“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Jane Austen, an English novelist, is a child of the 18th century, particularly in its Neo-classical aspect. It was an age whose literary spokesmen preached the virtues of reason and good sense and humane regard for one’s fellow man (Gay 53). They urged man to understand his own nature and the natural world because as what Immanuel Kant observed, that while his age was an age of enlightenment, it was not an enlightened age at all.
In the novel Pride and Prejudice (1813), Jane Austen explored her age by being a witty and ironic observer of human inconsistency and ludicrousness. As a writer of comedy of manners, she is concerned with a world in which the problems are of good form rather than of subsistence, of matrimony rather than careers, of gracious gregariousness rather than aggressive worldliness (Brown 426).
The central comedy of Pride and Prejudice is rooted in maturely conceived character; the stupidity and servility of Collins, the snobbery of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the pedantry of Mary Bennet, the maliciousness of Miss Bingley, the silliness of the youngest Bennet girl and the literal-mindedness of Mrs Bennet.
Technically, we see that the story is told from the point of view of Elizabeth and in its multiple developments, we are interested only on her own prejudice and Darcy’s pride. In fact, the book may best be read as a brilliant study of pride in all of its manifestations; social snobbery for Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine, shyness for Miss Darcy, self-respect for Mr Darcy and essentially, sense of responsibility for Elizabeth and Jane.
However, this paper explores the novel in its depiction of marriage. By examining the many marriages in the story, we can derive Jane Austen’s standpoint of the 18th century marriage and all its ludicrousness. Hopefully, this will give elucidation to why women marry and how marriage has evolved? Or has it?
Jane Austen established four forms of marriage in her novel Pride and Prejudice; (1) marriage for economic reasons, (2) marriage outside social class, (3) marriage between two people of mismatched personalities, and (4) marriage for love.
Marriage for economic reasons is the most evident throughout the novel. This is best portrayed by Mrs. Bennets’ constant nagging on her daughters’ scarce chances. Her fear of losing the estate to Mr. Collins on her husband’s death caused her grave pressure of getting her daughters married in the haste.
Mr. Collins himself never failed to mention the economic concerns in his proposal of marriage to Elizabeth, much to Eliza’s civil aversion (chapter 19). Stating that it is his patroness’ desire for him, a clergyman, “to get a gentlewoman wife for her sake”, he was confirming his obvious fear of causing her patroness’ ill of some sort. It must be noted too that he deliberately introduced his proposal by stating that “I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father, I could not satisfy myself without resolving to choose a wife among his daughters”.
Collin even added. “Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications”. It is this reason that assured him of Elizabeth’s, or any woman of less seniority to Jane’s beauty (this he pointed upon his first acquaintance with the family), to find his offer so agreeable.
Elizabeth’s refusal to such an offer so pompously given, points the author’s comic repugnance to such a societal practice. Jane Austen stressed the need of women’s rationalization towards the matter and demanded the society to treat women as rational beings and not just as objects to adorn men’s ego. Elizabeth thus stated,” Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart”.
But Jane Austen gave much tact in portraying the life that Charlotte Lucas led, upon marrying Mr. Collins. Distressing it may be, Charlotte exemplified those women who feared spinsterhood and thus marry for pure economically-calculated reasons. She may not be happy, but she was content with having a decent home, a husband to be called and the acceptance of the society which all women, save Elizabeth and Jane, sought for.
Marriage outside the social class whose pathos were exemplified by the love affair between the amiable Bingley and the beautiful Jane and Darcy and Elizabeth, poses the second form. This is when someone from a higher social class marries somebody from the lower class (in the Bennet’s case, village girls). This is considered a social disaster making these love affairs of great rarity.
Even Darcy knew the risk he is taking upon proposing to Elizabeth and thus, prior to this event, much persuaded his friend Bingley to let go of his affection towards Jane Bennet. Moreover, when the furious Lady Catherine descended on Longbourn because of the rumoured engagement between her nephew and Elizabeth, she haughtily demanded Elizabeth to give up Darcy. She reasoned that Darcy will be married to her daughter as planned and it will not be ‘prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family’ (194).
