Analysis of Feminism in Pride and Prejudice

Categories: Jane Austen

Abstract:Pride and Prejudice is a marvellous novel of Jane Austen. Although in her age, women are regarded as emotional, weak, nurturing, and submissive, Austen depicts her heroine, Elizabeth as a woman who has her own perspectives, feelings, and opinions. This paper analyses feminism in Pride and Prejudice from its progressive and conservative aspects. The former is reflected from the perspective of the way of narration and depiction of Elizabeth, while the latter is illustrated when this novel is confined in patriarchal society, that is, it compromises with custom and tradition of its time.

Key words: feminism, female’s narrative perspective, depiction of Elizabeth, compromise.

1. Introduction Pride and Prejudice is famous as a masterpiece of Jane Austen for centuries. Many factors contribute to the success of it. The plot is absorbing: it tells how the hero, Darcy gets rid of his pride and the heroine, Elizabeth gets over her prejudice and to know each other and how they finally get married.

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The writing technique is noticeable as well. Narrative perspective from Elizabeth influences readers’ judgement, which causes readers’ misunderstanding of Darcy at the beginning.

The correction of Elizabeth’s understanding of Darcy’s real character in the last chapters creates one of the climaxes in this novel. Austen’s language is witty and concise, and many words are full of wisdom and humor. We can observe Austen’s feminism in Pride and Prejudice, although she may not realize it. The narration from a female’s perspective is worth mentioning. It provides us with a different world from a male’s view.

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Women are placed in the center of narration. In the novel, Elizabeth is outstanding among those women. She is a woman who thinks she is equal with men. However, feminism in this novel is conservative, for Austen did not go beyond social custom in her day. There is something against feminism. Women are passive and dependent on man economically. I will analyze the progressiveness and conservatism in this novel.

A rough knowledge of Austen’s writing background is helpful for us to understand the analysis better. The story happens in the late eighteenth or the early nineteenth century in a British rural country which is similar to Austen’s life environment. In Austen’s day, for women did not work outside like men, their economic status is quite low. Lack of economic independence also suggests that women have to rely on men after marriage if they want to live decently. Inequality in economy leads to women’s dependence. Inequality caused by social custom also affects women’s social status. The inferior position long occupied by women in patriarchal society has been culturally, not biologically, produced. (Hornsby, 257) Men were regarded as governors of society, while women as objects governed by them. Even women themselves did not think they were as equal as men.

They accepted it as a truth that men were innately superior to them. However, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is against this traditional view. She has much confidence on her intelligence and judgment and at the time she is against tradition to some extent. Elizabeth’s distinction is a statement of Austen’s awakening of feminism. This paper appreciates the female’s perspective of narration in Pride and Prejudice and the way that Austen depicts Elizabeth as a woman who has similar viewpoint with feminists. Meanwhile, this paper notices that the novel has its limitation in terms of feminism. This paper analyses feminism in Pride and Prejudice from its progressive and conservative aspects

2. Progress in Terms of Feminism

2.1 The Female’s Narrative Perspective Special viewpoint is important to convey the idea and life experience of the narrator and even the writer. (Min Jie, 65) In traditional novels, the narrators are almost males, and male characters are usually in the center of narration. Then it is not strange that men’s thoughts and experience are talked about but those of women are neglected. In a man’s narration, females are objects of observation; they are passive and have no discursive power. (Cheshire, 158) The image of females is simplified and polarized.

There are only two kinds of girls: good girls or bad girls. Good girl accepts her traditional gender role and obeys the patriarchal rules, while bad girl is the opposite. (Tyson, 38) The well-rounded character of females in real life does not get much attention. The image of women is materialized, partly out of men’s imagination. They build the image according to their expectation, taking for granted women’s real feelings. Therefore, women’s feelings are not hearkened and their feelings not perceived. This is a kind of neglect and even more discrimination. Fortunately Austen made a bold try in the men-governed novel world. Virginia Wolf once said that men and women’s concerns are significantly different. (Min Jie, 25) They understand things differently. Something that is trivial in men’s eyes is probably very important in women’s eyes. Austen transformed the narrative perspective from male-centred to female-centred, emphasizing the consciousness of female subjectivity.

