Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was incredibly far ahead of its time. The novel comments on gender roles and female independence, featuring a radical protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, and a rather forward-thinking love interest, Mr. Darcy. Austen challenges the typical passage of wealth through the male line and how this puts an unnecessary amount of stress on the women of Victorian families. The struggle for the women of the Bennet family to find suitable husbands in due time is what ultimately pushes the novel into motion. However, despite the female characters’ need to marry, the protagonist, Elizabeth, decides to take her future into her own hands. Elizabeth wants to marry for love, not convenience or necessity, which was a very unusual notion for a woman of the time to have. Her independence and avant-garde views expose her to critiques that other female characters in the novel are safe from. While some feminist critics believe that Elizabeth’s marriage to Mr. Darcy is to the detriment of her independence and her feminist qualities, it is important to remember that she decides to marry him of her own accord after having rejected him once. Even so, a marriage to Mr. Darcy certainly would not have been a constricting one that was characteristic of the times as his views on the ideal woman were quite forward and conveniently lined up with Elizabeth’s. Her initial rejection of Mr. Darcy solidifies her belief of marriage built on love because had she agreed, it would have been solely due to his status and wealth. She accepts his offer the second time because she actually does end up falling in love with him.
Therefore, Elizabeth’s acceptance of Mr. Darcy’s proposal was not to the detriment of her character as a feminist considering she does it on her own autonomy and not to simply fulfill a need for her family and status. Feminism, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Jane Austen certainly critiques the inequality between genders in Victorian society through Pride and Prejudice and her protagonist, Elizabeth. However, that notion hardly grants rights to criticism of the novel by feminists for Elizabeth supposedly becoming tame in her choice to marry Mr. Darcy. This is evident in that despite Elizabeth’s independent nature, she was intelligent enough to recognize the necessity of her marrying due to her familial situation. Furthermore, she did not simply marry anyone, but someone with whom she fell in love and chose to marry, something not many women in the Victorian era could claim. Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Darcy at his first proposal not only allows for the discovery of his true nature, but also emphasizes Elizabeth’s capability to make decisions for herself as she takes her future into her own hands. It is important to differentiate between what would have been considered feminism in Victorian society and the feminism of the more modern world. Modern relationships are built on mutual respect and compromise, which is what Elizabeth displays at the end of Chapter 58, not tameness (Austen 354). Elizabeth “remembered that he had yet to learn to be laughed at” and out of regard for his feelings, refrained (Austen 354). She held her tongue out of humane consideration It is difficult for modern feminists to find footing in a period piece where gender roles were completely different. Surely, Elizabeth can be considered a forward-thinking, independent woman for her time; but falling in love is not a fault, and marriage does not equate to complacency.
Though critics claim that her choice not to tease Mr. Darcy towards the end of the novel was a flag of submission, it is evident that it was actually one of understanding. Elizabeth did not “check herself” because she feared overstepping with Darcy in her role as a woman, but simply because she knew his character and did not want to antagonize him (Austen 354). Pride and Prejudice serves as a commentary on gender roles in Victorian society. The novel is pushed into motion and retains its speed through the examination and depiction of the gender divide. During the time in which the novel takes place, the passage of wealth and property among family generations was determined by primogeniture, a process in which the family inheritance is passed to the first-born son. Daughters needed to be married as they had no claim to property or inheritance, leaving them little choice in the matter. The Bennet inheritance is entailed to Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet’s nephew, when no male heir is born to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The Bennet women are left with nothing but a the measly five thousand pounds to be split between six daughters and their mother. It is obvious that Mr. Bennet did not plan on not having a son to inherit his wealth and estate:When first Mr. Bennet had married, economy was held to be perfectly useless; for, of course, they were to have a son. This son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for. Five daughters successively entered the world, but yet the son was to come; and Mrs. Bennet, for many years after Lydia’s birth, had been certain that he would. (293)Mr. Bennet, blindly assuming he would have a son to take care of his family when he passed, did not bother saving money for each of his daughters until the prospect of saving money became too late. Mr. Bennet’s lack of preparation is extremely unfortunate and places an immense amount of pressure on his daughters to marry as soon as possible to suitable, preferably rich, men. The necessity negates and excuses Mrs. Bennet’s obsessive and obnoxious behavior in regard to her daughters to some degree as she acts in such a manner in order to ensure her daughters’ financial security when Mr. Bennet fails to do so. As noted before, marriage during the Victorian era was not typically born out of love but necessity. Marriage satisfaction generally went as Charlotte Lucas said: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (21). However, Elizabeth and Jane blow this norm out of the water by marrying for love; though it’s awfully convenient that the men they fall in love with happen to be two of the wealthiest in England. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy’s views on the status and behavior of women could also be considered progressive for the times. Mr. Darcy has a rather radical view of what an ideal woman should be. In a discussion with Miss Bingley, he states, perhaps a bit pointedly, his opinion on the ideal woman.
