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An individual often finds himself in a conflict with the rules of society. Occasionally, rebelling is the path to happiness. However, usually, the real path to happiness is through compromise. This is the case in the early nineteenth century England setting of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. In the novel, Miss Elizabeth Bennet is a lively, independent woman, whose family’s financial situation and whose strong-mindedness suggest that she may never marry.
Mr. Darcy, is a rigid and proper man, who falls in love with Elizabeth, despite their differences. By the end of the novel, Elizabeth and Darcy learn to compromise, and, in doing so, become truly happy. In marrying, they not only fulfill themselves as an individual, but also affirm the principle values of society. As in many of her novels, this marriage at the end of the novel shows us Jane Austen’s ideal view of marriage as a social institution.
The novel Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen gives us the reader a very good idea of how she views marriage, as well as society. The theme of marriage is set in the very opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Austen, 1) As Norman Sherry points out, this is Austen’s way of implying that ‘a single man in possession of a good fortune’ is automatically destined to be the object of desire for all unmarried women.
The statement opens the subject of the romantic novel; courtship and marriage. The sentence also introduces the issue of what the reasons for marrying are. She implies here that many young women marry for money. The question the reader must ask himself is, does Jane Austen think this is moral? Sherry shows us that Austen was not particularly romantic. She reveals these sentiments through Charlotte remarks concerning her marriage to Mr. Collins. “I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collin’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.” (Austen, 95)
Elizabeth, as Sherry points out, is not particularly romantic either, however, unlike Charlotte, Elizabeth has a certain picture of an ideal marriage in her mind, and therefore would never marry for reasons other than love. We assume that since Elizabeth is the main character, this is how Jane Austen sees marriage. Since Elizabeth would not marry without love, we can also assume that Jane Austen sees what Charlotte does as immoral. Elizabeth also feels that marriages formed by passion alone are just as bad as marriages formed without love. Elizabeth reflects on her sister Lydia’s marriage; “But how little permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue, she could easily conjecture” (Austen, 232)
We again see reasons besides love as the reason for marriage. Jane Austen is not very optimistic about marriage, in fact there are almost no happy marriages in the novel at all. Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet, Lydia and Wickham, and Charlotte and Mr. Collins are examples of the ill-matched and unsuccessful marriages in Pride and Prejudice. The characters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are not all miserable by the end of the novel. Happy marriages in Austen’s novels do occur. Sherry illustrates this point. The right people eventually come together, for example, Elizabeth and Darcy, the hero and heroine. The development of the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy is the most important proof of the whole overall theme of compromise. This relationship took work, it did not just occur. Elizabeth has to learn to control her prejudices. She forms her opinions very quickly and does not change them easily. Darcy has to learn to evaluate people on characteristics other than social rank.
He is too proud of himself, as well as his high social class, and it affects his ability to relate to other people. Both Elizabeth and Darcy have to change a little and come to understand each other before they can be together. In the novel, the theme of pride and prejudice is first introduced in chapter three at the dance. Darcy, acting on his own pride, insults Elizabeth. He claims that she is not handsome enough to tempt him. Elizabeth, overhearing his insult, considers his remark as a direct stab at her own pride. This succeeds in invoking a prejudice in her, against him that remains for the greater part of the novel. She feels that he is far too arrogant and proud. When Charlotte points out to Elizabeth that Darcy has a right to be proud Elizabeth replies; “That is very true, and I could easily forgive his pride if he had not mortified mine”. (Austen 13)
The entire novel consists of the forming of pride and prejudice. The climax of pride and prejudice, as Sherry sees it, is the first marriage proposal. It is the height of pride on Darcy’s part, and the height of prejudice on Elizabeth’s part. The rest of the novel is a sort of anti-climax, in which they begin to compromise and learn how to relate to one another. The theme of pride is built up in many different ways. One method Austen uses to emphasize Darcy’s extreme pride is by surrounding him with characters with similar faults, although, their pride is much more severe and much more insulting. The character in the story who represents an extension of Darcy’s pride is his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. When Lady de Bourgh meets someone she sees only their rank and class in society. She does not appreciate anyone for any other aspect of themselves. Sherry proves this by pointing out the fact that she believes Darcy and her daughter should be married. She bases her thoughts on their compatibility in ranks, neglecting the concept of love. “My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and on the father’s, from respectable, honourable, and ancient, though untitled families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses….” (Austen, 266)
Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, also represent the pride which Darcy possesses. The fact that they feel entitled to think of themselves well and other badly is proof of this, as Marilyn Butler points out. Examples of their snobbishness is the condescension they show towards Elizabeth when she tells of her walk to Netherfield. “That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself was almost incredulous to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced they held her in contempt for it.” (Austen, 24) Unlike the others, however, Darcy’s pride is humbled. Elizabeth manages this hefty task by rejecting his marriage proposal. We see the development of the theme of prejudice, right from the beginning of the novel, when we have the pleasure of meeting Miss Elizabeth. “Elizabeth’s corresponding sin is much more subtle and her enlightenment takes up the space of the whole book”.(Butler, 206) As Butler shows, the readers usually see the love between Elizabeth and Darcy as a love between two opposites, because of the differences in attitudes and of course in rank in society.
