Marriage in Pride & Prejudice: Research Paper

Outline

The paper deals with the marriage as dealt with in the book by Jane Austen, The Pride, and Prejudice. The book espouses evidence of being inspired by writings of that era. Typically, there are instances when the women’s liberation as visualized by Mary Wollstonecraft and the woman as visualized by a father Dr. Gregory have also influenced the way the novel has proceeded. Therefore, the review is conducted by taking into account the various articles that have been given in the book on the Longman Culture series of Pride and Prejudice. Initially, the review looks at it from the women’s liberation viewpoint and then later from the woman’s modesty and behavior viewpoint proposed by Dr. Gregory. In addition to these, the influence of the Clandestine Marriage Bill and the reviews of the earlier writers such as Trollope and Sir Walter Scott are also taken into account.

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Introduction

Marriage as an institution was quite solid at the time of Jane Austen. The Christian sanctity of the institution is also to be taken into account. That ‘marriages are made in heaven’ was believed and yet both parents and their wards had to do something on their own for the marriages to be so made! Talking of parents, they may be obsessed with marriage as in the case of Mrs. Bennett or rather indifferent as Mr. Bennett would suggest. The novel Pride and Prejudice provide several angles to look at the subject of marriage.

Mrs. Bennett and her views on marriage

Having had five daughters of marriageable age, Mrs. Bennett started thinking quite early, about how to rope in eligible sons-in-law. It might be a good idea to get a clear picture of the kind of society that she lived in to understand why Mrs. Bennett behaved the way she did. With an interest in marriage that bordered on obsession, there was nothing else that mattered to her. Of course, the only thing that did matter was the financial status of the person her daughters would marry. She could not even imagine a situation where one of her daughters could turn down the proposal of a man; even though he was of questionable character. As Jane Austen, herself describes her, “The business of her life was to get her daughters married.” However, when confronted with the question of private education right at the beginning, the author seems to side with Mary Wollstonecraft in her sensibilities to private education and the impact it has on young girls and their lives.

With the obsession with marriage becoming stronger as the story progresses, it is difficult for Mrs. Bennett to come to terms with a situation where none of her daughters can make a suitable match. She is not able to depend on her husband; his lackadaisical attitude is enough to send her into a spin, not knowing how to set things right, without being overwrought about what is happening. Whereas her daughters were more in line with what Dr. Gregory in his article to his daughters points out, ‘you will easily see that I could never pretend to advise whom you should marry; but I can with great confidence advise whom you should not marry. They could always say why they cannot marry someone then why they should!

Marriage from the point of view of the other women in the novel

As mentioned at the outset, there were various views on marriage that the characters seemed to profess. What unites them all is the fact that a very small minority of the women in the novel did not believe that marriage was essential. The vast majority of the women and most of the men were of the firm view that it was possibly the goal of any human being, male or female to find a suitable spouse within a certain period. There was no male sexual predation over the female in any of Jane’s novels which sets the tempo of this work. This is more a subtle and yet perceptible change in the behavior of the people that increases the chances of one finding her partner for life. There is no hurry except for Mrs. Bennett. There is no ruffling of feathers in the hornet’s nest. But there was every reason for every one of the ladies to have their choice of the right man. The seventeenth-century setting has greatly highlighted the times then, bringing into focus what was happening to the women of that time. In a male-dominated society that did nothing more than find for themselves the right woman, it was the duty of the woman to ensure that she is secure and safe and has the protection of the men for the rest of their lives. There is constant stress on the beauty that lies underneath the entire story and is in line with the times then. As Mary Wollstonecraft says, the woman has to stay beautiful to stay under the protection of her man. When she becomes not so desirable then her standing in society was certainly questionable. However, it is also important to note that she refers to the law, ostensibly the Clandestine Marriage Bill, and the debate that raged the House of Commons in those days. The bill was repealed in line with the discussions that centered around blasphemy and of course, the elections at that time.

Among the daughters of Mrs. Bennett, it was Elizabeth, her second-born who had an idea that was not in line with the ideas of the others. In line with the writings of Dr. John Gregory, who advises in his article ‘A Father’s legacy to his daughters’, ladies should keep their idea of marriage ‘inviolable in your bosoms’. She did not reveal what was going through in her mind. So did her other sisters too. She believed that marriage would not be even considered if the person who asked for her hand in marriage did not attract her personally. In other words, she was convinced that she would marry more for love than for money. Though she is attracted towards Mr. Darcy, the knowledge that she acquires from Mr. Wickham about Mr. Darcy’s supposed meanness turns her away from him. She is not able to even contemplate the idea of marrying the man, because she so despises his very nature. By the time, the end of the story is reached; she gets to learn of his innate goodness and the reasons for him behaving in a particular way. This gives her a brand new idea about marriage and encourages her to think of it in very glowing terms. Till now she has looked upon it as a contract of convenience, one that is entered into to ensure financial security till the end. This view slowly changes when she realizes that the object of her affections, Mr. Darcy is truly worthy of her hand. There is no doubt that love takes precedence over material wealth. Her decision to marry, though long in coming, is welcomed by all.

