The Feminist Perspective in Austen’s Novel
“If marriage be such a blessed state, how comes it, may you say, that there are so few happy marriages?” (Astell 2421). Marriage is one of the main themes of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a key motivator for many of its characters. Set during the Napoleonic Wars (1797–1815), the novel features marriage as a formally unified institution; however, the personal motivations to get married differ greatly. In Some Reflections upon Marriage, predating Austen’s novel by over a hundred years, Mary Astell explores the dysfunctional motivations leading to marriage and the results that may be expected. Applying her views to the marriages in Pride and Prejudice suggests that the ladies in Austen’s novel would have done better to take her advice into consideration; according to Astell, most of the unions are conceived from faulty motivations, and therefore will not provide happiness to their participants. Astell’s feminist perspective on marriage was radical in those times. Nowadays, as a typical happy ending in novels and films alike, marriage “represents in their [feminists’] view submission to a masculine narrative imperative” (Newman 693). Indeed, Karen Newman argues that Pride and Prejudice’s fairy-tale ending does not devalue the work from a feminist perspective, but that the novel’s attention to the conflicts in the situations of women around the turn of the eighteenth century is more valuable than “parody[ing] male models of action” (705). Exploring Austen’s novel from seemingly clashing feminist perspectives will show the intricate commentary upon the position of women in society that this work holds, from the developing plot to what appears to be a happy ending.
In Some Reflections Upon Marriage, Astell argues that the first enquiry of a man looking for a spouse deals with her worth; how wealthy is she, how many acres of land will she bring him? These considerations are most notably expressed by Mr. Darcy, as he explains to Elizabeth Bennet his attempt to prevent Mr. Bingley from proposing to her sister, Jane. Darcy calls “The situation of your mother’s family”(Austen 228), meaning their lower social class and less than moderate wealth, “objectionable”(228). Marrying for wealth is a motivation surfacing in Austen’s work several times: Wickham, who ends up marrying Lydia Bennet, only agrees to do so after Darcy promises to pay off his debts and the Bennets guarantee him a small income. Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins, whom Elizabeth rejected, musing that marriage is “the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.” (163). Charlotte does not romanticize her marriage; living a relatively comfortable life is her main objective, and happiness is a secondary consideration. Some Reflections Upon Marriage puts the main focus on the aim of being happily married, and so the closing statement on the topic of marrying for wealth clashed with Charlotte’s view: “But as an estate is to be considered, so it should not be the main, much less the only consideration; for happiness does not depend on wealth.” (2421).
If financial security is not the main consideration when selecting a partner, it must be a rare case of marrying for love; Astell argues that there is not such a big difference between “marrying for the love of money, or for the love of beauty; the man does not act according to reason in either case, but is governed by irregular appetites” (2422). Perhaps the clearest example of marrying for the love of beauty is the union between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet; “[Mr. Bennet] captivated by youth and beauty . . . had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her” (262). Astell adds that, apart from obscuring someone’s less attractive personality, beauty also has a tendency to fade. Darcy’s love for Elizabeth centers on her wit and personality; for many, this would seem convincing as a foundation for a happy marriage. However, Astell argues that wit’s greatest attraction is its surprising, light and unaccountable nature; it has no “real excellency and value in itself” (2422) and therefore will not entertain for long. Especially in the case of Elizabeth, with her outspokenness that can be characterized as temper at some moments, it is not improbable that Darcy will “provoke such a wife to exercise her wit, that is, her spleen on him, and then it is not hard to guess how very agreeable it will be to him”(2422). Lydia Bennet, whose eloping with Wickham causes a scene short of a scandal, can be seen to be motivated by love as well. As mentioned before, Astell acknowledges the need to consider an estate; both Lydia and Wickham have no money to their name when they decide to elope. Lydia’s motivation of marrying for love can only end in regret, according to Astell: “there could be no real kindness between those who can agree to make each other miserable”(2421).
During the time Pride and Prejudice was set, women could not properly be said to have a choice regarding whom they wanted to marry; all they could do was decline or accept the offer(s) made to them (Astell 2422). Astell encourages women to learn, to be educated and to improve themselves; women should be taught that getting a husband is not the highest design they can have. This feminist view is supported to some extent by Elizabeth; not simply does she reject the relatively wealthy Mr. Collins’ proposal because she knows their marriage will not be a happy one, she even declines Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, ignoring his considerable wealth and status, which would raise her into the higher ranks of society and provide her with a comfortable life. Both times Elizabeth weighs her severe dislike of her suitor’s person more heavily than the advantages the marriage would entail. These decisions show that Elizabeth refuses to be motivated by wealth when it comes to marriage, and reveal that obtaining a husband is not her first priority. Eventually, realizing that she judged Darcy’s character too rashly, she relents and agrees to marry him when he proposes for the second time. Elizabeth, too, falls into the trap of marrying for love – though some argue she is more motivated by wealth than she lets on (Newman 698).
