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To what extent is social class and wealth perverting to judgment? Jane Austen’s 19th century novel Pride and Prejudice explores the precarious theme of social standing to create an ironic depiction of its relation to love and happiness. Rather than describing her characters in detail, Austen utilizes “showing” rather than “telling” through dialogue to fully reveal their personalities. With irony as her guide, the author sardonically creates a paradigm revealing the connection of social class and reputation to courtship and marriage. Specifically, the relationship of class to marriage is a central concept depicted differently in the relationships of Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins and Charlotte, and Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.
First, the value of social class is pivotal in the relationship of Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley. Originally, the Bennets’ bourgeois status is unobtrusive to Mr. Bingley’s opinion of Jane. His initial reaction to meeting the Bennets at the ball is characterized by auspiciousness: “Bingley had never met with pleasanter people or prettier girls in his life…he had soon been acquainted with all the room; and as to Miss Bennet, he could not conceive an angel more beautiful” (Austen 14). An amiable symbol of all that is unprejudiced, Bingley is enthralled by Jane when he meets her. As he and Jane get to know each other and begin to fall in love, the consistent impropriety of her parents and three youngest sisters does not affect his wishes to eventually marry her. Only when Mr. Darcy intercedes and convinces Bingley of Jane’s indifference is he swayed from his original feelings for her. Though he does not stop loving her, he values Mr. Darcy’s opinion: “On the strength of Darcy’s regard Bingley had the firmest reliance, and of his judgment the highest opinion” (Austen 15). When Darcy urges him to abandon his wishes of matrimony with Jane, he obliges and leaves Netherfield for London. Upon Mr. Bingley’s abrupt departure of his country home, Elizabeth muses to Jane that “they [Darcy and Miss Bingley] may wish him to marry a girl who has all the importance of money, great connections, and pride” (Austen 133). Of this assertion, Elizabeth is correct, as Darcy later cites the reasons for his endeavor to keep the two from marrying as being firstly, his belief of Jane’s indifference, and secondly, the indecorum of the rest of the Bennet family, excluding Elizabeth (Austen 188). However, the impact of social class on Mr. Bingley and Jane’s association is in due course irrelevant, as they cannot ignore their mutual feelings, and they proceed to marry and live happily. Evidently, social class ultimately remains inconsequential to their relationship.
Alternatively, reputation and social class is the foundation of the relationship of Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas. Mr. Collins originally proposes to Elizabeth Bennet, but she is appalled and quickly refuses him. Upon Elizabeth’s rejection, Mr. Collins quickly reverberates and proposes to Elizabeth’s best friend Charlotte Lucas, who accepts. Austen clarifies Charlotte’s sentiments on marriage when she says: “Without thinking highly of either men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune” (Austen 118). Here, Austen juxtaposes the lofty marital ideals of Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, exploring the idea that marriage cannot be based on love for everyone. This concept is paralleled later when Charlotte explains her reasons for marrying Mr. Collins to Elizabeth: “I am not romantic…I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collin’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…” (Austen 120). Obviously, Charlotte only seeks consistency and financial security, which she finds in the proposal of Mr. Collins. Elizabeth ironically is appalled that anyone could marry for anything besides love, despite the precarious economic situation that her family is in; she remains adamant in her sentiment that she would not compromise her marital desires solely to give her family financial refuge. Additionally, Mr. Collins’s own social status is nothing estimable, but he pursues marriage in the exertions of pleasing Lady Catherine de Bourgh rather than in efforts of finding love. The absence of romance on both sides leads Elizabeth to doubt their relationship’s long term tenacity. Clearly, because of Charlotte’s social status and lack of fortune, she marries an obsequious but condescending man whom she does not love to secure a more comfortable future.
Finally, the impact of social standing is demonstrated in the relationship of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. In the beginning of the novel, Mr. Darcy rejects Elizabeth in conversation with Mr. Bingley, where he states his hasty opinion of her: “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” (Austen 11). The first ball where Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth meet is a crucial depiction of their difference in social class. Mr. Darcy, being obscenely rich, believes the people he is associating with to be middle class, and therefore, inferior. Elizabeth continually feels the effect of his opinion on her family. When Darcy finally confesses his tormented love to Elizabeth, he prefaces with: “In vain I have struggled…My feelings will not be repressed” (Austen 180). Here, he unintentionally insults Elizabeth when he says that he is in love with her despite her family and circumstances. Mr. Darcy’s tragic flaw is made evident: though he believes his love for Elizabeth to be pure, his pride clouds how his words could be offensive to her. Later, in his letter of explanation to Elizabeth, he explains: “The situation of your mother’s family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father” (Austen 189). Mr. Darcy’s words elucidate that it was not his wish for Mr. Bingley or himself to be married into a family so lacking in dignity. However, he redeems himself in Elizabeth’s eyes when he first flatters her level of sophistication, despite her family, and then later when he corroborates the marriage of Mr. Wickham and Lydia. Furthermore, social class plays a significant role in Elizabeth’s view of Mr. Darcy. Long after his marriage proposal when Elizabeth visits Pemberley with her aunt and uncle, her feelings for Mr. Darcy begin to experience a shift. She is enchanted by the estate’s elegance and rustic charm, just as she is later captivated by its owner. The thought of being the mistress of Pemberley pleases Elizabeth and makes her feel that she may have missed out on something. She contemplates that: “And of this place…I might have been mistress! …Instead of viewing them [the rooms] as a stranger, I might have rejoiced in them as my own…” (Austen 234). The raw beauty and stateliness of Pemberley stirs regret in Elizabeth’s heart, thawing the hard feelings that she had previously felt for Mr. Darcy. Evidently, apart from his kindness to the Bennet family in the end, Mr. Darcy’s social standing and wealth appeals to Elizabeth in a way that prepares her to give him a second chance. For him, the woman who was originally not handsome enough to dance with is eventually regarded as deserving enough to marry. Though the social class difference initially seems like a hindrance to their relationship, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth ultimately overcome these obstacles, resulting in their matrimonial bliss.
The intertwining of class and marriage is a principal theme born out differently in the relationships of Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins and Charlotte, and Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice 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 1). However, the contrary is revealed; truly a single woman in possession of little fortune must be in want of a wealthy husband. Marriage transforms into an economic activity rather than a romantic one, and love is often abused as a means to social and financial advancement. Clearly, social class perverts the initial judgment of many of the characters. However, it does not always overshadow their ruling of true personality and motive, and the characters who discern this are the ones who find true love and contentment.
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