Feminism in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice concerns primarily of the social norms of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, in which was a patriarchal society ruled by men who held economic and social power. Pride and Prejudice has certain components that directly focus on the mixing of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy during the age of the Napoleonic wars and the beginning of an industrial revolution. Interested in the balance between pragmatism, or the necessity of securing a marriage, and idealism, particularly Elizabeth’s romanticism and individualism, Austen dramatizes her heroine’s struggle to find a place within the conservative and social institution of marriage.
During Elizabeth’s struggle, it is to be noted that she also beings to emerge as a feminist character. Through Elizabeth Bennett’s outburst at Lady Catherine de Bourgh, her lack of horizontal hostility and being described as sporty be Georgiana, one can see that towards the end of the novel Elizabeth Bennett truly emerges as the feminist character she only subtly began as. When Elizabeth meets with Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the Lady visits Elizabeth’s home, Lady de Bourgh confronts Elizabeth about her relationship with Mr. Darcy during which Elizabeth says to Lady de Bourgh “he is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” (Chapter 56, Page 306)
This is the first time in the novel that Elizabeth can truly be portrayed as a feminist character. Feminism is a doctrine that equates women and men equal, and this moment when Elizabeth declares herself equal to Mr. Darcy is when Elizabeth emerges as the feminist subtly hinted in the previous chapters. From the beginning of the book Elizabeth was merely an outspoken woman with many opinions to express and unafraid of being suppressed by those around her. She never truly equated herself with men or her oppressors, she never truly paved a true road for herself with her own virtues and ideas for success for her future, unlike Charlotte Lucas did by marrying Mr. Collins with only intentions of living a comfortable life. Feminism during that time is much different from how it has evolved to present time and a perfect example of a feminist during the era would be Charlotte Lucas.
Charlotte can be seen as a feminist instead of Elizabeth during the first chapters of Pride and Prejudice because of her ability to make firm decisions for herself not based on wanting solely to live for her husband’s every want and need. Charlotte states “I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins 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 a marriage state.” (Chapter 22, Page 109) Elizabeth, during these first many chapters, was much like a carefree and witty young lady, however by making such a strong statement against Lady de Bourgh, she has truly rose above that rank to a feminist woman. Equating herself with a man and that too of a much higher status than herself shows that she has not only grown as a feminist but also in the way that she has become comfortable with herself as who she is that she will not take criticism from anyone.
There is also a lack of horizontal hostility that is observed on the part of Elizabeth. Horizontal hostility is when members of an oppressed group fight amongst each other because they cannot vent their anger out on those in power. During the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century, the oppressed would be women and the oppressors would be the men and those of higher class. Women were treated as commodities and less valued therefore causing this horizontal hostility among their own kind. Women would normally pent out anger on each other by mocking, taunting, belittling and backstabbing each other. Elizabeth goes through various situations in which she can show this horizontal hostility against her fellow women. For example, Miss Bingley who seems to have a keen interest in Mr. Darcy however when she notices his apparent curiosity of Elizabeth, she begins to dislike Elizabeth bent on proving her flaws to him. Through this hate shown towards Elizabeth, she can easily put her anger on another woman or back on Ms. Bingley. However, she chooses not to and instead hits her oppressors directly. For example, her outburst at Lady Catherine de Bourgh; instead of walking away from that situation with her head bent in defeat and expressing her anger out on her sisters or friends Elizabeth promptly retaliates to Lady de Bourgh’s comments. This type of standing up for oneself shows the movement away from the conventional woman of that time to a more modern and self concerned woman.
The ultimate moment in the book when Elizabeth is truly emerged as a feminist is when Elizabeth is described as having a sporty demeanour by Georgiana. “Georgiana had the highest opinion in the world of Elizabeth; though at first she often listened with astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive manner of talking to her brother” (Chapter 61, Page 333) unlike Charlotte Lucas who took on the conventional role of a woman after marrying Mr. Collins and caring for him and his house, Elizabeth retains her livelihood and freedom after marriage. Through Georgiana’s surprise, it must be noted that women would conventionally change after being married, taking up the role of the homely caregiver submissive to her husband’s will. Sporty is defined as fond of or good at sports; describing Elizabeth as sporty gives her masculine qualities as it was the men that would play sports and be active.
Mary Wollstonecraft states “I heard exclamation against masculine woman, but where are they to be found? If by this appellation men mean to inveigh against, their ardour in hunting, shooting, and gaming, I shall most cordially join in the cry; but if it be against the imitation of manly virtues or, more properly speaking, the attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raises females in the scale of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind, all those who view them with a philosophic eye must, I think, wish with me, that they may everyday grow more and more masculine.” (A Vindication of the Rights of Women) In this, Wollstonecraft introduces that calling a woman masculine raises them to that pedestal of being a human being, having knowledge, talents and virtues – attributes of males. By describing Elizabeth as masculine, she automatically receives all these attributes being put, once again, as an equal to Mr. Darcy; this time, not only by herself but by those around her.
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett has been a constant headstrong personality. She has been able to speak with a range of people from bourgeois to the aristocratic comfortably with a sense of wittiness. However, these qualities did not show her feminist character, merely the makings of a feminist character. Clearly, Austen believes that women are at least as intelligent and capable as men, and considers their inferior status in society to be unjust. She herself went against convention by remaining single and earning a living through her novels. In her personal letters Austen advises friends only to marry for love.
Through the plot of the novel it is clear that Austen wants to show how Elizabeth is able to be happy by refusing to marry for financial purposes and only marrying a man whom she truly loves and esteems and living her life after marriage still being respected by her husband and being given freedom. Through her courage and ease at diligently talking back to Lady Catherine de Bourgh at her demeaning comments towards Elizabeth, her respect and empowerment for her womankind and by being described as sporty by Georgiana, Elizabeth emerges as the feminist that she merely hinted to be. Austen reflects her courage and feminine beliefs through Elizabeth, both true feminists.
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