This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by professional essay writers.

How Jane Austen Questions The Society in Which She Lives on Its Moral Beliefs and Attitudes Towards Women

downloadDownload printPrint

Some literary critics such as Röpke consider Austen to be a ‘conservative female writer’; a traditional woman who upheld traditional values throughout her writing. They believe Austen’s ideas on the behaviour of women are identical to what is described in eighteenth and early nineteenth century conduct books which outline exactly how women should behave and should be portrayed in society, but this is an idea that I do not support. I intend to discuss ways in which Austen questions both her own society, and the society in which her characters exist in Pride and Prejudice on their behaviour towards women and how she believes the behaviour of women should differ from that described in conduct books of her time. 

Are you Looking For A Custom Essay about “How Jane Austen Questions The Society In Which She Lives On Its Moral Beliefs And Attitudes Towards Women” NOW? You Found It!

Professional Writers that Guarantee an On-time Delivery


experts online

In Pride and Prejudice, during Mr Collin’s first visit to the Bennet family home he reads out Sermons to Young Women by Reverend James Fordyce, a conduct book which describes what is expected of women’s behaviour, for example at the beginning of the book Sermon I informs women on the virtues they are expected to uphold such as modesty, it states ‘women should adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broidered hair, or gold, or pearls’. Firstly, it is hypocritical for Mr Collin’s to preach about the behaviour of anyone in the novel as his own behaviour is often highlighted as indecent throughout, for example we learn of his pompous nature when he expects the Bennet family to be flattered when he decides to stay at Longbourn, without even being asked, because his aim was to marry whichever of the Bennet sisters he wanted, and he tells Mr Bennet ‘I remain, dear sir, with respectful compliments to your lady and daughter’. Claudia L. Johnson supports this theory, ‘it would be unreasonable for Austen to promote these ideas of women through Mr Collins as he is ridiculed by Elizabeth throughout the novel so he cannot serve as a moral influence on readers.’ Through portraying the character and views of Mr Collin’s in a negative light, it is clear Austen does not agree with his beliefs or anything he attempts to teach, Johnson also states that ‘Collin’s approval of such ‘books of a serious stamp’ in and of itself signals Austen’s disaffection with the rules about women promulgated in them’.

Austen clearly separates herself from this genre of book and its conceptions throughout her own life, for example women of her time did not receive the same education as men, and it was highly frowned upon and considered scandalous for women to publish their writing yet many women such as Austen did, embracing their intelligence regardless of what society told them to do. She creates the character of Elizabeth whom she presents as favourable and almost role model like in her eyes, yet she is a woman who constantly demonstrates opposite behaviour to that which was expected of women in Fordyce’s book. Johnson supports this idea, ‘judged by the standards set in conduct books and in conservative fiction Elizabeth’s behaviour constantly verges not merely on impertinence but on impropriety.’ Austen writes Pride and Prejudice as a form of conduct book, but in a different way. Instead of taking on the role of a conduct book which educates the reader on social norms and how one should conduct their life including how to behave and how not to behave, she scripts a piece of narrative fiction including her own opinions on these beliefs in society and conduct books by creating characters whom we tend to favour such as Elizabeth, who’s behaviour is a strong contrast to what is taught in conduct books. Therefore, through her novel Austen teaches that in order to succeed in life as a woman, you must act like Elizabeth; untamed and independent and strike out against what is expected in the world of conduct books. 

This particular conduct book was extremely popular in Austen’s time as William St Clair states that, ‘archives show extraordinarily long print runs for reprints’, therefore although many critics such as Julian North believed that Austen didn’t concern herself with tackling larger themes such as gender because she wrote on such a small, domestic scale, and her work in Pride and Prejudice specifically made her an eighteenth century ‘conservative icon in popular culture signified by her depictions of traditional class and gender hierarchies, sexual propriety and Christian values’, I disagree as I believe Austen’s choice to criticise Fordyce’s judgment of women in such a popular book was bold, but she does so safely through the restricted world in which Pride and Prejudice is set. Margaret Kirkham also believes, ‘as a feminist moralist, Jane Austen criticises sexist pride and prejudice as embedded in the laws and customs of her age’. For example, women of Austen’s time were being educated through conduct books on how to become the perfect wife and mother, how to make delicate conversation, how to sew as a pass time, they were taught how to dress themselves including what to wear, and informed on what manner to express themselves in, for example women must be modest and polite whilst men were offered more intellectual educational opportunities, and Austen criticises this through her work and the character of Elizabeth.

