Critic of Societal Norms in Jane Austen’s Novel “Pride and Prejudice”

Categories: Jane Austen

All individuals conform to a social status in which they must adhere to societal expectations. Societal expectations play a significant role in shaping human actions and motives as people want to be accepted by those around them and not be criticized for being different. Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice” is critical of societal norms that were to be upheld during that period of time. Austen develops the idea that due to societal expectations, it is conventional to overcome romantic feelings and love to favor matches that benefit the individual’s standing in society, but suppressing these feelings can lead to misery.

Outside expectations must be avoided in matters of love, Ms. Austen ultimately argues. In the novel, the actions of several characters within regards to marriage are due to societal expectations to forgo romance in favor of retaining or increasing social status.

The idea of expectation greatly affects relationships, as one is made aware of those they associate with and will make a conscious effort to be seen with those of a higher social grouping.

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This is particularly shown in the first line of the novel, 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife'. The man feels obligated to meet society's expectations and find a wife to ensure the safety of his wealth. Through this quote, Austen reveals the novel's two primary themes: marriage and class. The quotation suggests that a wealthy man is in need of a proper wife, who is most likely from the same or higher class stature as she will assist in maintaining or elevating the man’s repute.

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This is so that the man may be able to produce heirs to ensure the security of his estates. The novel begins at the Bennet family estate of Longbourn. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five children: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. The family engages in a conversation about Mr. Bingley, 'a single man of large fortune' who will be renting a nearby estate. Mrs. Bennet sees Mr. Bingley as a potential suitor for one of her daughters. The emphasis on Mr. Bingley’s wealth and Mrs. Bennet’s enthusiasm of him marrying one of her daughters presents the idea of the family’s desire to increase their social ranking and satisfy societal expectations. This reveals that the main motive of the conversation is not about love and happiness but rather about wealth and upholding the Bennet’s social status. The premise that marriage is a union between wealth and social is repeated throughout the story. This is shown with Charlotte and Mr. Collins. When Mr. Collins had “a good house and very sufficient income, he intended to marry.” This reveals that Mr. Collins is not marrying from his own will, but rather because it is considered the next step in conventional society. Deciding that Charlotte has been “tolerably encouraging” he proposes to her, suggesting that he displayed little affection for her as she was only considered tolerable. Unlike Charlotte and Mr. Collins, the union Mrs. Bennet, a woman who’s “business of her life was to get her daughters married,” and Mr Bennet, a man who had long ago “put an end to any real affection” for his wife, is one of lust, similar to Lydia and Wickham, as Austen writes that Mr. Bennet was “captivated by youth and beauty.” Her own failed marriage is perhaps the reason why Mrs. Bennet is frantic in finding suitors for her daughters who will provide them financial stability and a stable social ranking.

Social standards greatly impact Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship as it fuels Mr. Darcy’s prideful, egotistical behaviour towards Elizabeth and leads Elizabeth to display prejudice towards Mr. Darcy. When Mr. Darcy is first introduced, his pride, due to his affluent background, overcomes him and he looks upon Elizabeth as inferior. This is perceived when Mr. Darcy, who sees the attendees of the Meryton Ball as socially inferior, arrogantly refuses to dance with Elizabeth as she is “tolerable, but not handsome enough” for him, which offends Elizabeth and leads her to develop a prejudice towards him. Mr. Darcy’s haughty mannerisms can be attributed to societal norms, and demonstrates this when saying, 'Unfortunately an only son, I was spoilt by my parents, who taught me to be selfish and overbearing to care for none beyond my own family circle to think meanly of all the rest of the world.” This quote explains that Mr. Darcy was taught that family comes above all and that his family’s expectations must be met. Since society at the time considered family input to be of extreme importance when making such decisions and often at times one would choose the family’s decision over their own. This can be perceived with Mr. Collins who proposes to Elizabeth as a result of his aunt’s, Lady Catherine, recommendation. Mr. Collins informs Elizabeth that his marriage offer is the “recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness.” Lady Catherine reminds Mr.Collins to marry a “useful sort of person…able to make a small income go a good way.” This quote suggests that Lady Catherine wants the marriage to be based off of wealth. Family and societal pressure lead Mr. Collins to propose to Elizabeth, yet Elizabeth remains unbothered by the pressure. This is observant when Elizabeth declines Mr. Collins’ proposal, much to Mrs. Bennet’s dismay, because Mr. Collins “could not make [her] happy.” This exhibits that Elizabeth attributes happiness to be a main factor in a marriage, while Mrs. Bennet believes wealth should be a factor in her daughter’s marriage. Despite Mrs. Bennet pressuring Elizabeth to accept Mr. Collins’ marriage offer due to monetary and social stability and regarding her daughter to “not know her own interest,” Elizabeth rejects the proposal because she does not want to marry a man based on his wealth. When Mr. Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth, he implies that she is inferior and insults her family in the process, stating “In vain I have struggled. It will not do.” This quote explains that Mr.Darcy did not want to reveal his feelings towards Elizabeth due to his pride over his high social ranking. Elizabeth once again becomes offended and declines the proposal questioning, “Why with so evident of design of offending and insulting me you chose to tell me you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?.” This quote exhibits that Elizabeth reaches a point of uncertainty and begins to doubt if Mr. Darcy has truly overcome his pride. In response, Mr. Darcy claims that the marriage would be a great sacrifice for him due to Elizabeth inferior status, commenting, “Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?” Through this comment, Mr.Darcy proves that he is yet unable to see past his egotistical behaviour.

When Mr.Darcy departs, he leaves a letter for Elizabeth, clarifying his altercations with Wickham, his role in separating Mr.Bingley and Jane and his bribe to Wickham in exchange for marrying Lydia. After Elizabeth has read the letter, she experiences conflicted emotions, including regret of her prejudice, and shame from believing Wickham. Elizabeth then realizes that she must overcome her prejudice that roots from her distaste for societal norms and that after all Mr. Darcy has done for the sake of her well-being, he must truly love her as she loves him. Whilst Eliabeth is learning to see past her prejudice, Mr. Darcy recognizes from Elizabeth’s refusal to his first proposal, his shortcomings and high regard over others. After adjusting to newfound feelings, Mr. Darcy once again proposes to Elizabeth, who accepts. At this point, both characters, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy see past societal expectations and replace it’s limitations with a union between love and happiness.

Pride and Prejudice is criticizing of the realities and reasoning behind marriages. While Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth marry favoring love over affluence, several other characters in the novel do not receive that privilege, instead marrying for social and monetary comfort. Through the contrast between marriages in the book, Austen concludes that marriage should be a union of love, rather than societal expectations.

References

Updated: Dec 12, 2023
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Critic of Societal Norms in Jane Austen’s Novel “Pride and Prejudice”. (2021, Feb 12). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/critic-of-societal-norms-in-jane-austen-s-novel-pride-and-prejudice-essay

Critic of Societal Norms in Jane Austen’s Novel “Pride and Prejudice” essay
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