The themes of class and class consciousness
The themes of class and class consciousness, as seen in Pride and Prejudice, strictly regulate the daily lives of middle and upper class men and women at this period in England. In her novel, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen portrays class-consciousness mainly through the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth as it was from when they first met until the time when Elizabeth visits Pemberley . Austin also shows class-consciousness through many of the other characters in the novel, such as Mr. Collins, who spends most of his time praising and exaggerating the grandeur of his upper-class patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Though Mr. Collins seems to be an extreme example, there are many other class-conscious characters in this novel as well. His perception of the importance of class is shared, among others, by Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Miss Bingley, and Wickham. Mr. Collins’s views are merely the most extreme and obvious. Jane Austen shows the ability of people to overcome these class boundaries and prejudices with the power of love, through the marriages of Elizabeth and Darcy, and Jane and Bingley, therefore implying that such prejudices are meaningless, unnecessary, and unproductive.
Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are some of the more extreme examples of class-consciousness within Pride and Prejudice, and are being used by Austin to accentuate the themes of class and class-consciousness, which exists in many people throughout various levels or classes of society. “I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments…her daughter seemed to be born a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her.” (P.66) This quote, in which Mr. Collins is addressing the Bennets regarding Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is one of the many examples of Mr. Collins’ superficial remarks, which greatly exaggerates the grandeur of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and in this instance her daughter as well. “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great Proficient. And so would Anne…” (P.169)
Lady Catherine de Bourgh is addressing Elizabeth and Darcy in this quote. This shows her arrogance, and the air of superiority that she carries, especially when in the presence of people of a lower class, in this instance, Elizabeth, Mr. Collins, and Charlotte. “…If you wilfully act against the inclinations of all, you will be censured, slighted, and despised by every one connected to him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never be mentioned by any of us.” (P.336) This quote illustrates exactly how Lady Catherine de Bourgh feels about people of a lower class. She looks upon them condescendingly, feels that they are inferior to herself, and thinks that any connection to them would be a disgrace.
Miss Bingley and Mr. Wickham, both of whom are substantially class-conscious, though to a lesser degree when in comparison to characters such as Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, are used by Austin in her novel to support the themes of class and class-consciousness, which have already been introduced into the novel by other characters. “…When she did come, it was evident that she had no pleasure in it; she made a slight formal apology for not calling before…” (P.146) Jane is addressing Elizabeth in her letter regarding Miss Bingley’s visit while they were in London. Miss Bingley bears an inordinate disdain for anyone of a lower class than herself, this is shown through her changed attitude towards Jane when she visits her in “cheepside”, the slum of London.
The relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth is used by Austin to show that class-consciousness and class boundaries can be overcome through certain life experiences, which educates and enlightens the character, in this instance Darcy, allowing them to see that prejudices such as class boundaries are trivial and meaningless. “…there were other causes of repugnance…the situation of your mother’s family, though objectionable…the total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters…” (P.193) From the time when he first appeared in the novel until the point where his marriage proposal is rejected by Elizabeth, Darcy, not unlike Miss Bingley, or Lady Catherine de Bourgh, was class-conscious, and condescending towards people of a lower class, thinking that they were inferior to himself, as shown in the quote above.
“The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expression during the whole of it…inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied… ‘had you behaved in a more gentleman like manner’” (P.347) Darcy is addressing Elizabeth regarding his conduct at the time of his first proposal to her. Though it is impossible for Darcy to lose all of his class-consciousness, he managed to overcome much of it by breaking the class barriers between himself and Elizabeth, through their marriage.
Throughout the novel Pride and Prejudice, class and class-consciousness remain as some of the more important themes, constantly being shown through the more closed-minded characters of the novel, such as Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Miss Bingley, and Darcy as he was at the beginning of the novel, while being nonexistent in the more open-minded characters of the novel such as Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth, Mr. Bingley, and Darcy as he was in the latter parts of the novel. In this novel, Austin, uses class and class-consciousness not only to differentiate between the open and closed minded characters, but also to show that the position one is born into, and the boundaries and levels in society set up by a select group of elite aristocrats can be overcome through the power of love.
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