Austen portrays Elizabeth Bennet as a heroine throughout the novel, especially when she reads Mr Darcy’s letter and claims ‘Till this moment I never knew myself’, we learn of her intelligence, a characteristic typical in many of Austen’s heroines. The fact that Elizabeth is a woman who can read is important, Austen often alludes to reading throughout her work since women didn’t receive the same education as men in the eighteenth century which led to the belief men were the more intelligent sex and therefore gained authority. Her reading of Darcy’s letter differs from the reading which is required of women in conduct books as they instruct that if women are to read, they are to read novels as merely a hobby and not to truly understand or give meaning to them. As Elizabeth reads the letter we recognise her intelligence as she begins to understand Darcy’s explanation and revisits every event up until now with a different outlook, coming to a different sort of truth and understanding than she had previously up-held, for example she now learns the ugly truth about Wickham. During Elizabeth’s realisation we learn the truth of the run of events in the novel; Kirkham states that she is ‘the central intelligence through whose eyes and understanding events and characters are mediated to the readers’. Through this we can also grasp the fact that she is more than capable of making her own moral decisions, which at that time in her society was typically a trait which was associated with men only. 

Elizabeth is portrayed as a confident and ambitious woman who knows what her own desires are and will not live her life simply to fulfil those of other people, this is clear when she learns about the planned union between Mr Darcy and Miss De Bourgh, and in response to Lady Catherine she exclaims, ‘If there is no other objection to marrying your nephew, I shall certainly not be kept from it.’ She is unlike the women in the world of conduct books who are constricted and instructed on how to behave, Elizabeth knows what she wants in life, and will not sacrifice it for others to benefit from. She is strong willed and will not live to please society before she pleases herself, therefore granting herself and her own life priority. Through this, Austen is referencing the feminist progression as she highlights the importance of independence and choice for women, alike many other women of her time who marry whoever they are told, Elizabeth refuses to do so. Helena Kelly emphasises, ‘Elizabeth is, fundamentally, a radical. She knows her own mind; she reserves the right to decide questions for herself’. Essentially, Austen portrays Elizabeth as a superior woman in the novel and supports her actions and beliefs and we learn how much Austen favours her character through her letters to Casandra Austen about Elizabeth in which she details, ‘I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know’. She is very proud of Elizabeth’s character and all that associates with it when she refers to her as ‘my’ ‘admiring my Elizabeth so much is particularly welcome to me.’

Throughout Pride and Prejudice there is an obvious lack of authority and weakness of figures who, according to society at the time, should supposedly assume authority. For example, there is no maternal or paternal authority from Elizabeth’s parents; Mrs Bennet is an overbearing mother who often embarrasses her children, she is a character who should exert power, but does not. She concerns herself with getting her children married off, which even then Elizabeth defies as she wanted her to marry Mr Collins, whom she despised, which only highlighted what Mr Collin’s described as Elizabeth’s ‘defects of temper’ creating the possibility that he may ‘change his mind and not have her.’ According to society, Mr Bennet is supposed to be a strong authority figure as father and head of the household, yet his authority is overthrown by his family, especially Elizabeth who he considers his favourite. Elizabeth is in control of her father and continually questions his authority, for example her father ‘heard her attentively’ when he allowed Lydia to join Mrs Forster on a trip to Brighton, as Elizabeth was ‘secretly advising her father not to let her go’. He is further portrayed as a weak authority figure as Elizabeth teaches him about how to bring up his children correctly, ‘If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment.’ Austen also highlights how the Bennet’s lack of authority over their children in the novel can be dangerous, for example when Lydia elopes with Wickham, had her parents had authority and been more receptive to their children’s actions they could have stopped it from the outset, and even afterwards Mrs Bennet refuses to acknowledge the role she played in it instead, ‘blaming everybody but the person to whose ill judging indulgence the errors of her daughter must be principally owing.’ Elizabeth is not the dutiful daughter who obeys her parents which would have been expected of children at the time, and was taught throughout conduct books. I believe that Austen subverts authority from Elizabeth’s parents onto Elizabeth herself who should be subordinate to them through mother-daughter, father-daughter relationships, implying that she is going against the set beliefs and impressions of society in order to highlight how strong Elizabeth is as a young woman. 

