In the novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Jane Austen challenges traditional presentations of women in nineteenth century literature through various female and male characters. In Jane Austen’s time, there was no opportunity for young women of the “genteel” classes to achieve independence. No professions were open to women; unmarried women had to live with their families, or with family-approved protectors if a suitable marriage was not arranged. It was almost unheard of for a genteel, young, single female to live by herself, even if she happened to be an heiress. Female survival was therefore dependent on marriage and marriage was dependent on many other factors. To be desirable to men women had to be beautiful, youthful, and physically weak, of limited intellect and preferably from wealthy families. Austen explores these issues by featuring both submissive, conventional female characters and non-conformist female characters that challenge nineteenth century traditional gender roles.
Mrs Bennet is a conventional, irritating woman whose main goal in life is to get her five daughters married. This reflects the social and financial pressure she is under as a mother. Her husband’s estate is left to his nephew, Mr Collins, upon Mr Bennet’s death, therefore, Mrs Bennet wanted her daughters to have financial stability elsewhere in case of their father’s death. In the time period of this novel there was very little social acceptance of women who remained single for the rest of their lives. For the most part, women could not acquire money on their own without inheriting or marrying into wealth. Women who could not find a husband were often referred to, and labelled as “old maids” and lived their whole lives as economic burdens to their parents.
This explains why Mrs Bennet does not want this life for herself or for any of her daughters. She is a traditional woman who, like many women of the era, occupied her time gossiping about neighbours and finding future husbands for her daughters, for material gain rather than ensuring her daughters’ happiness. This is shown clearly in the text when Lydia is to be married, Mrs Bennet’s “thoughts and her words ran wholly on those attendants of elegant nuptials, fine muslins, new carriages, and servants”. On Elizabeth’s marriage she exclaimed, “What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! … A house in town! … Ten thousand a year! … I shall go distracted!” This illustrates Jane Austen’s view of traditional women, as she mocks and criticises nineteenth century materialistic attitudes towards marriage. While Mr Bennet says, “He is rich, to be sure, and you may have more fine clothes and fine carriages than Jane. But will they make you happy?” Mrs Bennet cares not for happiness but talks of Mr Darcy’s wealth, which exposes traditional women to be unintelligent, single minded, and unable to look beyond money, but also as victims of social conditions.
In the era of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ becoming an “old maid” was not considered a desirable fate, so when Charlotte Lucas, at age twenty-seven, marries Mr Collins, her brothers are “relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid.” Charlotte like many women of that period is willing to marry just because it is the only route to financial security, and to escape an uncongenial family situation. Charlotte Lucas’ pragmatic views on marriage are voiced several times in the novel: “Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object.” She is twenty-seven, not especially beautiful (according to both herself, and Mrs Bennet), and without an especially large “portion”, so decides to marry Mr Collins “from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment”.
Through Charlotte Lucas Austen shows the lack of importance of personal happiness and fulfilment for women in the nineteenth century. Charlotte does not intend to live with the shame of being a spinster and as she has reached a certain age, she feels she must accept Mr Collins proposal, although it is not out of love, “I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home.” This shows Charlotte’s limited expectations of marriage and how she has only married in order to fulfil the wishes of her family. Even after marriage her opinion does not change as she finds consolation in “her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns.” Charlotte Lucas is another female character that subscribes to conventional attitudes. She does not want to remain unattached, which was shameful during the nineteenth century and should have been avoided at all costs, because a woman’s values in the nineteenth century was dictated by her marital status.
Jane Austen uses Jane Bennet to criticise the idea that during the nineteenth century women had no individual identity, Jane is often referred to simply as “Miss Bennet” which shows the lack of identity of women, as according to the conventional view of women the first name of the eldest unmarried daughter in a family is omitted after “Miss”; Elizabeth is sometimes addressed as “Miss Bennet” by the other characters, but the narrator (Jane Austen) never refers to her in that way, as she is a character who does not abide by conventional views. The oldest of five sisters, Jane is a beautiful, kind-hearted young woman who was attracted to Bingley, and throughout the novel, this develops into love.
Jane follows the traditional expectations of women as she realises the importance of marriage for herself and her mother. As the oldest, Jane has the responsibility of marrying first; Lydia Bennet (the youngest) explains “Jane will be quite an old maid soon, I declare. She is almost three and twenty!” This implies that Jane should get married to allow the younger daughters to fulfil their requirements as a woman, which is to get married. As Jane is, “the most beautiful creature,” it would not be hard for her to find a suitable match as in the nineteenth century being beautiful was one of the most important assets to gain a wealthy husband. Like customary women she follows the traditional feminine pursuits, and conforms to the stereotypical view of a weak women, “I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose is to be inputted to my getting wet through yesterday,” taken from a letter to Elizabeth from Jane, shows how just walking in the rain has caused Jane to be sick, here Austen is mocking the fragile state of women in the 1800’s.
Jane also seems a women too good to be true in her unwillingness to see bad in anyone, which causes Elizabeth to become exasperated by her, “Oh! You are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general.” This again proves Jane Austen is mocking the idea that traditional women are perfect and can only see goodness. Jane has longed for Mr Bingley for quite a while. Bingley is handsome, rich, kind, and well liked. He and Jane share many conversations and have complimentary personalities. They are pleasantly matched and will share a happy life together. Jane is very nave in her view of love; she has decided she will only marry out of love not just for wealth, this could imply that Jane does not follow the traditional view of women, yet Jane only finds love due to her mother’s traditional view of marriage, which means the Bennet daughters attend a ball hosted by Bingley, this is a courting ritual, where both Jane and Bingley fall in love.