She shows to readers how females react to the world. The story goes not with the affairs around the males, but with females’ life experience and feelings. Women are given discursive power, which is a rare case in traditional novels. Austen made great efforts to change the rules in patriarchy. In this novel, Austen purposely limits her privilege of narration. In the first ten chapters, the novel has an omniscient narrator who takes care of all the things and people. It shows basic background information to readers. As the story goes on, we get interested in Elizabeth and therefore the view begins to be concentrated on her naturally. She becomes the heroine and the whole narration is confined to her world. What she sees and hears is the only way for us to obtain information. Her attitudes and thoughts inevitably influence our judgment. In other words, females that are narrated and controlled in traditional novels are endowed the discursive power.

They have the right to talk about their opinions and make judgment. In the Bible, God takes out a rib from Adam to create Eve. This archetype all the time underlies the domination and superiority of males. In contrast, females are repressed and even they themselves could not see their identity clearly. They are as daughters, wives and mothers. In short, they live for men. Nevertheless, in Pride and Prejudice, men are observed and judged. They become the “other”, which Simone de Beauvoir called women. Austen’s description of males also impacts on the authority of patriarchy. Elizabeth points out Darcy’s pride and after self-reflection, he corrects it. He gets improved with the help of Elizabeth. To some extent, Elizabeth plays the role of his tutor. (Zhang zhisong, 12)

This is quite unusual in traditional novels. Austen changes the fact that males are placed above females. In Pride and Prejudice, females become the subjects of narration and men are learned. The discursive power mastered by men is now shared by women as well. Austen deconstructed the male-centred narration and helped eliminate the discrimination against women in writing tradition. In the novel, the narration from a female’ viewpoint is a challenge to the authority of patriarchy. Meanwhile, Austen made a big step in the history of female literature.

2.2 Depiction of Elizabeth

Austen’s feminism is mainly embodied in her depiction of Elizabeth. Different from traditional women, Elizabeth is no longer someone to please males, nor one to obey patriarchy. She is confident and independent and charming in personality. Austen starts to mould Elizabeth from the view that women are born equal with men in intelligence. This view reflects the confidence Austen has on women. She had a new view of women, which is shown in the description of Elizabeth’s character from different aspects. In Jane Austen’s day, an accomplished woman must have a general knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and modern languages. Besides, she must pay attention to her manners, dress and expressions. (Cai Lanlan, 85)

Girls are educated in this way not for their sake or to cultivate their minds. However, the accomplishments are to attract a good husband, especially a wealthy one. Girls practice these skills to acquire a key to open the door of a happy marriage. Once they get married, these accomplishments are usually abandoned. Nevertheless, Elizabeth is quite different from traditional women. She does not learn the accomplishments tradition and society encourage girls to acquire. She is elegant in a special way. She prefers extensive reading to cultivate her mind. She admits frankly that she does not sing or play the piano well. She does not think it is a shame, either. Her rebellion against traditional accomplishments shows that she is conscious of the identity of females. She rejects to be the tool to please males. She prefers pursuing spiritual fulfilment.

She would like to be a fully developed person whose mind is really educated, rather than just someone’s wife. Austen does not approve women’s absolute obedience. She rebels against it when necessary. Elizabeth is special for she is bold enough to challenge the feudal ethics. To ensure the health of her sister, Jane at Netherfield, Elizabeth walks three miles in a bad day by herself regardless of her mother’s opposition. “With weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise”, (Austen, 31) she entered Netherfield, leaving the Bingley sisters despise her successfully. She does not care about her indecent dress, or Bingley sisters’ contempt. From that point, we can see Elizabeth’s detachment from traditional shackles. Elizabeth does not feel humble when encountered with people who are in higher position. She is courageous to refute unjustified reproaches to her as well. To some unreasonable requirements, she can respond forcefully.

