However, Lydia has ruined any opportunity for an advantageous alliance. Her immatuirty has lead to her reputation being lost, as it is stated in the text that ‘once a woman’s reputation is lost, it is lost forever.’ This passage deems her marriage to Wickham losing her reputation, as Austen represents the relationship between them being purely based on physical gratification, neither for financial security or love. By stating this, Mr.Collins highlights that ‘this will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others.’ Here he is highlighting that Lydia’s elopement and the scandal associated with Wickham will impact negatively on the reputation of the other Bennet sisters, which is why their relationship was poorly rejected by her sisters and both her parents.
An attentive reader such as Marie N. Sorbo believes that Austen’s ‘attitude towards marriage is thoroughly ironic.’ Through characters such as Lydia, who marries out of vanity and not love. Sorbo further states that ‘Austen comes close to giving us a disillusioned dismissal of romantic love, as if the narrator is teasing us that she knows we have come to the book for romance, but romance does not exist, only speculation.’
Vivien Jones argues that in Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice that the relationship between marriage and money are the main plots of each novel. However it seems that Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley are an exception as they fall into the category of marrying preferably for love rather than money, with Bingley being identified as ‘modest and had no opinion about his marriage.’ Both of them genuinely love each other despite Mr.Bingley’s sisters not accepting Jane as they wanted their brother to marry Mr.Darcy’s sister, who they deemed more ‘superior’ to Jane. However, he does not conform to his sister’s wishes and marries Jane, who seems to have little concern over money and stability, with Bingley also swaying from the challenges of social norms, as he is not preoccupied with the background of the Bennet family. Similarly, Elizabeth and Mr.Darcy are an exception to societal norms as they both marry each other for love rather than money. Austen’s major study of the links between intelligence and freedom is cast as a love story and of a sort which she delighted in characterizing as ‘rather too light, and bright and parking.’ As Suan Morgan identifies, ‘Most of the action in Pride and Prejudice can be accounted for as a tale of love which violates the traditions of romance.’
Lady Catherine De Bourgh through Mr.Darcy’s proposal to Elizabeth believed that Pemberly as well as the family associated alongside it would lose its status and grandeur due to Elizabeth’s inferiority. However, Mr.Darcy states during his proposal to her ‘in vain I have struggled. It will not do.’ Here he suggests that he loves Elizabeth against his will due to their class differences, rather he admires her as she presents an incongruent example of maidenly decorum with her displaying intellectual curiosity and independent thought, which was an alternative to the average Georgian lady. As Mrs.Bennet states, ‘Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters’. Elizabeth embodies the enlightenment ideas of John Locke; ‘the reason and free will are great indications of one’s success and fate.’ Furthermore, noting that she also has many similarities to a blue-stocking woman with considerable scholarly, literary, or intellectual ability or interest. This was a literary society led by Elizabeth Montagu and others in the 1750s in England. Elizabeth Montagu was an anomaly in this society because she took possession of her husband’s property when he died. This allowed her to have an impact in her world.
The main heroine of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet marries solely out of love, rather than money or physical gratification. She is therefore rewarded at the end of the novel with the satisfaction of finding happiness within herself, but also accepts the luxuries that she is presented with as Lady of Pemberley House.
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