How does Jane Austen present marriage within Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the most famous novels of English literature not only because it is a masterpiece of writing but also because it successfully portrays society as it was during the times the book was written. The first sentence in Pride and Prejudice is also one of the most famous sentences in English literature as well as a representative of the times. It can also be understood as the plot of the novel since it describes as a universal truth that a single man who has had good fortunes will automatically be looking for a wife.
In the sentence, the story itself and within the concept of marriage as it is presented within the novel, Importance is given to the male character while the female part of humanity acts as nothing more than a wife or a prospect for a wife. This idea becomes the essence of marriage since the act of marriage or finding a suitable mate is more important for the characters than being in love or being attached to the person they are married to. Love seems more like an accident or something which can come as a bonus rather than something which has to be present before a marriage can take place.
In fact, marriage is nothing more than a social contract which is a binding agreement for both parties involved in the marriage. The best example of this comes from the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet which serves as an excellent representation of marriage for the purposes of this paper. Mr. Bennet seems to be a very caring and sweet man when it comes to his daughters Jane and especially Elizabeth, but for the rest of his family he seems to hold little affection. He says that, “they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters (Austen, 1813, p.1).”
While it is certainly a back handed compliment as a father, he is even worse when it comes to dealing with the problems presented by his wife. When Mrs. Bennet complains that he is getting on her nerves without compassion for her nerves he shows little regard for his lifelong partner in marriage by saying, “You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least (Austen, 1813, p.1).” Clearly, his relationship with his daughters is one of toleration but the sarcasm shown in his words for his wife presents a rather bleak image of a loveless marriage.
As per the structure of the society in those times, escape from such a marriage is quite impossible due to the pressures of society. However, the idea of escaping and escapism is an element which defines Mr. Bennet’s marriage because he will take refuge in the library rather than sit and chat with his family, cousins or any other visitors. Of course, as a father, the man of the house and the head of the family these responsibilities certainly apply to him in the context of the social setup yet he would rather escape the situation than be in the thick of things with his wife or daughters (Jackson, 2000).
At times, the character does not seem as positive as he should and his lack of responsibility becomes his undoing when his daughter attempts to run away with Mr. Wickham. It is the wrong sort of marriage which becomes the threat for the whole family and it is certainly a moment of change for the character since he has to come out of the place where he had been hiding and take charge of the situation and be responsible for his daughter’s actions (Jackson, 2000).
At this point, the reader can not help but hate him because his inaction can certainly lead to the failure of Elizabeth and to the ruin of his other daughters even though he is not directly responsible for it. However, if he had been more careful and taken a keener interest in the doings of his family as well as his own marriage he might have helped in averting the disastrous situation altogether. Elizabeth for one did not ignore the collection of negative qualities in her father and the relationship he had with her mother and as it is reported in the novel:
“Elizabeth had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible (Austen, 1813, p. 1).”
The idea of marriage presented by Austen certainly reflects the zeitgeist since the conservatism of society at the time and the repressive attitudes contained therein were the hallmarks of how women were expected to behave in social settings. Pursuing a good husband is seen as the overriding duty of a lady while those who women seek to be professionals in some field or are actually trying to avoid getting married by choosing to remain single are seen as odd or as outsiders.
At the same time, a man or a marriage prospect can only be socially acceptable if he has had good fortune. A poor man or an improvised male should only seek a female from his own class and the class barriers are quite strong in terms of rich and poor, noble and common as well as between those who are married and those who are yet to obtain the social license which permits marriage. Without marriage, the idea of loneliness and the sense of being miserable are paramount in several stories of the time. Even though marriage may not be the end to the miseries a person has to face, it does help in reducing the idea of loneliness to some extent.
For example, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette brings the focus on the idea of loneliness, being a single woman where society does not accept single women, and giving love without receiving it in return. For instance, the image of the nun which is mentioned at several places in Villette is a clear indication of what it would be like to be alone and not have a bond with a person that can be loved selflessly. Brontë’s own words express the depression and the loneliness she felt while writing Villette and Giles (2004) quotes her on a letter she wrote to her friend (Ellen Nussey) saying that:
“My life is a pale blank and often a very weary burden…The evils that now and then wring a groan from my heart – lie in position – not that I am a single woman and likely to remain a single woman – but because I am a lonely woman and likely to be lonely (Giles, 2004, Pg. 1).”
In fact, novels such as Villette, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and many others of the time do not focus on marriage even though it is one of the primary objectives of the heroine. The central motive of the actions taken by the heroine is always to be in a situation where she is loved by the man she loves which should naturally (in accordance with the dictates of society) end up in a suitable match for her. Without love, the match can be considered a marriage of convenience, a marriage which is simply present due to the circumstances or a marriage of necessity. Despite love being an important objective, the idea of marriage still takes priority because the man which a woman wishes to get married to still must qualify in terms of being socially acceptable such as the connection between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Taken a step further, the same idea of marriage can be applied to Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth which shows that marriage remains more important than love since love is bonus which is often not necessary for married life.
- Austen, J. 1813, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Pemberly.com [Online] Available at: http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/ppdrmtis.html#MrBennet
- Giles, J. 2004, ‘Villette’, The Literary Encyclopedia. [Online] available at: http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=8625
- Jackson, H. 2000, ‘What Was Mr. Bennet Doing in his Library, and What Does It Matter?’ Romantic Circles, [Online] Available at: http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/libraries/jackson/jackson.html
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