Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: A Reflection on Marriage in the 1800s
Pride and Prejudice is the story of the Bennet Family, particularly of the love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Set in the early 1800s on an English countryside, it explored why Mrs. Bennet's sole goal in life is to see her daughters wed. In the process, Austen was able to create a vivid imagery of the social dilemma that most women faced during that era: the importance of marriage and the prevailing dichotomy between the elite and the commoners; the country folk and city dwellers; and the educated and uneducated.
Austen’s writing style was able to explore the different stereotypes of women during that period through the unique personalities of each character. Strong, educated, a woman who speaks her mind, Elizabeth was not the average woman. Her plainness in terms of physical beauty was more than compensated by her wit and outspoken personality. Jane, on the other hand, was personified as the typical beauty that only has most of her looks to show off. Their mother and Charlotte was the epitome of the mindset for a commoner: Charlotte who has to marry out of servitude, who no longer wanted to be a burden to her parents and Mrs. Bennet whose ways was so blatant it was already embarrassing for Elizabeth. It is this type of attitude that the elite frowns upon as a sign of lack of intelligence or propriety. And the elites and city dwellers—the Bingley sisters and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the typical snobs who view country folks as less educated and below their stature. Austen was also able to firmly define the social and moral fabric associated with marriage. It was a time when marriage was an integral institution that is highly regarded by both common people and the elite. It is institutionalized to serve as an alliance between rich families, an escape for some means to social and economic stability, an obligation, and for the few—a declaration of love.
Marriage as an Alliance
Marriage as an alliance between two influential and wealthy families serve as security—for one, it ensures that the wealth does not ‘spillover,’ and stays within the children and their heirs; and secondly, it guarantees the continued economic power, influence, and status among the daughters of wealthy families. Because despite being born rich, women are still dependent on men to literally take care of them.
Such alliances, though unsuccessful in the novel, were shown by Austen on the desire of one of the Bingley sisters having a keen interest with Darcy. Another is the supposed pre-arrange marriage between Darcy and Lady de Bourgh’s daughter.
Marriage as an Escape
For all women, marriage is seen as an escape on the uncertainty of the future. Being married means having a man to take care of you in terms of basic needs and social needs. In a way, it showed how women are in a way, at least in my opinion, are still a second-class citizen of the community. They are helpless and the only way to empower them is through marriage. It is only through marriage that a mother could guarantee a good future for her daughters. Such is the gravity associated with marriage that Mrs. Bennet made it her business, her only business, to see to it that all her daughters are wed, especially that she does not have a son as a fallback to take care of her daughters.
Marriage as Means to Social and Economic Stability
For both the commoners and the elite women, marriage is an avenue for social and economic stability. Social stability meant that the wealthy women are able to continue living with the prestige and influence that they are accustomed to by marrying their own kind. While for common women, it is an opportunity to secure a good future. This is most evident in Charlotte’s case whose marriage to Mr. Collin was intended to secure a sense of economic stability. Though Collin is not wealthy and perceived by the Bennet’s as pompous, he could best provide for the needs of Charlotte.
Marriage as an Obligation
Because women are almost entirely reliant on men, marriage was also portrayed as an obligatory duty. Mr. Darcy, for instance, was to marry Lady de Bourgh’s daughter as an obligation to honor the prearranged wedding, however, he opted to marry out of love. Mr. Collin, also out of obligation as the only male heir, decided to marry one of the Bennet’s sisters under obligation to ensure that the Bennets’ are able to enjoy living in their estate. With no male heir, the Bennet sister could not inherit the estate. It did not work out with any Bennet sister and Collin married Charlotte.
Marriage as a Declaration of Love
For the heroes and heroines, marriage as a declaration of love is something that is hard to come by. Few could afford the luxury of marrying out of love. It was this principle about love that Elizabeth clings on to when she finally admitted and reciprocated the acknowledgment of love for one another with Mr. Darcy. It was also this amorous emotion that made Jane do all sorts of things to ensure that Mr. Bingley notices her. I could imagine how difficult it is for women to be restricted by propriety to confess their love for a man since it's viewed as a social taboo. Again, we could see here the strong moral fabric among women and the strict adherence to social norms.
Pride and Prejudice is very engaging read because it was able to portray a holistic perspective of England’s society and culture during that era. Underneath the love stories are the personification of social aspects integral to the understanding of the dynamics of the social and moral fiber that holds England at the turn of the 19th century. The novel was effective enough as a literary portrayal of the English social structure and prevailing culture. What is more, it becomes very interesting because it is packaged in such an engaging love story that only upon reflection would the reader realize that it was able to view early 19th century England through the perspective of a woman.