Taking into account the arguments of the characters, Jane Austen views this marriage as truly unfavourable to the family, but if odds be conquered, this could be the best illustration of true love.
The third form, which is marriage between people of unequal character, is exemplified by the ever amusing repartee of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and Charlotte’s life of conformity. When Mr. Bennet approved of Elizabeth’s disapproval on Collin’s proposal saying “Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do” (64), he was suggesting his lost of respect towards his wife and his love for his daughter much to preventing her of leading a life like his.
Even Charlotte, who as previously discussed married Mr. Collins for pure economic reasons, prefers her husband to be away or out of home and takes the pleasure of having the house entirely for herself. This creates a vivid deduction that Jane Austen puts respect as a significant element in marriage, and that without it; no couple would ever achieve true happiness.
This boils us down to the last form which is marriage for love. This means that one marries not because of economic or social class reasons, but because you love the person much that you get blinded by the pathos it may bring.
When Jane fell in love with Mr. Bingley and were separated by their social class, they reconciled and eventually married because both refused to be chained by the norm and thus liberated themselves from such social expectations. Having conquered such odds, both were affirmed of their genuine affection and ended happily married.
Elizabeth and Darcy’s case, though it trod the same plot, was more concerned on their pride and prejudice. This is less simple than how it looks. We can hardly say that Elizabeth conquered her prejudice and Darcy pride; it is more accurate to say that both conquered prejudice and pride in the sense is vindicated. Having overcome such a central pathos – both gained better understanding of their nature and created a more established relationship at the end.
At its best, this comedy of manners is concerned not merely of manners but with manners in an older sense – conduct exhibiting character, and how they influence women and men’s judgment in the context of marriage. The maturely conceived characters are endowed with ‘human realities and sense of values’ that somehow endeavor to rectify the prevalent societal wrongs during Jane Austen’s time.
Mr. Bingley, a more than pleasant suitor for Jane has the amiability that connects him to the other characters but still has the negativity that differentiates him from the mere sought-after bachelors. His lack of personal decision and in a way, his social class, proved off-putting even for somebody with such great amiability.
We see Jane Bennet only as a ‘handsome-face’, sweet and good heroine. Her sweetness carries convictions which she always tries to act by. But her goodness is not caused by rational realization on the problem but is due to her passiveness and inadequate view of the motives of others. (Example, it took her quite a time before she figured the fake friendship Caroline Bingley offers, much to Elizabeth’s patient persuasion.)
With Darcy and Elizabeth, Jane Austen risked the danger of creating simple opposites; one detested and one admired. Only later on did we understand how Austen sees both in equal perspective; Darcy being overlaid with class superciliousness and Elizabeth endowed with independence and sharpness of mind but with the liability to pre-judgment and self-satisfaction in the midst of error.
Jane Austen’s analysis of the pressures of the society, in the account of young people in love, could be a social grace or a social failing. But she sees the disturbances in the foreground, and in the background remains the moral universe. To this layout, she was able to point the whole range of human frailties and yet gives us the reason to not despair because in the conflicting demands of social decorum, she finds comedy in the resulting stresses.
Brown, Calvin. The Reader’s Companion to World Literature. Canada. The Dryden Press Incorporated, 1956.
Gay, Peter. The Age of Enlightenment. United States. Time-Life International, 1967.
Lass, Abraham. A Student’s Guide to 50 British Novels. New York. Washington Square Press, 1974.
 Neo-classical: characteristic of a revival of an earlier classical style
 Comedy of manners: a kind of comedy representing the complex and sophisticated code of behaviour current in fashionable circles of society, where appearances count for more than true moral character
 Collin’s patroness: Lady Catherine de Bourgh