FEMINIST UNDERTONES IN ‘PRIDE AND PREJUDICE’ Introduction Jane Austen authored the novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in 1813, a period in the social history of England that saw most women as best equipped for the private and domestic realm. An ideal woman was the picture of chastity, innocence and compliancy. Even women authors in this period were expected to adhere to genres that were considered to be solely their domain- the refined arts, household management, love, courtship, family life and fidelity in the face of temptation.
Although ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was primarily a romance between two free-thinking individuals, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, it has grave feminist undercurrents that are displayed to the reader in many incidents and conversations that ensue between the characters. The nineteenth century was one of progressive transience, especially for women who forged a new identity for themselves. Literature was a vital mouthpiece for their miseries. Jane Austen takes a strong jibe at the existing patriarchy under the more dulcet tones of feminine affairs like love, courtships, gossip and bitchery.
Austen’s protagonist Elizabeth Bennet is the second of five sisters in the Bennet family. Out of all her sisters, Elizabeth is the only one who exhibits a bent of mind that was rational and somewhat gumptious. Her principal concerns in life were not winning the affections of wealthy men in order to find herself a suitable match. Austen penned ‘Pride and Prejudice’ much prior to the time referred to as the age of New Woman Fiction and yet her writing is a powerful satire on the position of women in society and how this position limited their viewpoint to petty affairs.
A good instance of this is the character of Mrs. Bennet or even Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Jane Austen explores various facets of the middle class society of nineteenth century England, successfully giving a panoptic view of the prevalent social mores and mindsets, especially those pertaining to the status of women. The different characters in her novel render a variegated purview of feminist notions. The Character of Mrs. Bennet and Austen’s Satirical Critique From the opening lines of the story Mrs. Bennet is put forth as a dominating, albeit directing, force in the Bennet household.
Her very first dialogue with Mr. Bennet, wherein she tries to convince him to meet Mr. Bingley, a man of a fortune as handsome as his appearance, to try and fix a match for one of their daughters, is evident of her mindset. Her scope of interests in life is limited only to the stable marital settlement of her five daughters. Her husband is not of much interest to the reader because of his almost insipid outlook of affairs. Mrs. Bennet inspite of her condescending and parochial behavior is a multi dimensional character, interesting readers very much.
Her outragous schemes to send Jane on horseback to Netherfield so as to make her contract a cold to extend her stay at the Bingleys’ home, manage to shock those who believe in subtlety. Some critics have also referred to Mrs. Bennet as vulgar, a term too extreme for our times. However back then it probably had the connotation of something that was socially hideous. Mrs Bennet is also a prototype of how the women, repressed by society, had stopped striving for social and intellectual advancement. Mrs Bennet’s mental horizons are extremely narrow and she is not ashamed of this fact. Rather she is voluble, to an annoying extent.
Mrs Bennet is unable to meet the parameters of decent conduct and behaviour as illustrated in many instances throughout the story. Mr. Bingley’s sisters are extremely repelled by her brash outspokenness, so much so that they use it as a means to break off Mr. Bingley’s association with Jane. Mrs. Bennet also displays an almost obnoxious double standard towards Charlotte Lucas, a very close friend of Elizabeth, by demeaning her appearance in front of her daughters and also Mr. Bingley. However Mrs. Bennet also exhibits some positively feminine inclinations in the course of the novel.
One such instance can be her complete disdain for the fact that despite having five daughters, their estate should be inherited by Mr Collins, a complete stranger. Austen makes remarkable use of wit and sarcasm to impersonate Mrs. Bennet. Her novels use comic fiction as a chief means of exploring the individualisation of women’s lives and the revolution in the relation of the sexes at the beginning of the 19th century. Heroine Centric Novels Almost all of Jane Austen’s works feature a female protagonist and most of the other characters are women with a miscellenia of personalities.
Austen’s heroines are free spirited young women who have a wide horizon of interests, be it Emma Woodhouse (Emma), Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey), Marianne (Sense and Sensibility) or Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice). In all of these novels the heroine is shown to have her own subjectivity and opinions of life, rather than play a restricted role in the background of the plot. Austen’s stories portray women and the problems faced by them in their daily life through a union of comic and moral indignation. Robert M Polhemus writes, Austen was disposed through comic license to ridicule the inadequacies and constraints of her society. ” Through a lens of satire, Austen gave a candid view of the existing social, financial and sexual hierarchies in the middle class landed gentry of eighteenth century England. Women are a prime focus in all her stories and their methods of dealing with situations relating to love, marriage, family, inheritance and courtships. Virginia Woolf once said, “Austen’s characters are so rounded and substantial that people treat them as if they are ‘living people’. ” The heroines in the novels had enough agency to exercise their will.
They overcame obstacles very modernisitically. In the novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the social world of Elizabeth, is scrupulously described, but within these limitations, the heroine as well as the hero, Mr. Darcy are allowed to achieve self expression. Love and marriage for them signify the control of egoism and misperception and the regenerative merging of the self with the ongoing community. With their earnest tone, clear narrative line, contemporary settings, drama and pathos, Jane Austen’s writings become a persuasive communicator of significant beliefs and values.
