Set in Regency England, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice satirises contemporary marital conventions and underlines the consequences of class divisions on individuals’ relationships. By primarily depicting young female characters’ efforts to secure marriage partners, Austen reveals the pressure on women to secure financial stability and preserve their social statuses, as well as the preordained nature of marriage in the regency era. Through humour and irony, Austen reveals the flaws in traditional notions of marriage that render mutual love between the partners extravagant and superfluous.
Austen also explores the dangers of pride and prejudice to individuals’ relationships. Through the heroine Elizabeth Bennet’s extraordinary union with Mr Darcy, who initially prompts Elizabeth’s contempt and scorn, Austen reveals the need to temper self-regard and preconception with understanding and good judgement. This is highlighted at the end of the novel where Elizabeth and her sister Jane achieve the ideal, love-filled marriage – Elizabeth through overcoming her errors of judgement, and Jane through upholding her innate empathy and open-mindedness.
Pride and Prejudice is a novel of manners, which departs from the drama of Romantic novels (popular during the late 18th century) to portray ordinary events of gentry life. Through her depiction of home visits, dinner parties, balls, and gossip, Austen reveals the deeply entrenched nature of marital conventions in the lives of the English upper classes. However, despite being confined within this social landscape, the characters Jane and Elizabeth still achieve love-filled and financially secure marriages, suggesting that such marriages are not far-fetched within the social structure of the regency era. Nevertheless, Austen invites contemporary readers to criticise social norms and especially marital conventions, exposing their flaws through her humorous characterisation and witty irony. In fact, many derisible characters are those who perversely uphold social codes and values. Austen also condemns the ability of social norms to foster prejudice and, consequently, faulty judgment. Her third person narration is chiefly subjective, enabling readers to experience events informed by characters’ prejudices; yet, through the conflict between characters’ expectations and actual events, and between the opinions of one and the true motivations of another, Austen’s narrative allows room for readers to question the reliability of characters’ judgements. Ultimately, through her novel, Austen challenges society’s disposition to presume upon first impressions and the belief in fulfilment derived solely from economic stability.
1. Class and Wealth
Class distinctions bear heavily upon characters’ consciousness. As members of the lower gentry, the Bennet girls must marry men of respectable social status and fortune to ensure a life of comfort and dignity; otherwise, they must become governesses and be counted among the servant class of society. Their lack of share in the inheritance heightens the urgency of their marriages and explains Mrs Bennet’s hastiness in marrying her daughters to wealthy men. Thus, in Regency England, marriage is a means to ascend the social ladder, albeit a difficult one due to the prevalence of class discrimination. Confident in Darcy and Anne de Bourgh’s union – a perfect union to preserve both people’s status – Lady Catherine de Bourgh despises the thought of her nephew being wedded to Elizabeth, “a young woman of inferior birth”. Darcy is also initially hesitant about proposing to Elizabeth and allowing Bingley to marry Jane, being completely aware of the Bennets’ lower social standing. This fosters the notion that a marriage is predestined, as class conventions naturally render certain unions more preferable and acceptable than others.
Wealth is a determinant of high social standing. Darcy boasts a great fortune of about ten thousand a year, which, in the regency era, would enable him to purchase townhouses and country manors, with servants and vast parklands. Furthermore, in descriptions of characters’ homes, Austen often notes the quality of the furniture as the symbol of wealth, being the source of pride and jealousy among the upper classes. However, despite the financial comforts that the rich enjoy, Austen propounds that wealth and status can taint character. This is prominent in Lady Catherine’s haughtiness and intolerance, as well as Mr Darcy’s pride, which he attributes to his lofty social standing.
2. Marriage and Love
The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice captures the essence of a socially esteemed marriage – one which promises a “good fortune”. Austen shows that, in such a marriage, financial comfort is overwhelmingly important, whilst love is superfluous. Indeed, upon being informed of Mr Bingley’s fortune, Mrs Bennet immediately sees marriage with him “a fine thing for [her] girls” without any knowledge of his character; similarly, she neglects her disliking towards Mr Darcy upon realising how wealthy Elizabeth would become through marriage with him. Thus, the primary function of a marriage is to secure one’s social standing and economic status, as exemplified in Mr Collins’s methodical, presumptuous, and passionless proposal to Elizabeth. Accordingly, Austen condemns the heavy focus on financial comfort, demonstrating how this hinders genuine love between her characters. This is evident in the way Charlotte weds Mr Collins for comfort but without the expectation of “romance”, whilst Mr Darcy’s ardent affection for Elizabeth is undermined by his consciousness of her inferior social status. Nevertheless, most of Austen’s characters, similar to Charlotte, achieve financially stable but not perfectly happy unions, showing that most cannot afford love in a marriage. Notwithstanding, Austen still portrays Elizabeth and Jane’s marriages as the ideal, where both long-term happiness and financial security are ensured.