Caroline Bingley (another traditional women who is a sister of Mr Bingley) constantly judges Elizabeth on account of her appearance when she arrives at Netherfield, this is because supposedly during the 1800’s women were chosen for marriage because of their looks. Austen is showing how nineteenth century society makes women competitive and turn against each other. Whenever Elizabeth is not around, Miss Bingley will criticise her manners, habits, and looks, “Why must she be scampering about the country because her sister had a cold? Her hair so untidy, so blowsy.” Austen by having Miss Bingley evaluate Elizabeth’s appearance in such an unkind manner actually is scorning Miss Bingley. Miss Bingley is madly in love with Mr Darcy, and instead of the perfect, traditional woman marrying him, Elizabeth does. Many women in the novel like Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst (another sister of Mr Bingley) believe in traditional views of women, and that a woman should always act and look like a lady. However, in Elizabeth’s eyes, a woman’s heart and actions should define her.
Another view of women in the nineteenth century was that if a young woman left her family without their approval it was very serious, as it often affected the family, such an example would be running away to marry a disapproved husband, or entering into an illicit relationship. This was a very important issue in traditional views of women of the age, which was defiantly broken by Lydia, the youngest of Mrs Bennet’s daughters. Lydia leaves the Forsters to run away with Wickham. Lydia’s marriage to Wickham is simply for romance and lust. For a good while, the flirtatious teenager has had her eye on military officers. When Wickham shows her attention she falls in love and henceforth comes their marriage. Unfortunately Lydia likes Wickham a great deal more than he cares about her. He has many debts and uses the money he gets from marrying her to pay them off. Therefore, Lydia marries a man who does not really care for her all that much and Wickham marries a girl who cannot really offer him anything. This couple does not comply with traditional views of marriage, as they are wed after running away, it also causes a lot of distress on the family shown by Mr Bennets quotation “Lydia will never be easy till she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances.”
Elizabeth, unlike her elder sister Jane, does not fit in with customary views of women and stands out among many of the women of her time, as she is confident in herself and her decisions, and values love over money and security. Elizabeth is a character who defies and challenges the conventional view of woman and Austen uses her as the heroine of the novel.
Almost from the beginning of the novel, Elizabeth is portrayed as an admirable character. When her sister Jane falls ill, Elizabeth treks over “…field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles…” just to tend to her. Today this might not seem like a huge ordeal, but in the 1800’s when a woman was not even supposed to break into a sweat, it would be incredibly bold. Elizabeth knowingly puts her sister’s health above her own reputation and appearance, thus showing physical strength as a woman instead of the usual weakness seen in women in the 1800’s.
As a result of Elizabeth’s uniqueness, she is the object of Mr Darcy’s affection even though she is not a weak, submissive woman. Almost every woman in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ would feel nothing but joy to be in Elizabeth’s position, to be desired by someone of such social stature was nothing short of incredible. However, from the start of the novel, Elizabeth is not at all impressed with Darcy’s conduct and attitude. She finds him to have a “selfish disdain for the feelings of others,” not to mention arrogant and “the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
Once again, Elizabeth looks past all the trivial and vain and directly into the heart of the matter. In rejecting Mr Darcy’s proposal, Elizabeth demonstrates her independence. As Mr Darcy explained himself to her in his letter, and as his mannerisms change, so do Elizabeth’s. Mr Darcy acts more like a gentleman to her and illustrates that he sees her as a companion, not a liability, which other women in the nineteenth century would be. To Mr Darcy, Elizabeth is a “…welcomed intelligence,” which is ironic, as during the 1800’s men supposedly preferred the unintelligent women. Elizabeth Bennet watches the transformations and her feelings change. Ultimately, Elizabeth accepts Darcy’s hand in marriage. In doing so, Elizabeth proves that while she is independent, she is not too proud to recognize when she has been wrong. This not only shows courage, but a great deal of integrity.
It seems that an overwhelming number of women in this time period married for financial gains. However, there was a minority who looked to love for happiness, not money. Elizabeth was such a person. Both Mr Collins and Mr Darcy propose to her and both are turned down. In Elizabeth’s heart she cannot justify a materialistic marriage. Mr Collins and Mr Darcy, to a much greater extent, could provide her with a comfortable life. Yet Elizabeth knows that, as her father told her, she could be “…neither happy nor respectable unless you truly esteemed your husband, unless you looked up to him as a superior.” In both cases Elizabeth is neither esteemed nor looks up to her potential suitor. When trying to make her “No” be understood as “No” to Mr Collins, she proves she is unlike the customary women of 1813, as she will not give in to her decision to marry him. Once again her heart and strength of character prevail in her decision-making process. Even under great pressure from her mother, who threatens to never speak to her again, Elizabeth waits for someone to come along and steal her heart, so does not match the view of a usual women in 1813.
Throughout her novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Jane Austen challenges the conventional view of women in the nineteenth century. Most of the more ridiculous characters believe in the traditional views of women and Jane Austen presents a rather cool and objective view of the limited options open to women seen through the character Charlotte Lucas. Also Jane Bennet is seen to get hurt by the man she loves, which implies that the traditional way is not the accurate way of ensuring happiness as it causes sadness.
The heroine of the novel, Elizabeth Bennet, is not like her sister (Jane) who is established, as she insists on being treated as a “rational creature”, rather than an “elegant female.” Austen uses the Bennet family of Longbourn to illustrate the good and bad reasons behind marriage and to prove that traditional women of the period are not always happy or accurate in their beliefs. Clearly, Austen believes women are at least as intelligent and capable as men, and considers their inferior status in society to be unjust. She also makes it clear that she is criticising a society that moulds women to think and behave in this manner, and shows the effects of sacrificing personal happiness to abide by the conventional and traditional view of marriage.