Elizabeth Bennet is a vivacious young woman who, inspite of living in a society that curtailed the thoughts and actions of the fairer sex, lived freely and almost on her own terms. Her opinions of people and situations are rational and her sense of judgement is almost always sound. She possesses not only intelligence but is also sharp and has a great presence of mind. She reads books, plays the piano and loves walking in the outdoors, an act deeply condemned by Mrs Bennet as well as the Bingley sisters as not ladylike. However these attributes endear her even more to Mr. Darcy.
Rachel Trickett, in her essay ‘Manners and Society’, writes “Jane Austen singles out the snobbery and limitation to censure it. She is the enemy of any kind of distinction that fails to take into account personal merit, worth and intelligence. ” Elizabeth has clarity of thought and farsightedness that helps her to see things in the right perspective. Early in the novel she is depicted as being arrogant of her wit and her accuracy in judging the social behaviour and intentions. She believes not in a marriage of economic convenience, but in a marriage that is a result of love.
Her acuity and sharpness is much admired by her friends, acquaintances and men who look to court her. However Elizabeth’s quickness also sometimes leads her to misunderstand the actions of others, like in the case of Mr. Wickham’s opnions of Mr. Darcy which are dispelled after she receives Darcy’s self explainatory letter, following his first proposal of marriage to her. Through Elizabeth, Austen tries to promote the image of a sovereign identity of a woman who is as subjective as her male counterparts. Narrative style used to convey feminist theme
The novel in some instances does objectify men, though in obvious humour. This is hinted in the opening lines of the story, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrouding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. ” The author gives an exhaustive overview of each character’s mindset, adhering to no stereotypes.
The man and the woman are treated equally, the description of their human psyche not influenced by any sexual convention. Their characteristic virtues and shortfalls are viewed through an objective lens. Mr. Darcy’s disposition isn’t perfect, nor is Elizabeth’s. If Mrs. Bennet is shown to be an annoying, domineering figure then Mr. Bennet’s sarcasm and witty remarks are equated with almost indifference. Jane’s kindness is sometimes over-the-top and in many instances harms her own situation rather than helping her. Charlotte Lucas’ marriage of convenience to Mr. Collins doesn’t turn out to be exactly as comfortable as she had imagined.
From the above examples, one may say that Austen’s narrative style is lucidly analytical of personal psyches, interpersonal relationships and social mores. The heroine is a woman of substance, not bowing to set patterns of society. The strings of relationships are drawn and managed by her while the men, though attractive in their characterization are usually arranged in the backdrop. Jane Austen cannot be called a feminist openly, because she never ventured into this foray directly. Rather, her works contain her feminist recollections running collateral to the story, which can be easily enough interpreted.
Austen’s writings cannot be termed as a feminist rhetoric because they positively lean towards a humourous critical overview of the prevalent attitude towards women in the middle classes of England and the usual perception one had of them. Austen’s representation of the characters and incidents in familiar context to the readers made their acquaintance with her feminist impartations more intimate. One could connect and emapathise with the characters due to their individuality and familiar spirit. Elizabeth Bennet could easily be imagined as one’s own sister, friend or neighbour.
Thorugh the novel, Austen doesn’t disgrace any character for cutting through conventions. For instance, frivoulous Lydia is finally honourably united to Wickham. By the mores of her own society, Lydia must, and it turns out to be no great embarrassment or humiliation to either party. Their fate is that they deserve each other and are completely unabashed by their mutual unworthiness (a very different conclusion from the conventional fate of the ruined girl in the late- eighteenth-century novel and a comic reversal of the expected and entirely typical of Jane Austen’s realism.
Jane Austen’s own childhood and upbringing indicates that despite rigid codes of manners in the conduct of everyday life, the education and sphere of action of a young woman of the time was considerably less restricted. Her writings denounce the objectification of women for social dissection and analysis. Arnold Kettle, in his 1951 essay on ‘Emma’, saw Jane Austen’s highly critical concern over the fate of women in her society as a “positive vibration”. Austen showed a clear and commitment to the rational principle on which women of the Enlightenment based their case.
Many parallels have been drawn between Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Austen herself, illustrating the positively feminine and rational side of the author. In a Victorian social structure that had incorporated an idealized version of femininity, repressing the woman figure into the margins, Austen’s fresh approach to regarding women in a progressive light, through literature has been widely acknowledged and appreciated. She is very often referred to as the most loved feminists of all time. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet breathes life into a new perception of a New Woman.
BIBLIOGRAPHY 1. Grey, J. David ed. The Jane Austen Handbook ( London, 1986) 2. Southam, B. C. ed Jane Austen- The Critical Heritage (London and New York, 1968) 3. Watt, Ian “Introduction to Jane Austen- A Collection of critical essays” (Englewood Cliffs. N. J. , 1963) 4. Luria, Gina The Feminist Controversy in England (New York, 1972) 5. Kirkham, Margaret Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction (London, 1982) 6. Harman, Clare Jane’s Fame, How Jane Austen Conquered the World (Edinburgh, 2009)
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