In Austen’s eyes, Elizabeth is the embodiment of self-esteem and courage. When Lady Catherine forces her to promise that she would refuse Darcy if he asked her to marry him, she refutes that she will pursue her happiness without reference to Lady Catherine or anyone unconnected with her. (Austen, 367) She is not threatened by someone who has higher social rank. She does not feel shy or cowardly when marriage is mentioned before her, although traditional women in her day are asked to behave in opposite. Elizabeth is intelligent and insightful. She is good at studying character and analyzing herself as well. What concerns her most is not something superficial, such as wealth or status when making judgment on others, but something in nature. She also reflects herself. It is her self-analysis that makes her notice her prejudice against Darcy and then rebuilds her knowledge about him. Elizabeth is somewhat “a studier of character”. (Austen, 88)

This is quite precious for in previous novels, women are observed by others and women’s perspectives on the world are seldom mentioned. Elizabeth is independent and strong-minded, which come from her confidence. Once she defines something is right and worthy to be done, no one can change her mind. She has strong faith in her judgment, though she does not always make the right decision. This forms a contrast with Jane, who is a representative of traditional girls. She knows her own mind less than Elizabeth does. There is another example to show Elizabeth’s good will. When her younger sister, Lydia elopes with Wickham, it is Elizabeth who plays a crucial role in solving the problem, while her mother just falls in illness due to worry. Her independence makes her less influenced by others and she can behave on her own will. Her confidence leads her to deal with emergency calmly and orderly. Her attitude towards marriage is worth mentioning.

She perceives that love should be an important element in marriage, which is quite important. That can be seen in her refusal of Mr. Collins’ proposal. Though she is poor and her family suggests her joint with a man who is to inherit her father’s property, (Carson, 21) she refuses to marry a man who she despises. She rejects marriage which does not include love. In her eyes, marriage is not a transaction, in which a man exchanges a wife with fortune. It seems a humiliation to her that people regard marriage as a trade. She insists that love be the foundation of marriage. That forms a contrast with her intimate friend, Charlotte, who marries Mr. Collins to get rid of possible poverty in later life. There is something else that matters in marriage for Elizabeth. She believes that marriage should also be based on equality and respect between husband and wife.

Elizabeth does not accept Darcy’s first proposal for she feels his sense of her inferiority and she is annoyed by Darcy’s pride. After realizing her misjudgement on Darcy and Darcy’s change of his pride, they both become more mature and understand each other more. They help each other improve their personality. They are lovers as well as friends. Therefore, not only love but also esteem exists between them. Men and women are free to choose their spouses, but their affection should be tempered by reason and with respect. (Cai Lanlan, 19) Elizabeth has a lot of courage to pursue her happiness, which is precious in her day.

Elizabeth is wise, independent, confident and strong-minded, and much feminism is reflected on her character. Austen does not mould her as a perfect figure. Elizabeth commits prejudice against Wickham and Darcy, which makes big mistakes. However, Austen means no criticism to her imperfection but a challenge to the traditional creation of heroes or heroines, who were perfect in many priory novels. Austen made a change. The imperfection on Elizabeth makes her more real and distinctive; she is even more charming due to her shortcomings. Meanwhile, this kind of writing is more valuable according to aesthetic. (Ma Wenting, 69)

3. Conservatism in Terms of Feminism

Austen did make much contribution to feminism. She advocated that females should be sensible and independent. Elizabeth is a figure whose consciousness of feminism is much more advanced than that of other women in her day. However, limited by social custom and education she received, Austen was not radical as some feminists of nowadays. She was a pioneer in the field of feminism, but her consciousness was weak and conservative. Influenced by patriarchal culture, she could not escape from tradition thoroughly. She made a compromise with social custom, so there is something against feminism in this novel. In love, females are objects of being chosen. In marriage, women still depend on men in material. Only by males’ approval can females fulfil their values. This paper also explains the conservatism in terms of feminism in this novel. In patriarchy, women nearly have no rights to choose the ones they are fond of. They are not allowed to be active in love.