Lady Catherine De Bourgh is a character in the novel who does assert her authority, yet it is also subverted when it comes to Elizabeth. Elizabeth lacks respect for authority figures which was highly criticised in conduct books, for example Lady Catherine insists that she should not marry Mr Darcy and Elizabeth is both bold and rude in her response, to which Lady Catherine tells her, ‘Miss Bennet, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this.’ The fact that Elizabeth, a young woman, is able to gain power over a figure who already asserts dominance helps to emphasise just how capable and independent she is, which would not be expected of women at her time. Throughout this novel Austen continually highlights the strength of characters who should be less superior, through the subversion of power from those who are expected, according to society, to have authority. 

Austen contrasts Elizabeth’s personalities with that of her sisters throughout Pride and Prejudice in order to highlight Elizabeth as an even more superior and dominant figure. Jane and Elizabeth are portrayed as the most similar of all of the sisters. Jane is the most ‘perfect’, she is described as beautiful, thoughtful and caring; everything the ideal woman should be. She was the image of what women were taught from conduct books. But, in Austen’s eyes she is flawed, as she cannot see the world or people in it for what they really are, or what they really want. Jane always sees the best in people which we learn is her downfall from Austen’s wide criticism of her through the character of Elizabeth, for example Jane defends Caroline Bingley when it is already obvious to Elizabeth that she is not being honest to her, therefore because Elizabeth has the sense and intelligence to pick up on this, she is more superior than that of ‘perfect’ Jane, who may be the picture of femininity, but is easily blind-sided.

Austen introduces Lydia as the most outspoken sister and the one who lacks the most sense in the Bennet family, I believe that she does this tactfully, in order to provide her character as a decoy to that of Elizabeth’s. Elizabeth’s unorthodox behaviour would have been extremely noticeable in Austen’s time and she would have been criticised for presenting such a character in such a positive light, therefore because Lydia clearly more outspoken and improper than Elizabeth, her behaviour acts as a cover up for Elizabeth’s impropriety. Claudia Johnson supports this idea, ‘Lydia is a decoy who attracts the disapproval to which Elizabeth herself could otherwise be subject, and by lamenting Lydia’s glaring excesses, Elizabeth is cleared of her less egregious but still ‘improper’ rambles, conceit and impertinence without arousing our discomfort for incurring our censure’. She further details that, ‘by linking Elizabeth and Lydia, Austen eludes rather than reiterates conventional moral codes, and the carefully elaborated cross-referencing of other characters, qualities, and relationships throughout the book functions in the same way: not to serve some neoclassical taste for balance but rather to impede generalization.’

In Austen’s time, the moral understanding and goal of marriage was financial gain, instead of compatibility and true love. Elizabeth did not adhere to these standards and would not settle for a man because of his money, she was determined she would marry someone she truly loves. She is very aware that she must marry with sense, unlike her sisters, for example Charlotte who married a man who she hated because his riches were plentiful; a marriage which Martin Amis describes as ‘routinely pitiful and creepy’, or Lydia who married a man who she loved but happened to be penniless. Lydia’s marriage is interesting as she elopes with Elizabeth’s former love interest Wickham, only Elizabeth was intelligent enough to know that it would never work out as neither of them had any financial sustainability. Lydia doesn’t realise that Wickham is only marrying her because of the money that Mr Darcy offered him, Elizabeth states, ‘If it was not allowable for him to gain my affections, because I had no money, what occasion could there be for making love to a girl whom he did not care about, and who was equally as poor?’ Austen again portrays Lydia as senseless and inferior to Elizabeth, whilst emphasising the importance of sense and intelligence in women.

Get a Personal "How Jane Austen Questions The Society In Which She Lives On Its Moral Beliefs And Attitudes Towards Women" Tailored Essay For You in 3 Hours!