3. Appearance vs Reality
Through Pride and Prejudice, Austen underlines the dangers of presuming upon first impressions and, accordingly, highlights the need for wise judgement. Mr Darcy’s proud manners at the Hertfordshire ball encourage ill opinions and rumours of him despite his underlying nobleness. Contrastingly, Wickham’s pleasant manners maintain his popularity in the neighbourhood despite his hypocrisy and cunning. Austen reinforces the unreliability of appearances through her characterisation of these two men, one so reserved that he masks his generosity, the other so outgoing that he blinds people to his deceitfulness. The consequences of this are clear as Elizabeth praises Wickham among her acquaintances while forcibly refusing Darcy’s marriage proposal, only to regret her actions later. Therefore, in a society where manners, appearance, and language are scrutinised as marks of class and respectability, Austen’s characters highlight the importance of considered judgement and the need to acknowledge one’s own errors.
4. Pride and Prejudice
Austen depicts ordinary events in gentry life to reveal the prevalence of pride and prejudice in regency society. Her characters often have lengthy, philosophical discussions about human nature, from which they form rigid and misleading preconceptions. Such preconceptions are fostered by false reports of an individual’s misconduct, as evident in Elizabeth’s resolution to detest Darcy for his treatment of Wickham. Wickham himself abuses the power of rumours by spreading them throughout Hertfordshire to build his own popularity and encourage distaste towards Darcy. Accordingly, Wickham’s unexpected and disastrous elopement with Lydia, which exposes his true deceitfulness, signifies the dangers of hasty prejudices and highlights the need for considered judgement. Austen also explores how pride catalyses intolerance by showing how Darcy’s self-regard, born of his social status, encourages his haughty manners and masks his inherent nobleness. Moreover, she depicts the ways in which social standing motivates vanity through the hypocritical and presumptuous Mr Collins. With humour, Austen conveys how his lengthy lectures on conduct and morality aim to boast of his own virtues more than to edify others, and his systematic marriage proposals are devoid of regard for the women’s feelings.
5. Reputation and Honour
Building good reputation and preserving honour were crucial for the upper classes of Regency England, both for their professions and for their social relationships. In public, a slight failure in etiquette or error in expression may be scrutinised with disastrous consequences. This is why the Bennets seek to present themselves as amiably as possible at their first ball with Bingley and his party. Understanding well the power of first impressions, Mrs Bennet promotes good humour and respectable appearances in her girls to reinforce their family’s dignity despite their relatively low social standing. Marriage is also a means to maintain honour by securing economic status. This is often attained at the expense of felicity, as demonstrated in Charlotte’s loveless union with Mr Collins. Whilst acknowledging her marriage to be devoid of “romance”, Charlotte prides herself on her financial and social privilege. Austen further depicts the struggle to preserve honour in Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s efforts to separate Darcy and Elizabeth. Lady Catherine’s unusual visit to the Bennets and her express warnings to Elizabeth evince her willingness to defend the Darcys’ reputation at the cost of her nephew’s happiness.
Austen shows that, in the regency era, gender significantly dictates one’s agency. The preoccupation with marriage mainly belongs to the female characters, as marriage is for a woman a source of pride and honour whilst the failure to marry is a source of disgrace. Accordingly, marriageable dispositions are promoted in young women, particularly grace, good humour, and easy manners. Moreover, to be a lady, “a woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages”. Miss Bingley’s catalogue of expectations, coupled with her imperative “must”, outlines these qualities as definitive criteria against which young women can be scrutinised. Thus, Austen shows that females’ accomplishments serve more to gratify others than to edify themselves. Their frequent confinement indoors, where they perform stereotypical activities such as “trimming a hat” or practising the pianoforte, thereby symbolises their entrapment within gender norms. Austen furthers this by frequently portraying the women’s vulnerability in the open air, evident in Jane’s severe cold after the rain and Mrs Gardiner’s easy exhaustion from walking. Conversely, the men’s outdoor pursuits, including hunting and fishing, underscore their freedom from excessive and suffocating standards. This gender discrimination then leads to social conventions that greatly disadvantage women, evident in the Bennet daughters’ inability to inherit their family’s estate. Such economic pressure induces in them an obligation to seek wealthy bachelors and ensure financial stability.
1. Austen shows that preconceived opinions are often false and, accordingly, dangerous. Discuss.
2. How does Austen reveal the prevalence of pride and prejudice in 19th century English society?
3. Pride and Prejudice suggests that overcoming pride is necessary for growth. To what extent do you agree?
4. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”
To what extent do the characters of Pride and Prejudice support this statement?
5. Pride and Prejudice demonstrates that, in Regency England, a woman’s dignity is derived from marriage. Discuss.
6. The characters of Pride and Prejudice willingly sacrifice happiness for the preservation of social status. To what extent do you agree?
7. How does Austen expose the folly of marital conventions in England at her time?
8. Austen shows that, in Regency England, marital status has the power to overthrow society’s prejudices. To what extent do you agree?
9. How do characters in Pride and Prejudice realise the flaws in their judgements?
10. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen foregrounds the distinction between judgementalism and good judgement. Discuss.