The only reason for a woman to get married, according to Astell, is a heroic self-sacrifice as a service to God and mankind, an act which may well earn her a place in Heaven after this life; none of the women in Austen’s novel seem to have this motive. All seem to take a selfish perspective, marrying to obtain a comfortable life for themselves, to avoid a scandal, or to conclude a search for happiness. Additionally, apart from Elizabeth and Darcy, none of the couples seem to waste any time in tying the knot. In the case of Charlotte, Mr. Collins’ affections are transferred from Elizabeth to her in a matter of days, resulting in an engagement the very next day. Astell states the following: “’tis less to be wondered at that women marry off in haste, for perhaps if they took time to consider and reflect upon it, they seldom would.” (2424). Pride and Prejudice gives no indication of how happily married these couples turn out to be, apart from Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Their marriage does not benefit them or their children: “Had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. . . she had never felt so strongly as now, the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage.” (262) Astell’s predictions seem to have come true in this case, since faulty motivations result in an unhappy marriage.
Elizabeth’s ‘happily ever after’ scenario seems to disagree with Astell’s considerations, and even feminist perspectives on marriage as a whole; the strong female protagonist’s character seems to decline and she is required to “dwindle by degrees into a wife” (Newman 693). Newman emphasizes that marriage “does after all refer to a real social institution that, in the nineteenth century particularly, robbed women of their human rights.” (694), a situation that the seemingly cheerful ending seems to romanticize. Adding this view to the comparison of Astell’s work to the novel suggests that Pride and Prejudice is anything but a feminist work, at least judging by its depiction of marriage. However, Newman argues that the ending should not be seen as the determining factor: “by reading [the] novel as a unity with romantic marriage as its final statement, we impose a resolution . . . that makes it conform to the very expectations for women and novels that Austen’s irony constantly undermines.” (694). This irony is visible in the way Austen seems to emphasize the discrepancy between society´s ideal of love and its implicit monetary motivation; her depictions of unsatisfactory marriages and frequent use of economic language to describe human relationships prevent the reader from dismissing Pride and Prejudice as a romantic love story in which women´s greatest reward in life is marriage (Newman 695). Another way in which Austen’s irony shines through has to do with creating an “artificial plausibility” (696), as gaps of knowledge about or plausibility of the narrative are filled by “authorial commentary [which] justifies the plot” (696). The novel’s first sentence sets the tone for the rest of the narrative: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Austen 51). It is worth noting that neither of the men who fit this description seem to be in a hurry to get married; on the contrary, it seems the young ladies with no property to their names, such as the Bennet sisters and Charlotte Lucas, are the ones in dire want of a spouse. The function of the opening line does not seem to be justification, “but exposure, for it serves as a continual ironic reminder of the discrepancy or gap between social convention and economic necessity. . . Austen creates a deliberate disjunction between received opinion and social reality.” (696)
The irony Newman describes sheds a new light on the tone of Pride and Prejudice; the narrative, which seems to go against Astell’s main principles in her feminist essay on marriage, actually supports her views on marriage to a certain extent. Though seemingly subtle, the novel holds a commentary upon society as a whole and most importantly marriage and its motivational ambiguity. The happy ending does not necessarily devalue the plot: Austen’s protagonist leads a powerful life “within the limits imposed by ideology. . . [She] redefine[s] what we think of as power, helping us to avoid the trap that traditional male definitions of power present, arguing that a woman’s freedom is not simply a freedom to parody male models of action.” (Newman 705). Pride and Prejudice can be seen as a novel with a feminist tone, which it vocalizes through ironic constructions as opposed to the superficial narrative.
Astell, Mary. “Some Reflections Upon Marriage” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. London: Norton, 2012. 2420-2424. Print.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972. Print.
Newman, Karen. “Can This Marriage Be Saved: Jane Austen Makes Sense of an Ending.” ELH 50.4 (1983): 693-710. JSTOR. Web. 8 June 2016.
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