How is the central theme of ‘marriage’ presented in ‘Pride and Prejudice’? How has your knowledge of the social/historical contest of the novel contributed to your understanding of the motivations of its various characters?
The book ‘Pride and Prejudice’ begins with the 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 is saying that all rich men are wanting a wife.
Women, in Jane Austen’s writing, who were not to inherit anything from their parents, were out to find a husband with wealth; whereas today you are more likely to marry for love. The man was more dominant and if the wife misbehaved then he could divorce her, a woman had no say and had to stay loyal to her husband for wealth purposes. For women, marriage was often the only means of social status improvement. Marrying for money may seem unromantic but for most women it was for safety so they had something to live for.
Put most bluntly, her father or her husband defined a woman’s position in life and she was expected to be modest, submissive and incapable of independent thought. With few exceptions, their education was lower than their husbands or their male contemporaries. It is easy to laugh at Mrs Bennet’s ‘fidgets’ and her wild changes of mood but she remains ‘a woman of mean understanding’ who is incapable of exercising any moral prejudice. Lydia’s ‘animal spirits’ are likewise linked to the fact that she is ‘vain, ignorant, idle’. Mrs Bennet has solid practical reasons for desiring these marriages though, even if she sets about it in such an irritating manner. She cares about her daughters because, when their father happens to pass away they have no security or get any benefit from him, their house is going to be given to Mr Collin’s and they have no wealth security either.
Jane Austen was born in a period of time of political confusion, for most of her adult life Britain was at war with France. In the entertainment area, the Romantic Movement, which stressed the importance of imagination and personal emotion, was approaching its height. There is no hint of these confused times in Jane Austen’s writing however. She much preferred to examine the emotional ripples within a fairly settled and familiar society.
Most of Jane Austen’s characters are members of the gentry, they were largely a land-owning class, but others were included. Also some of the gentry are divided, such as Darcy and Lady Catherine and Mr Bennet, nobility and pride are both shown through Darcy and Lady Catherine; whereas Mr Bennet shows a sarcastic man of the time, although looking out for his daughters in his own way, but who definitely didn’t marry for love. By the end of 18th Century social status was already changing. Darcy proves this by asking Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, Elizabeth is a lot lower down than Darcy and would not have expected this had it been earlier on in 18th Century.
Whilst romantic passions are celebrated in the book, it offers an incomplete picture of human relationships. Jane Austen makes it clear that a moment of passion is a poor foundation for a marriage or long lasting happiness. Mr Bennet had been ‘captivated by youth and beauty’ but Mrs Bennet’s ‘weak understanding and illiberal mind’ prevented any lasting affection from either of them. By the end of the novel Lydia and Wickham cause a reckless relationship and it has already turned into an existence which is ‘unsettled in the extreme’. Their marriage is not supported by anyone especially not relative finance.
On a contrast Charlotte Lucas is very unsentimental ‘I am not romantic…I ask only for a comfortable home’ and therefore ends up with the most boring person in the book Mr Collins, a ridiculous character. Her eagerness for financial security to the leaving out of all other consideration is also not a basis for a true marriage. Charlotte soon learns that the backroom is a place of keeping out of her husband’s way and often retreats to it.
Elizabeth approves of Jane and Bingley because their happiness is not simply based on prettiness or financial security but on love. Likewise Mr Gardiner’s ‘sensible, gentlemanlike’ character is complemented by his wife’s ‘amiable, intelligent’ personality. Elizabeth disagrees with Charlotte and Mr Collins marriage as it is only for safety that Charlotte has married, but Elizabeth sees it as Charlotte’s choice. Elizabeth also disapproves of the elopement of Lydia and Wickham, this is understandable as it is obvious that they are not in love and are going to go downhill and have a very unhappy relationship.
The marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth is more complex. They achieve mutual admiration and respect for each other through the process of getting to know each other and stripping away the misunderstanding and self-deception. Their marriage is realistic because they have learned to know why they love each other and it is secure.
Elizabeth stands at the centre of the novel; she is the heroine and eventually marries the hero. She is less beautiful than her elder sister, Jane, but has a natural cheerfulness way about her and a way of poking fun subtly. She is the favourite of Mr Bennet and she inherits his sense of the ridiculous. When Mr Collin’s introductory letter is received they both hint their sarcasm ‘can he be a sensible man, sir?’. Mr Bennet recognises her ‘quickness’ and Mr Darcy admires the ‘liveliness’ of her mind. She is a strong-minded person who will not contain her values and self-confidence. She is reluctant to place marriage at the centre of her ambitions without any regard for feelings and circumstances. She is shocked by Charlotte’s single-minded vision of marriage and she has no hesitation in rejecting two proposals which both offer finance and security.