While to Miss Bingley, an accomplished woman “must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages … and must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions…”, Mr. Darcy takes it a step further, claiming that “she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading” (37). Mr. Darcy’s statement is forward for their time because generally, the qualities of accomplished women were strictly trivial as opposed to those of men, which included more serious and knowledgeable topics such as business. It does not seem to be a coincidence that, up until this discussion occurs, Elizabeth is invested in a book; making Mr. Darcy’s intention clear. Once Elizabeth has left the room, Miss Bingley takes the opportunity to degrade Elizabeth, claiming that she tries to make herself look better by “undervaluing” others (37). Darcy is quick to respond in the disguise of agreement that the “meanness” women use to gain a man’s approval is “despicable” (38). It is obvious, however, that Mr. Darcy is not talking about Elizabeth, but Miss Bingley herself. What Mr. Darcy admires in Elizabeth is also what readers admire in her. She challenges and “humble[s]” him, something he is surely not used to from other women (351). Elizabeth’s independence makes her incredibly admirable. Her autonomous nature is what sets her apart from the other female characters in the novel, especially in comparison to Miss Bingley or Jane. Throughout the novel, she continues to defy social norms, most particularly with her ideals on marriage. While she recognizes that marriage is crucial to her future livelihood, she insists on doing it on her own terms. She is completely baffled by the prospect of marrying out of convenience, as was typical at the time. Her refusal of not one, but two proposals may also reflect Jane Austen’s own refusal of many suitors. Elizabeth declines Mr. Collins’ offer, saying “You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so” (103). She rejects his proposal on the grounds of her own happiness, something that Mr. Collins is incapable of understanding as he believes she has no choice but to accept given her family’s circumstances and her circumstances as a woman. Moreover, Elizabeth is very unpleasantly surprised to hear of Charlotte’s engagement to Mr. Collins for “she had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she could not have supposed it possible that when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage” (121). Charlotte’s acceptance of Mr. Collins goes against everything Elizabeth believes as she chooses to marry for “a comfortable home…, character, connections, and situation in life” (120).
However, Elizabeth’s behavior and ideals surrounding marriage were seen as unbecoming by quite a few other female characters in the novel, especially Catherine de Bourgh, who is completely up in arms when she is under the impression that Elizabeth and Darcy are engaged. Elizabeth is not the “reasonable young woman” –like Lady Catherine’s daughter, in this case– that Lady Catherine deems worthy of marrying her nephew (340). Elizabeth “makes no promise” not to marry Mr. Darcy and, as per Elizabeth style, accepts his second proposal a mere few days later, much to Lady Catherine’s dismay (340). The commonalities of the time period that Pride and Prejudice takes place in make Elizabeth’s behavior stand out so much more starkly. A female protagonist so ahead of her time on the matters of gender roles and marriage relations was certainly a tool used by Austen to comment on the norms of Victorian society. Elizabeth could easily be labeled as a feminist character due to her self-governed personality. However, it is crucial to understand the time period when critiquing choices that the characters make. Elizabeth acceptance of Mr. Darcy’s hand in marriage and the choice not to tease him at the end of the novel do not mean that she becomes complacent and tamed. It simply means that she falls in love with a man and makes the decision to marry him on her own terms. It also means that she is intelligent enough to recognize the need for her to marry. Many modern day feminists choose to marry, have children, or even stay home with the children. Their doing so does not mean that they are submitting to the patriarchy because that is a misinterpretation of feminism. Feminism is about equality and the freedom for a woman to make decisions for herself, something that Elizabeth does throughout the novel from the first chapter to the last.
- Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Signet Classics, 2008.”Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s Most-Trusted Online Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/.