Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is often lauded as one of the greatest romances in British literature. Its comedic structure entertains readers with the fluctuations of Elizabeth Bennet’s relationship with Mr. Darcy. However, this novel is more than a simple love story. Although almost everyone marries by the end of the novel, some of the women of Elizabeth’s world are not as well-matched with their husbands as she is with hers. Unlike Elizabeth and Darcy’s affectionate relationship, many characters in the story make marriages of convenience. The monetary and social stability that the marriage offers women is more important than the compatibility of the spouses. Austen develops the plot to hint at a more considered view on marriage. Certain formal aspects of the work further inform us on Austen’s opinion of matrimony. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen uses satire, characterization, and narrative voice to explore the vocational nature of marriage for women in her society.
From the first line of Pride and Prejudice, the narrator reveals her satirical approach to matrimony. If it was “a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” then the women in the novel would not have to struggle so much.i Mrs. Bennet would not have to actively seek husbands for her five daughters. The marriageable women of the novel would not have to debate between choosing spouses by preference and marrying for financial stability. There would not be any kind of jealousy or competition between Miss Bingley and Elizabeth, or Elizabeth and Miss King. The premise of this first line in the narrative opposes the action in the novel. A more straightforward description of reality would have been that a single woman in possession of no fortune must be in want of a husband. The irony of this initial sentence introduces the novel masterfully. While Austen flips this truth to provide humor in her narrative, she simultaneously sets the tone for the entire novel and tips readers off to her proposition that marriage is a type of career for the women in her society. The opening line of the novel is an especially amusing statement when read in conjunction with Mrs. Bennet’s subsequent scheming to secure Mr. Bingley for one of her daughters, which would be completely unnecessary if he was so desperate for a wife. Austen’s witty reflection on marriage is not confined to the implication that it is women who need husbands; it also indicates that financial situation plays a foremost role in the selection process. Austen wastes no time emphasizing her point that marriage is all about economics.
Furthermore, the idea of marriage being less about one’s heart and more about one’s wallet is repeated throughout the story. The narrator again employs her biting wit in her description of Mrs. Bennet as a woman whose “business of her life was to get her daughters married”.ii In the context of what the narrative has already revealed of Mrs. Bennet and what will further be revealed of her, this quip seems to criticize the farcical nature of Mrs. Bennet’s life. Nevertheless, her incessant efforts to find suitors for her children are described as a “business.” This description almost begs the question of what one would expect to be her vocation and forces readers to acknowledge that a woman in Mrs. Bennet’s situation would not have any professional options available to her. The narrator encourages readers to laugh at Mrs. Bennet to help them realize the ridiculousness of Mrs. Bennet’s “business” being marrying off her daughters. The negative portrayal of Mrs. Bennet’s preoccupation with beaux reflects the greater tragedy of marriage being the only available means of income for any upper-class woman at this point in England’s history. Mrs. Bennet’s job is presented as frivolous because it is frivolous that it is her only option. There are numerous other instances throughout the novel of Austen’s satire exposing the vocational nature of marriage in her culture. The Bennet women are said to entertain “very lively hopes of Mr. Bingley’s heart” before they even meet him.iii The rumor of Bingley bringing twelve women with him to his first ball is a point of grief for the ladies of the neighborhood. Mr. Darcy is admired greatly, primarily for his financial situation, until it is obvious that those riches would not benefit any of the ladies present.iv Mr. Darcy’s disinterest in the women present is so abhorrent to them because it means that he is unlikely to marry any of them and is therefore of no material value to them. In true satirical style, Austen makes readers laugh at something that at the time would have been commonplace.
