Feminist Undertones in Pride and Prejudice

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Jane Austen authored the novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in 1813, a period in the social history of England that saw most women as best equipped for the private and domestic realm. An ideal woman was the picture of chastity, innocence and compliancy. Even women authors in this period were expected to adhere to genres that were considered to be solely their domain- the refined arts, household management, love, courtship, family life and fidelity in the face of temptation. Although ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was primarily a romance between two free-thinking individuals, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, it has grave feminist undercurrents that are displayed to the reader in many incidents and conversations that ensue between the characters. The nineteenth century was one of progressive transience, especially for women who forged a new identity for themselves. Literature was a vital mouthpiece for their miseries. Jane Austen takes a strong jibe at the existing patriarchy under the more dulcet tones of feminine affairs like love, courtships, gossip and bitchery. Austen’s protagonist Elizabeth Bennet is the second of five sisters in the Bennet family. Out of all her sisters, Elizabeth is the only one who exhibits a bent of mind that was rational and somewhat gumptious. Her principal concerns in life were not winning the affections of wealthy men in order to find herself a suitable match. Austen penned ‘Pride and Prejudice’ much prior to the time referred to as the age of New Woman Fiction and yet her writing is a powerful satire on the position of women in society and how this position limited their viewpoint to petty affairs. A good instance of this is the character of Mrs. Bennet or even Lady Catherine De Bourgh.

Jane Austen explores various facets of the middle class society of nineteenth century England, successfully giving a panoptic view of the prevalent social mores and mindsets, especially those pertaining to the status of women. The different characters in her novel render a variegated purview of feminist notions.

The Character of Mrs. Bennet and Austen’s Satirical Critique

From the opening lines of the story Mrs. Bennet is put forth as a dominating, albeit directing, force in the Bennet household. Her very first dialogue with Mr. Bennet, wherein she tries to convince him to meet Mr. Bingley, a man of a fortune as handsome as his appearance, to try and fix a match for one of their daughters, is evident of her mindset. Her scope of interests in life is limited only to the stable marital settlement of her five daughters. Her husband is not of much interest to the reader because of his almost insipid outlook of affairs. Mrs. Bennet inspite of her condescending and parochial behavior is a multi dimensional character, interesting readers very much. Her outragous schemes to send Jane on horseback to Netherfield so as to make her contract a cold to extend her stay at the Bingleys’ home, manage to shock those who believe in subtlety. Some critics have also referred to Mrs. Bennet as vulgar, a term too extreme for our times. However back then it probably had the connotation of something that was socially hideous. Mrs Bennet is also a prototype of how the women, repressed by society, had stopped striving for social and intellectual advancement. Mrs Bennet’s mental horizons are extremely narrow and she is not ashamed of this fact. Rather she is voluble, to an annoying extent. Mrs Bennet is unable to meet the parameters of decent conduct and behaviour as illustrated in many instances throughout the story. Mr. Bingley’s sisters are extremely repelled by her brash outspokenness, so much so that they use it as a means to break off Mr. Bingley’s association with Jane. Mrs. Bennet also displays an almost obnoxious double standard towards Charlotte Lucas, a very close friend of Elizabeth, by demeaning her...
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