Jane Austen introduces the theme of marriage from the very start of the novel with the famous opening line – ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ This distinctly sarcastic line shows how Austen uses irony to mask her personal view on marriage, as there can be nothing ‘universally acknowledged’ about anything. She also establishes the inevitable connection between money and marriage that is commented on throughout the novel. The underlying truth in the quote, however, is the fact that in the 19th century society that Austen lived in, money, not love inspired women to marry. Economic problems were particulary acute for women and they were often forced to marry, as spinsterhood was not only socially unacceptable but would also leave them impoverished. For these women, earning a decent income of their own was not a viable option. 19th century women, however high up on the social ladder, were near powerless and relied completely on their husbands and male relatives.
To understand the novel, knowledge of the social background of the time is essential. In the 19th century, estates such as Mr Bennet’s were entailed. This means that if Mr Bennet were to die, his estate will pass to his nearest male heir -Mr Collins. This leaves his wife and daughters with nothing and they are left to find their way out of this crippling situation- often the wife of the deceased husband would have to find a generous male relative and the daughters will be married off quickly . This is the financial and historical reality which lies beneath Austen’s narrative and it also can explain Mrs Bennet’s desperate need to marry off her daughters. Opportunities to meet and talk to men were very limited at the time and socialising was normally done at parties and balls. These events were taken very seriously, with girls having rare chances to speak, and hopefully dance, with men.
Marriage is a central theme in Pride and Prejudice and Austen takes care to show the reader the different aspects of married life. Both Elizabeth and Jane have happy endings to their romances but some marriages presented in the novel have various problems. For example in her description of the Bennets’ marriage Austen offers a clear criticism of a typical 19th century relationship. The Bennets, in their middle age, seem to just exist in the same house and for Mr Bennet ‘the experience of three and twenty years’ was ‘insufficient to make his wife understand his character.’ Their lack of similar interests and respect for each other has not only damaged both husband and wife, but their children too. This is shown in the wildness and socially unacceptable behaviour of Lydia, who is presented in the book as her mother’s daughter. Mrs Bennet’s motivations for her own marriage were no doubt the same as those with which she desperately pursues husbands for her daughters.
For a woman to avoid the horrors of spinsterhood and poverty a husband with money and ideally some attractiveness is the only way out. We can see the strength of her feelings in her response to Elizabeth’s rejection of the odious Mr Collins. She has learnt nothing from the failure of her own marriage and feels impelled to force her daughters into unions that will prove as unsatisfactory as, or worse, than her own. It is clear whose side of the argument Austen is on when she describes Mrs Bennet as ‘a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.’ Mr Bennet has a greater understanding and empathy for others however. Although he had foolishly married Mrs Bennet for her ‘youth and beauty’, and ‘that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give’, he now realises that to marry someone for their beauty is foolish, as it fades and that there must be more than shallow attraction if a marriage is to be happy. Mr Bennet hopes for greater happiness for Elizabeth – saying that if she marries Mr Collins he will ‘never see her again’.
Mr Bennet may have given up on Kitty and Lydia who have been corrupted beyond repair by Mrs Bennet’s desperation but he is unconventional his caring for Elizabeth, his oldest daughters, happiness. This is clear when Mr Darcy is first suggested for Elizabeth and he scornfully says ‘Mr Darcy, who never looks at any woman but to see and blemish and who probably never looked at you in his life!’ Elizabeth’s clear sightedness and critical judgment may have stemmed from the disaster of her parents’ married state and leads to her refusing Mr Collins – nothing could bribe her to be untruthful about her moral values in exchange for economic security. This mature attitude also complements the theory of Austen using Elizabeth as a mouthpiece for her own views on 19th century society.
In Austen’s description of Mr Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth and its consequences, she clearly expresses her view on the way a woman should balance her views on economics and her morality. Mr Collins is extremely arrogant in his belief that his money can buy him the wife he wants and that she will even be happy to accept being bought. His declaration to Elizabeth reveals how he views her as possession that can be acquired rather than a person to be loved. He says ‘as soon as I entered this house I singled you out as the companion of my future wife. And his arrogance stretches even further, on several occasions talking about ‘when we are married’. He has absolutely no doubt in his mind that Elizabeth will accept due to the fact she is economically inferior to him.
Elizabeth, however, rejectshis proposal and chance to be rich and she says ‘You could not make me happy, and I am convinced I am the last woman in the world who would make you so.’ She is very moral in her decision and sticks to it determinedly. Mr Collins is so oblivious of Elizabeths motives that he arrogantly sees her refusal as a display modesty rather than a moral choice. This shows how extremely unsuited Mr Collins was for Elizabeth because he clearly cannot tell what she is feeling or thinking or even understand her actions towards him. However, Mrs Bennet is so determined on marrying Elizabeth to a wealthy man she completely disregards her daughter’s happiness and the question of whether the pair are compatible enough for a successful and happy relationship. She disloyally agreed to the engagement before the proposal and when Mr Collins announces he has ‘your respected mother’s permission for this address.’, Elizabeth is shocked beyond belief. Austen’s ironic depiction of Mrs Bennet and her moral values means that the reader automatically knows that marriage to Mr Collins would be an utter disaster.