Women are asked to show as few feelings as possible. When Elizabeth sheds her prejudice against Darcy, she falls in love with him immediately. However, instead of telling her feelings to him at once, she has to wait until Darcy makes a proposal to her again. If Darcy got offended by her refusal and never asked her to marry him again, probably Elizabeth would miss the chance. (Ji Ying, 47) Elizabeth is the best-loved figure by Austen, but she still can not get rid of the confinement from social custom. Jane pretends to be detached from Bingley’s affection due to the restraint of the rules. It is her restraint that puzzles Bingley and almost ends their relationship. All women can do is to wait for the coming of love and sometimes even accept a proposal against their will.

They have no freedom to choose husbands, not mention to pursue them. In marriage, for men and women are not equal in economy, women have to rely on their husbands. At the beginning of the story, Austen mentions that a man with good fortune must need a wife. (Austen, 1) In fact, the story proves reversely that a woman if not to be raised by her parents must find a husband with much property. Elizabeth is surprised by her sensible and rational friend Charlotte’s marriage with contemptible Mr. Collins. Actually, except that Elizabeth finds someone who appreciates her and is wealthy as well, there is no point for her to be amazed by Charlotte’s choice. Elizabeth pursues independence and liberty in spirit, but after marriage, she still has to live like other women, depending on their husbands in material. Austen depicts Darcy as a wealthy man, unconsciously proving that she still thinks a man with wealth is advantaged. Austen used the archetype of Cinderella.

The difference from the original one is that Cinderella in Pride and Prejudice is not fragile and the prince is not charmed only by his Cinderella’s beauty, but also by her personality. It seems to resist against the discrimination that women are just beautiful in appearance, for what concerns Austen most is the description of Elizabeth’s character. Nevertheless, women are still evaluated by men; it is men who have the right to announce how a woman is. Without the appreciation of Darcy, probably Elizabeth would stay as Cinderella forever. (Liu Xueqiong, 3) She is not able to change her status by herself. Elizabeth is witty and different from other girls, but what Austen expresses to us is that Elizabeth is worthy to get married with. Elizabeth is envied not for she is a totally independent person as a woman, but for she will be Darcy’s wife. The psychology of depending on men is rooted in contemporary custom. It was acknowledged that there was nothing wrong for women to be raised by men.

Even though Austen found that spiritual independence was not enough for women, she was powerless to change the situation. Social system did not reach the point that Austen could not bear so that she attempted to overthrow its standards totally in her writing. Confined by social custom in her day, Austen did not catch the real meaning of equality between men and women and independence of women. Limited by contemporary social tradition, Austen gave in to it. There is something against feminism. In the novel, women are passive when dealing with love and they have to rely on men after marriage. Furthermore, they need men’s appreciation to fulfil their life. Feminism is observed in Elizabeth, but it is vague.

4. Conclusion

Austen is insightful into society in which she lived. Pride and Prejudice is excellent in many aspects. Her knowledge of feminism is advanced in her day. She uses female-centred narration, which is different from traditional narration, which is male-centred. She depicts Elizabeth as a woman shining with the glory of feminism. In this novel, Elizabeth is independent, intelligent confidant and strong-minded, which does not meat men’s expectation. These factors state feminism of this novel. Meanwhile, her feminism is quite conservative. She gave way to social custom of her day. Women are passive, for they are not allowed to make decisions on their own marriages; they have to depend on men economically, which affirms their inferiority.

These elements expose the conservatism of this novel. Austen challenges the rules in patriarchy but unfortunately she is confined by them as well. Above all, she as a pioneer contributes a lot to feminism, and the depiction of Elizabeth is so successful that girls of nowadays have much to learn from her.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Analysis of Feminism in Pride and Prejudice. (2016, Sep 14). Retrieved from

Analysis of Feminism in Pride and Prejudice essay
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