Another way that Austen exposes the occupational nature of marriage is through her characterization. Again, Mrs. Bennet’s whole life is about marrying off her daughters, and the readers are prompted to disparage her for it. There are several other characters who are presented primarily because of their views or actions concerning marriage, and one prime example is Mr. Collins. He is undeniably a ridiculous character, and it is easy to identify what makes him so absurd. Mr. Collins does not execute social norms properly and is consequently the fool of the story. One of his laughable qualities is his vocalization of implicit social norms, such as his telling Mr. Bennet that he practiced compliments for women before he talked to them.v He repeats this mistake when he is proposing to Elizabeth. Not only does he attribute his decision to marry as a response to his belief that it is part of his job, but he also claims that perhaps the most important reason for his proposal is that it is the “recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness”.vi This “very noble lady” is more than Mr. Collins patroness; she is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy’s wealthy, condescending aunt. She encourages Mr. Collins to marry as part of his duty as a clergyman and tells him to marry a “useful sort of person…able to make a small income go a good way”.vii Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine vocally recognize the economics involved in marriage, but their opinions are by no means praised by the narrator (or by Elizabeth). Everything about Mr. Collins—from his letter writing to his disastrous dancing to his incessant discussion of Lady Catherine—is preposterous. His and Lady Catherine’s views on marriage can therefore indicate what Austen considers most ridiculous. He essentially uses matrimony to get ahead in his career and Austen has no sympathy for this attitude. We see that her characterization of Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins emphasizes their occupational views of marriage relationships. However, it is unclear whether Austen criticizes them individually for having these views on marriage or commenting on the condition of a society in which this is the reality of the matrimonial state. Perhaps Austen’s opinion can be elucidated through investigation of a positive characterization in the novel.
Charlotte Lucas is characterized favorably as a sensible and thoughtful young woman, worthy to be the best friend of the hero, Elizabeth. Charlotte advises Elizabeth early on about Jane’s behavior toward Bingley being too guarded. She warns that Bingley “may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on”.viii While Elizabeth laughs at Charlotte and tells her that rushing into marriage without knowing much about one’s partner “is not sound,” Charlotte is ultimately proven correct.ix All of Jane’s misery over Bingley was caused in part by Darcy’s conviction of her indifference toward his friend.x We see Austen’s admiration for Charlotte in her characterization as a smart woman. In addition to her accuracy in assessing Jane and Bingley’s relationship, Charlotte is successful in her schemes to swindle Mr. Collins. The fact that Mr. Collins is inferior to many other men in the novel does not lessen Charlotte’s accomplishment. She is aware of his shortcomings when she accepts him. Her thoughts at the time are described as “in general satisfactory”.xi Mr. Collins fills a need for her. She is practical and sees matrimony for what it truly is to her – not an emotionally fulfilling relationship, but a business deal.
While Mr. Collins and Mrs. Bennet’s business-like attitudes toward marriage are laughable, Charlotte’s opinion is sensible. Austen casts these characters in very different lights, even though their sentiments on this subject are somewhat similar. The idea of marriage being a job is a common thread in all three views, but their situations and the implications of their attitudes are significantly different. Mr. Collins is the most negatively portrayed character of the three. Making blunder after social blunder, he is at best silly and at worst slightly malicious. This characterization is connected to how he regards marriage as a career advancement. Mr. Collins inhabits a very different station in society than the women of the novel. He already has a career and is stable and provided for very well. Marriage is not as necessary for men in this world as it is for women. His treatment of marriage as a career move, without any thought to how complimentary or gratifying a match might be, is so odious because it makes light of the reality of marriages of necessity for women. Mrs. Bennet is also portrayed as a ludicrous character, but she is not nearly as loathsome as her husband’s nephew. Her determination to get her daughters suitably married is in fact a determination to provide for them; she can do no better within the restrictions of her society. This is more critical of the culture than of her intellect. She is working within a system that may not be fair, but it is the world she lives in. Similarly, Charlotte does the same thing for herself. Her characterization, although not romanticized or idealized, is positive and flattering. She reflects the best possible reality for many women at the time.
The satirical humor and characterizations that Austen employs in Pride and Prejudice contribute to the novel’s themes. However, Austen influences our perceptions of matrimony by using the narrative voice with devices such as irony, word choice, and free indirect discourse. The narrative voice in this novel is typically ironic rather than serious. This tone betrays the cynical view that the narrator has of marriage. For example, before Mr. Collins and Charlotte marry, they are described as having “a week spent in professions of love and schemes of felicity”.xii However, readers can easily discern that there is no real affection on either side of such a hasty match. It begs the question of whether courtships of greater length can produce more affection, or if all courtships are “spent in professions of love and schemes of felicity” that mean no more than those of Collins and Charlotte.