Jane is the eldest of the sisters and the prettiest. She has a calm personality that always sees the best in people. This proves the source of her own distress at times. Her misplaced trust in Caroline Bingley leaves Jane vulnerable and exposed to the true reasons for Bingley’s absence. Jane proves to be wiser than Elizabeth when she suspects there is more to the relationship between Wickham and Darcy than first appears.
During the novel Jane and Elizabeth maintain a loving relationship, they are extremely close and never cease to understand each other. It sometimes seems that Elizabeth is the older of the two because of Jane’s innocence to the world. Elizabeth chooses to defend Jane when Charlotte accuses her of being too insecure but later on agrees with Darcy that Jane is insecure and is indifferent to Bingley. As Jane and Bingley form a close relationship between each other, there is a chance for Darcy and Elizabeth to talk and develop their relationship as well.
Mr and Mrs Bennet are the couple that failed at their marriage; I think that Jane and Elizabeth use their parents as a basis of what not to do when you get married. Mr Bennet once saw Mrs Bennet and decided she was the one, they prove that this is not a way to choose your future partner and as you can see from the book Mr Bennet regrets it; he often retreats to his study to get away from his wife’s ‘unsteady nerves’.
Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas are also a failed marriage. Charlotte finds Mr Collins annoying and she also often retreats to a back room to get away from her husband. When Elizabeth goes to meet them both she can clearly see that Charlotte is already fed up with Mr Collins. Charlotte is too polite to state that she does not love Mr Collins but puts it as bluntly as she can. Charlotte does not refuse to tell anyone that she only married for security and does not mind what people think of her. Mr Collins is happy in his relationship with Charlotte and thinks he has married into a steady relationship, there may be no love but he is not alone anymore. This illustration of marriage may have been foreseen as acceptable in the 18th century but the modern and multi-cultured society of today would see this kind of marriage as highly undesirable.
Lydia Bennet and Mr Wickham show yet another failed marriage. The elopement takes place in Brighton and Lydia comes back as Mrs Wickham. She refuses to believe her sisters that Mr Wickham is untrustworthy and leaves to go north with him. Jane, Elizabeth and Darcy all know Wickham is a dangerous man around young women but no-one dares to say anything; it is only after the elopement takes place that they begin to feel guilty and feel that if they had said something they would not be under the certain circumstances they are. It is obvious that Lydia and Wickham were not in love and that their marriage began as a failure.
Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley and the Gardiner’s show good marriages. Ones that were based purely on love and friendship. Jane and Bingley’s romance springs up from the start and will continue to grow. Whereas Elizabeth and Darcy started off as enemies but Darcy began to become fond of Elizabeth’s eyes and the relationship developed from there until Darcy plucked up the courage to ask her hand in marriage.
Elizabeth refused and turned Darcy down but their feelings for each other still grew and they became fonder each time they met up to the time when Darcy asked again and Elizabeth accepted. The book does not give you much information on the Gardiner’s but you can tell that their marriage is genuine and they have very strong feelings for one another. While you are in their company they do not retreat to separate rooms and neither do they argue with each other but joke and laugh together and their true friendship shines through.
I think that the strongest marriages are the ones that are mentioned above and are truly based on love and they will last forever. Lydia and Wickham are most likely to become very unhappy with their marriage and maybe split up. I think that Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collin’s will stay together purely because they are having offspring and Charlotte wants safety no matter how unhappy she is.
Jane Austen does not use description of characters; instead she focuses on the moral qualities. We can see this by Mr Collins and Jane’s reaction to his proposal towards herself, Elizabeth and Charlotte. With all three Mr Collins is very plain and ordinary and does not state any reason why anyone should marry such a boring pompous old man, and yet Charlotte does choose him and I think that Jane is not surprised by her choice. We can also tell this because of Darcy’s two proposals, one is very focussed on why he does not want to marry Elizabeth and he then realises that nothing but Elizabeth matters and he is in love, this makes his second proposal much better and we see that he becomes a lot less focussed, he does not mention Elizabeth’s background or family but is more like a gentleman.
In the 18th Century social status was a priority and women married for financial benefit not for love. Jane Austen shows this by Mr Collins and Charlotte’s relationship and Lydia Bennet and Mr Wickham’s behaviour. But there were a few that did marry for love, Jane and Bingley and Darcy and Elizabeth. The title of the book – pride and prejudice – shows to me how Darcy started off pride and gradually became quite prejudice due to one person, Elizabeth. Jane Austen does not describe looks or attitudes much, rather their moral qualities, this way you can create your own picture of the characters.