However, the decision initially not to marry and then later consent to seem to be more in line with what Mary Wollstonecraft states in her treatise on ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Quoting from her text: ‘Women are told from their infancy and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, the softness of temper, outward obedience, and scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, everything else is needless, for at least twenty years of their lives. And she wants women to come out of this ramshackle bond that is holding them. And true to the spirit of feminism, Elizabeth initially denies her lover but later after realizing the truth in his words and the cause of his behavior accepts him. The character creation of the mother is very much in line with these definitions laid down by Mary.

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On the other hand, the other daughters of Mrs. Bennett seem to fall into the same old rut of making the best of a bad bargain. They are as obsessive as their mother when it comes to looking for a suitable man. There is no doubt that they believe in the act of marriage being the most important and most sought-after occasion in a person’s life. When Lydia runs away with Mr. Wickham, without even a clue to his real nature, one wonders why this takes place. Is it because Lydia wants to escape from prying eyes and wagging tongues that keep questioning the singleness of the Bennett brood, or is just plain girlish impetuousness that drives her to elopement? Be that as it may, there is no doubt that she enters into this treatise with Wickham, fully believing his ability to keep her secure and happy for the rest of her life. It is looked at as the man’s duty to have enough fortune to take care of his wife.

There is yet another female character, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is the aunt of Mr. Darcy. Though this woman has no illusions about the institution of marriage, she avers that no marriage can be considered workable, if there is a variation in the societal status of the two people involved. There is a clear message in this attitude. She is more conscious of the aspect of financial stability than the ephemeral (according to her) nature of love and affection. She insists that marrying below one’s one status is sure to lead to marital problems later on.

Is there an element of feminism or absence of it in Jane Austen’s females?

In this changing world of modernism and post-modernism, there is always room to contemplate whether or not, the female characters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice displayed an element of feminism in their behavior or not. Most feminists would aver that with this level of passion in the institution of marriage, it is difficult to even associate the idea of feminism with any of the characters mentioned in the novel. On the other hand, there is a view, that might sound quite convoluted, that despite all the importance given to finding a good husband, there is a streak of independence shown in the female characters, that could be considered feminist. Most of the women in the novel end up getting their way, whether it is finding a husband or ensuring that married life is worth living. In every one of these women, Jane Austen seems to reflect the mind of many of the women rights lobbyists, more particularly, she seems to have been influenced by the thoughts of her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft. Feminism was in the actions that these women displayed at the same time, as Trollope says in his 1870 review, ‘throughout her (Jane Austen) work, a sweet lesson of homely household womanly virtue is being taught’. Though there are libertarian thoughts in her works, there is also this underlying current that sets the entire work in the same strain. There is the religion that has its due place and there is the ever so important man–woman relationship that it espouses. Jane Austen’s thoughts have inspired more than two centuries of women on various counts.

Conclusion

After this passionate and all-consuming desire to get girls married to the right person at the right time, the character of Mr. Bennett is in sharp contrast. His attitude is a foil to this over-enthusiasm of his wife. The brides and bridegrooms to be, if we go by the novel, are varied and capable of unexpected evolutions. A family’s respectability depended on whether the grown-up children were ‘properly married’ or not and that in turn would depend on the property that the bridegroom owned and the ancestral connections he had. It can be generalized in the period of the novel that women were relegated to the secondary level in matters of property as well as crucial decisions of the family, including marriage. Characters such as Mrs. Bennett have to cast their nets as wide as possible and in between stretch them to wider areas according to the possibilities of rich eligible young men.

Jane Bennett seems to agree, rather tamely, to marry Mr. Bingley because he happens to be a man of property, plus heritage; but, the situation could change when it is known that there are better prospects. Someone like Elizabeth Bennett, of course, would study the prospect from different angles though the basis would be the same for all girls. However, the author emphasizes the fact that there is nothing ideal in society. There is no ideal man or woman whom one could marry or be with. Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia, elopes on the false belief that Wickham was a person of strong means, a quality that has more importance than anything else to her.

The eighteenth-century attitude of male superiority is reflected in Mr. Darcy, who has a kind of contempt for most of the female population of Meryton village. The source of this superior attitude was of course from the property rights which were exclusive to men, in his time. However, Jane Austen goes beyond to include matters of the heart and the changes therein.

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First Impressions was the earlier title of Pride and Prejudice; this sums up the idea that the book was more about what happens before marriage than what happens after it. Jane Austen’s characters in Pride and Prejudice seem to be obsessed with the idea that marriage is the only goal worth working towards. The book begins with the famous lines “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” and ends with a happy occasion of two marriage ceremonies. Whether or not these couples lived happily ever after could only be happy speculation.

Summary

The Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen are influenced by the thoughts present during the age; more specifically by the thoughts of liberal thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft. She is equally influenced by writings of people who consider womanhood as modest at the same time woman should choose her path. This idea has been reflected in most of her characters when they choose marriage. This has also been brought out by her reviewers.

References

  1. Debates in the House of Commons on the Clandestine Marriage Bill.
  2. Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
  3. Dr. John Gregory, 1774, A Father’s legacy to his daughters.
  4. Sir Walter Scott, 1815, Review: The Pride and Prejudice, Quarterly Journal.
  5. Anthony Trollope, 1870, Review of the Pride and Prejudice.
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