Although the tone of the novel is overwhelmingly ironic, there are times when marriage is spoken of in more straightforward and serious terms. The narrator uses unique word choice to reveal the serious nature of marriage. When Mr. Darcy becomes initially attracted to Elizabeth, the narrator tells us that he “really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger” and later that he “began to feel the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention”.xiii Darcy is in danger of tarnishing his family’s good name and losing out on the opportunity of acquiring greater monetary advantage through marriage if he involves himself with Elizabeth. This concept of marriage being a risky venture recurs throughout the story. Jane is under painful “anxiety” when her hopes for marriage are disturbed.xiv Losing Bingley’s affection also means losing the security that he can offer her. Mrs. Gardiner, Elizabeth’s aunt, is “suspicious” of Elizabeth’s regard for Wickham and cautions her against entertaining it, since she knows that Elizabeth’s marrying a man who is her equal in monetary deficiency would be highly imprudent.xv The narrator’s use of words like “danger,” “anxiety,” and “suspicious” indicates to us the risk involved in matrimony. In these instances, the narrator uses serious and straightforward language to describe the nature of matrimony.
Another tactic of Austen’s narration is the use of free indirect discourse. As previously discussed, Charlotte is a positive character in the story and she can at times be a mask the narrator uses to divulge her own opinions. The narrator slips into expressing Charlotte’s thoughts and feelings after she agrees to marry Mr. Collins. It is almost as if the narrator is reflecting with Charlotte when Austen writes:
"Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. – Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was 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. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it." xvi
In many ways, this inner dialogue of Charlotte’s that the narrator relates to us is the book’s central commentary on marriage. Of course, Elizabeth gets the idealized ending with the man who is rich, respectable, and loves her. On the other hand, Charlotte gets the realistic ending. A wedding is not always the heart-warming event some like to imagine, since a wedding at times simply begins a business deal. It is not glamorous or necessarily fulfilling, but it is her “pleasantest preservative from want”.xvii
Pride and Prejudice is inundated with criticism toward the realities of marriage. Elizabeth and Darcy are the model couple in the novel, but there are numerous reminders in the other couples that this goal is seldom achieved. They marry for love, but not everyone has that luxury. Darcy marries Elizabeth because of her merits and his affection for her—instead of marrying to advance his career and economic situation, as Mr. Collins did. Additionally, even while Elizabeth seems unconcerned with Darcy’s wealth when she initially rejects and eventually accepts him, there is no avoiding how advantageous a match it is for her. Not only has she provided for herself, but she is also able to support her sister. It is obvious that Elizabeth is the narrator’s favorite and that her marriage is the ideal. This supremacy of such an unusual marriage for love indicates that this is what Austen wishes could be the reality. However, she is honest enough to emphasize that it is by no means an everyday occurrence—the truth is much bleaker.
Through her satirical tone, Austen displays her skepticism toward the institution of matrimony. Her varied characterizations reveal which views of marriage she finds most repulsive and which are simply unavoidable actualities. The narrative voice that Austen employs vacillates between communicating humorous indictments of and serious reflections on marriage. Additionally, the narrator’s opinions are communicated through the mask of certain characters when Austen uses free indirect discourse. These formal devices undergird an important theme of the novel: marriage—as the only career option for women—results in sensible women being wedded to foolish men and young girls’ thoughtless actions either forever ruining their chances for a stable life or chaining them to men who do not genuinely care for them. Austen exposes and denounces occupational marriage and the limits on females in her society. It is no surprise that this book—filled with such insight and as well as wit—remains a classic.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
i Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 5.
ii Ibid, 7.
iii Ibid, 11.
iv Ibid, 12.
v Ibid, 67.
vi Ibid, 103.
vii Ibid, 103.
viii Ibid, 23.
ix Ibid, 24.
x Ibid, 192.
xi Ibid, 120.
xii Ibid, 137.
xiii Ibid, 51, 57.
xiv Ibid, 127.
xv Ibid, 140.
xvi Ibid, 120.
xvii Ibid, 120.