Pride and Prejudice: Exposing Social Structures Without Judging Them
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has long been a topic of discussion when considering the social structures and the implications of these in the 1700s. Praised and criticized for the assumed motives and intention of her writing, Austen brought about a different perspective and style to the literature of her time. Pride and Prejudice broke the mold set forth by the writers that came before her in that it didn’t serve as a fantasy of romanticized fictitious characters but rather it painted life as it really was on a daily basis. Austen wrote of what she knew and this novel served as a canvass to depict the society in which she lived and affirm the structures that went along with it. Upon a first reading, it may appear that Pride and Prejudice strives to belittle the social structures of the time period it depicts by pointing out its flaws. However, upon closer examination, it can be seen that Pride and Prejudice doesn’t seek to challenge the norm, nor is its goal to debunk the beliefs that may be attached to the study of the social structures of that time period. Instead the novel acknowledges social structures without endorsing them. The book uses an ever-changing narrator’s voice to give an inside perspective of the social stigmas of its time while exposing the ways in which these affect the human participants of the society that constructs them. Pride and Prejudice upholds traditional views of power and social structures without casting an opinion of them on the reader. It merely presents that world in a way that it can be more effortlessly understood and analyzed.
It can be said that Austen’s goal with Pride and Prejudice is to belittle the social structures of its time period by showing how they negatively affect the women of that society. Austen’s apparent female cynicism throughout the novel reflects a somewhat deeply-rooted hatred of the social constructs by which women (Austen included) had to abide by at the time.
Upon a closer examination, however, it can be seen that Austen in fact doesn’t display a clear stance on whether or not she agrees with the social structures. She renounces any attempt at a subjective moral classification of the social constructs she writes about. She merely exposes them for the reader to interpret. Showing neither disdain nor compliance, she is able to provide a better perspective on which the reader can judge whether they are necessary or absurd; or perhaps, to be more concise, whether they are right or wrong. By pairing instances in which people are negatively affected, (such as the Bennett family knowing they will lose their estate when the father dies because he has no male heirs, as is mandated by social order) with examples of the reasons behind having these structures in the first place, she succeeds in painting a society that is both accurate and debatable without implementing her own opinions on the matter. Austen strives to present a clear depiction of the virtues of a civilized social order while maintaining that this is not necessarily the best case scenario for everyone affected by it.
Austen always makes the reader aware of the reality of that society, even as she allows Elizabeth to get her way. The rules and expectations by which people, especially females must abide by are demonstrated to be unexceptional, even for Elizabeth. The only sensible response to the rigidity of these regulations is toleration and acceptance. Here the pursuit of personal happiness must be balanced by awareness and an understanding of the responsibility one has to their family as well as how this pursuit will affect them. It can be seen first-hand that there are drawbacks to pursuing one’s desires without regard of the consequences. The consequences of not abiding by these structures are made evident with Lydia’s escape with Mr. Wickham. After Lydia puts her sister’s fate in jeopardy by running away unmarried, Mr. Darcy has to step in and save the situation before she completely disgraces herself and her family. By arranging for Wickham to marry Lydia, Darcy preserved not only her reputation but also her sisters’. This incident is a clear demonstration for both Elizabeth and the reader that there are dire consequences to going against the social structures in place that affect more than just oneself.
The time period consisted of an organized society of families. The social structures are carried out clearly throughout the different families. Austen emphasizes, through several examples in the novel, the concept that a man and woman could, if intent upon it live in agreeable comfort and happiness even if the marriage was not necessarily constructed out of love. This can be seen in the union between Mr. and Mrs. Bennett. Charlotte also articulates a separate notion of happiness in marriage: “I wish Jane success with all my heart; and if she were married to-morrow, I should think she has as good a chance of happiness, as if she were to study his character for a twelve-month. Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance…It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life”. Charlotte’s words not only exemplify the realness of the circumstances that most women of her time find themselves in, but it also serves as a sort of ominous foreshadowing that perhaps marrying for love will end in the demise of the marriage and of the happiness of those that think themselves above the social structures set forth for them, mainly, Elizabeth.
It is this notion that exemplifies how economic and social standings have a very real power over the values of personal relationships, mainly of marriage. Mr. Collins proposal to Elizabeth further acknowledges the fact when he lists out the reasons for his intent to marry her: “First, I think it the right thing for every clergyman… Secondly, I am convinced it will add greatly in my happiness; and thirdly-which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of [my] patroness”. The order in which he ranks his reasons is an indication that his mentality is very much set on marrying for convenience, as is the custom amongst his society. His first reason is that it is the right thing to do. The implications of this choice are that it brings up the differences in motives for marriage, especially after Elizabeth rejects his proposal. Mr. Collins’s reasons don’t include anywhere any attempt at claiming a love or even a particular attachment to Elizabeth herself. In fact he even mentions his intent to marry one of the sisters from the beginning, never specifying that Elizabeth wasn’t even his first choice. When Elizabeth initially refuses Mr. Collins’ proposal, her friend Charlotte ends up taking his hand in marriage. The implications of this marriage are very clear to Elizabeth, especially when she realizes that the reasons for Charlotte’s choice- high-standing in society, ambition and security- are the very reasons Elizabeth refused him. This engagement serves as a demonstration of the necessity to take heed of the power that social structures have over one’s assumed or expected happiness in life. In a way, it serves to show Charlotte as a symbol of society for Elizabeth, particularly because it hits so close to home. Charlotte even explains herself to her: “I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state”. Both of these scenes represent the expectations of the community and how they affect people as well as rigidity in contrast with adaptability to the current circumstances one finds oneself in.
Ultimately, Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s way of acknowledging the social structures of her time without blatantly endorsing them. She gives a clearer understanding of the time period so the reader can have a context in which to base their judgments of these structures on. It would be unrealistic and uncharacteristic of Austen’s personality to write about her time period whilst ignoring the rules that bind her society. However, with the rise of urbanization, young people had more opportunities to go out into the world and discover their own desires. Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s way to demonstrate that she is not blind to that fact, but that the ideals of the current society shouldn’t necessarily be tossed because of this. Elizabeth is the exception, not a precedent for future unions to follow. There is ultimately reasoning behind the social structures and although there is an increase in the emergence of affective individualism and a rise in companionate marriage, it is also important to consider the effects of these actions on one’s family and on the society in which this takes place. It can be seen first-hand that there are drawbacks to pursuing one’s desires without regard for the consequences. But there are, however, no implicit reasons why such exceptions can’t be made, when it comes to matters of true love.