Austen and Bronte and Their Uses of Social Class

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As Friedrich Engels, one of the most prominent socialist philosophers in history, wrote, “All history has been a history of class struggles between dominated classes at various stages of social development”. If not true of all history, these words are at least relative to the Victorian Era. Characterized by the pompous upper class, the struggling middle and lower class, and a woman’s need for a husband, the Victorian Era social class system is encapsulated in the masterpieces of both Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre) and Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice). The dichotomy presented between the romantic (Bronte) and realistic (Austen) views of the social class system yield both similarities and differences, e.g. the shallowness of the class system and the possibility of class ascension. It should also be noted that though both authors establish themes based strongly on woman’s role in the social class system, Austen prefers a pessimistic yet rebellious outlook of it in order to emphasize woman’s strength whereas Bronte prefers an optimistic and submissive stance that highlights the inner and outer beauties of woman.

To begin, we must delve into both Austen and Bronte’s positions regarding social class, beginning with the former. In Pride and Prejudice one of the most notable aspects of social class is marriage, more specifically a woman’s need for a husband. Though evident through almost every member of the Bennet family, the most obvious example of this can be found in Mrs. Bennet. Deranged and manic, Mrs. Bennet constantly pushes her daughters to find husbands, preferably rich ones, so that both she and her daughters will be guaranteed financial stability in the future. Austen, however, seems to take an opposite stance as evidenced through the main character Elizabeth; though offered marriage by Darcy and Mr. Collins, she initially declines both because of a disdain for both characters. Though she later accepts Darcy’s proposal, it is clear that Lizzie is marrying Darcy for love and not money. By doing this, Austen states that, in her opinion, the social class system is extremely aloof and shallow, being more contingent upon materialism than love.

The shallowness of the social class system is also evident in another major motif of Pride and Prejudice: dexterity. Both men and women, according to the social norm of Victorian Era England, were expected to have certain skills and characteristics, e.g. men should be smart, noble, and own property and women should be skilled at the creative arts, pretty (or handsome), and trustworthy. Ultimately, Elizabeth does not exemplify many of these characteristics, as she is only mediocre in the arts, somewhat handsome, and too easily swayed in opinion to be considered trustworthy; her only extremely admirable quality is her silver tongue and wit. However, characterizing Elizabeth in this way is another way that Austen attempts to rebel against the norms of the social class system. In other words Lizzie is strong and beautiful despite the fact that she does not conform to the skills societies wants her to have. This is not to say that Austen condemns skills, however, but instead she states that they should not determine one’s social acceptance. Conversely, the stance Austen takes on the social class system is that acceptance is dependent upon more than just wealth and rank, but also talent.

Finally, Austen’s last major view of the social class system is that ascending from lower or middle class to upper class is not only virtually impossible, but also unacceptable. Moreover, though the middle class is allowed to associate with the upper class, the members of the upper class make it blaringly obvious that they are “superior” to all who do not hold equally high status. Though this is manifest in Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy, and Mr. Collins, the best example of this can be found in Miss Bingley. After Jane Bennet comes down with a cold during her stay at Netherfield, she is forced...
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