However there are in actuality characteristics, although mainly faults, in which there is a striking similarity between the two characters. This is Austen’s way of emphasizing to the reader Elizabeth’s fault of extreme prejudice. Whenever Elizabeth complains of Darcy’s faults, she also touches upon one of her own.
For example, Darcy’s disapproval of Wickham is very similar to Elizabeth’s disapproval of Darcy. Elizabeth is quick to see the faults of others, however she is reluctant to see her own faults. Her first clue that she has allowed her prejudices to stand in the way of judgement is that she was wrong about Mr. Wickham, which consequently makes her wrong about Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth knows that she must learn to be less prejudiced. By getting together, they benefit each other. Elizabeth makes Darcy realize his faults and vice-versa. Other ways of looking at the novel come to the same basic conclusion of compromise. ” Pride and Prejudice uses the familiar anti-thesis between art and nature as the ground of the book’s action. Elizabeth is portrayed on the side of nature, feeling, impulse, originality, spontaneity….it wasn’t possible for Jane Austen to deprecate art all together.. the movement of the book is compromise, as Elizabeth learns to take class into account, Darcy comes to share Elizabeth’s genius for treating all people with respect for their natural dignities”(Klinger, Jane Austen and the war of ideas, 199) The difference between Pride and Prejudice and other eighteenth century novels, is that the heroines differ. “Instead of the innocent, impulsive fallible girl, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice dislikes, teases, and ends in part by debunking the hero… Where other heroines were sycophants of social and masculine prerogative, Elizabeth Bennet is fearless and independent.” (Butler, 199) The difference in the novel, is in Austen’s approach to Elizabeth. By making her as independent, and lively as she does, perhaps she is trying to show society that this is acceptable.
If society would learn to compromise and lose a bit of it’s rigidness, as Darcy did, then people would be able to fully appreciate characters like Elizabeth Bennet. Marriage is the only logical conclusion to this novel. Had the novel ended any other way, it would have had no point. As said before, the movement of the novel is towards compromise. Through marriage, Elizabeth and Darcy are making the ultimate compromise. They are both changing a little about themselves, so that their marriage can be successful. Had the novel ended without marriage, then the realizations on both Elizabeth, and Darcy’s behalf would have been for nothing. Also, through the novel we see that Jane Austen is using marriage as a way of representing society. An ideal marriage is representative of an ideal society. If people used the same methods as a couple would use to obtain an ideal marriage, then perhaps we would be able to obtain an ideal society. By researching Jane Austen we know that most of the heros and heroines end up at the end of the story in an ideal marriage; “to do all her heroines justice, we must conclude that they all marry for love, and not for other considerations. As to the social and monetary aspects of their marriages, Jane Austen makes them ‘all right’.” (Sherry, 92)
By having Darcy and Elizabeth end the novel engaged in an ideal marriage is a significant detail. Jane Austen, in doing this is suggesting that society would be better if it followed Elizabeth and Darcy’s example. By controlling pride and prejudice, and by learning that compromise is sometimes the best way to happiness, society can hope to improve itself. Marriage in the end, is the perfect ending, since it is both an affirmation of the values of society as well as a personal fulfillment, which it is for both Elizabeth and Darcy since they improve themselves by being together.
1. Austen, Jane. “Pride and Prejudice. New York. Bantam Books, 1813,1981.
2. Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford. Claredon Press, 1975
3. Sherry, Norman. Jane Austen. London. Montegue House, 1966
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