Mrs Bennet’s materialistic obsession with marriage influences her youngest daughter, Lydia, the most. Lydia’s head is turned by many a young man and Austen makes it clear to the reader she has inherited many personality traits from her querulous mother. Just as her father was attracted to her mother as a young man for her beauty, Lydia is drawn to Wickham for shallow reasons such as his charm and good looks. As a reader, we know that Wickham’s aim is to find himself a rich wife abroad and Lydia is not what he is looking for but she and her mother are completely oblivious to this. Their union is the result of moral weakness on both sides. Austen tells us that they were ‘only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtues.’ They have ignored the demands of economics and broken the rules set by society of the time but they were driven only by lust. We are told that ‘his affection for her soon sank into indifference, hers lasted a little longer.’ Though Lydica is not sinfull, her lack of intelligence and guidance leads her to narrowly escapes responsibility for destroying the reputation of the Bennet family and the marriage chances of her elder sisters thanks to the intervention of Mr Darcy on her marriage to Wickham. We are given a greater depth to Austens views on marriage as this escapade between Lydia and Wickham shows that, whilst she criticises the countless loveless marriages of the time, Austen shows us that to break the rules is too dangerous and does not lead to happiness.
The novel also contains a moral message, Austen leaves an underlying note throughout the story telling the reader that to be successful in marriage market it is important to remain moral in decisions along with a reasonable concern for respectability and economics. Charlotte Lucas did not have the luxury of helping her own emotional but the younger and prettier Jane and Elizabeth manage to navigate their way towards marriage successfully. Jane and Bingley are fortunate in that they like each other and share similar personality traits , shown by when Austen says ‘They had for basis the excellent understanding, and super excellent disposition of Jane, and a general similarity and feeling and taste between him and herself.’ We know their marriage will be successful as they treat each other as equals and Jane barely regards Bingleys financial status and it plays next to no role in their relationship. Mr Bennet cleverly acknowledges this when he predicts that he has no doubt that they will do very well together and that their obliviousness to economics is part of their strength – ‘You are each of you so complying…that every servant will cheat you; and so generous you will always exceed your income.’ Their relationship pleases both Bennet’s, as Mr Bennet understands that Jane and Mr Bingley both love and respect each other. Mrs Bennet too is pleased but only because of the wealth of her daugher’s husband.
The opposite to her mother, Elizabeth refuses to choose a husband looking for money and social status alone. She actually turns down Mr Darcy when she thinks that he doesn’t value her personality highly enough. However, Mr Darcy -unlike Mr Collins- actually respects her turning down of his proposal, realising realises she judges him by moral standards rather than valuing him for his great wealth.
Darcy and Elizabeth are often seen as the hero and heroine of Austen’s novel. Their relationship is so gripping and powerful in the way we see the characters show their true colours and change each other. Darcy and Elizabeth improve each other morally, him saying ‘Such I was from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! You taught me a lesson.’ The relationship is clearly not one sided though, as she also learns from his intelligence – ‘from his judgement, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.’ However, Elizabeth has not only married out of love and understanding of Darcy, but also for the promising idea offor status and security, as her visit to Pemberley with the Gardiner’s is part of the reason that she changes her attitude to Mr Darcy , it being described as being ‘a large. handsome, stone building… Elizabeth was delighted.’ Elizabeth is very lucky to be able to satisfy her own needs for happiness and equality at the same time as making herself financially safe and this was very rare in the 19th century.
The book ends with the wedding and, by telling us that Darcy and Elizabeth were ‘both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude’ towards the Gardiner’s, Austen also suggests that they are indeed happy ever after. However, we cannot forget the other marriages in the novel completely, despite the excitement of the ending. Jane and Elizabeth are exceptions to marriage and for most women, the fate that awaits them is a marriage similar to Charlotte’s to Mr Collins or Lydia’s to Mr Wickham. Elizabeth is very lucky to have had the youth, beauty and intelligence which have given her her power but Austen makes it clear that her greatest strength is her intelligent judgement and not the shallower parts of her personality. Though Austen is critical of marriage, often showing it in a bad light, she never says marriage is morally wrong. What she does make clear however, is that approaching marriage in a materialistic way such as Mrs Bennet has consequences.. Through the pattern of marriages in the book Austen shows the dangers and pitfalls marriage can offer and also explores the ways a woman can balance realistic ideas, romance and personal satisfaction.