100% Customized to Your Need with Expert Writers


Austen highlights Elizabeth’s superiority to her sisters throughout the theme of marriage; Lydia, who is the most inferior to her, ends up unhappy and poor whilst Jane who is only slightly inferior to her, ends up happy and rich. A characteristic typical of Austen is rewarding her less feminine characters, for example Elizabeth who ends up the happiest and richest of them all unintentionally, she only strived for happiness and love. Judith Lowder Newton disagrees with Austen’s depiction of Elizabeth’s happiness in her marriage as she claims, ‘any freedom the heroine may enjoy, will ultimately result in marriage, which meant relinquishment of power as surely as it meant the purchase of wedding clothes’. But contrary to her belief, I believe that through Elizabeth’s marriage Austen portrays how a woman who is independent and has a mind of her own instead of simply obeying her husband, will achieve true happiness. It was believed in Austen’s time that the more rich and prosperous your husband, the more successful as a woman you were seen to be, therefore Austen’s choice to have Elizabeth marry the richest man, and not Jane, confirms her superiority as a woman. During the eighteenth century women in the real world were often not given a choice on who to marry as it was prearranged by their families, women in novels were the only ones given this privilege. The idea that Elizabeth, especially given her financial status, can chose who she wants to marry; declining Mr Collins and choosing Mr Darcy, is Austen’s take on the feminist progression and a stand against what is taught in conduct books: that women lack intelligence and are unable to make decisions on their own. 


  1. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice, Ed. Keith Carabine (Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth editions, 1992)
  2. Fordyce, James, Sermons to Young Women, (London: Cadell & Davis, 1814)
  3. Amis, Martin, ‘Force of Love: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen’ A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, Ed. Susannah Carson (New York: Random House, 2009)
  4. Coontz, Stephanie, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (USA: Penguin, 2006)
  5. Gay, Penny, Jane Austen and the Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  6. Hudson, Glenda. A, Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)
  7. Johnson, Claudia L, Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998)
  8. Kelly, Helena, Jane Austen, the Secret Radical (London: Icon Books Ltd, 2016)
  9. St Clair, William, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  10. Kirkham, Margaret, Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction: Second Edition (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000)
  11. Le Faye, Deidre, ‘Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen 29 January 1813’, Jane Austen’s Letters (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2011)
  12. Newton, Judith. Lowder, ‘“Pride and Prejudice”: Power, Fantasy, and Subversion in Jane Austen’, Feminist Studies Vol. 4 No. 1 (University of Maryland USA: Feminist Studies Inc, 1978)
  13. North, Julian, ‘Conservative Austen, Radical Austen: Sense and Sensibility from Text to Screen’ Adaptions: from text to screen, screen to text (London: Routledge, 1999)
  14. Röpke, Nadine, Jane Austen: A Political Author of her Time? (Munich: GRIN Verlag, 2005),

Remember! This is just a sample.

You can get your custom paper by one of our expert writers.

Get custom essay

121 writers online


Remember: This is just a sample from a fellow student.

Your time is important. Let us write you an essay from scratch

experts 450+ experts on 30 subjects ready to help you just now

delivery Starting from 3 hours delivery

Find Free Essays

We provide you with original essay samples, perfect formatting and styling

Cite this Essay

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

How Jane Austen Questions The Society In Which She Lives On Its Moral Beliefs And Attitudes Towards Women. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 28, 2023, from
“How Jane Austen Questions The Society In Which She Lives On Its Moral Beliefs And Attitudes Towards Women.” GradesFixer, 10 Feb. 2022,
How Jane Austen Questions The Society In Which She Lives On Its Moral Beliefs And Attitudes Towards Women. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 May 2023].
How Jane Austen Questions The Society In Which She Lives On Its Moral Beliefs And Attitudes Towards Women [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Feb 10 [cited 2023 May 28]. Available from:
copy to clipboard

Where do you want us to send this sample?

    By clicking “Continue”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy.


    Be careful. This essay is not unique

    This essay was donated by a student and is likely to have been used and submitted before

    Download this Sample

    Free samples may contain mistakes and not unique parts


    Sorry, we could not paraphrase this essay. Our professional writers can rewrite it and get you a unique paper.



    Please check your inbox.

    We can write you a custom essay that will follow your exact instructions and meet the deadlines. Let's fix your grades together!


    Get Your Personalized Essay in 3 Hours or Less!


    We can help you get a better grade and deliver your task on time!

    • Instructions Followed To The Letter
    • Deadlines Met At Every Stage
    • Unique And Plagiarism Free
    Order your paper now