In the novel, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen asserts that a happy marriage comes not from the compliance with social conventions, but rather from the compatibility between the personalities of two individuals. The interclass marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, and the expected "intraclass" marriage of Lady Catherine's daughter stand as a foil to the true happiness in the interclass marriage of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. A lack of affection, esteem and congruity between the Bennet's, and likewise between Miss de Bourgh and Mr. Darcy, results in an unsuccessful marriage and a potentially unsuccessful marriage, respectively, while the paradigm of these qualities between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy generate a successful relationship. By illustrating that happiness and unhappiness in marriage overlook the boundaries of the class system, Austen emphasizes the individual and thus challenges the English class system.
Although the most commended marriage in the novel involves individuals from separate classes, Jane Austen does not deny that marriages across classes can turn out less than satisfactory. Mr. Bennet, who is of a higher class than Mrs. Bennet, depicts this unfortunate side of interclass marriages. However, the reasoning behind the misfortune lies not in their distinct classes, but rather in his imprudence in realizing the disagreeability of their personalities. Austen explains that when he was young, Mr. Bennet,
captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished forever, and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. (228)
This synopsis of the past forces the reader to acknowledge that the clashing of character early on was the cause of unhappiness, rather than differences in class. In the text, the author describes Mr. Bennet as an, "odd mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve and caprice," with a book in hand "regardless of time" (7, 14). On the other hand, Mrs. Bennet presents herself as a woman of "mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper" so much as to not understand her husbands character even after 23 years of marriage (14). Her ignorance and his wit clear the pathway for the mutual disparagement expressed in the novel. E. Zimmerman argues that their different life goals account for much of the incompatibility. He points out that while Mrs. Bennet's sole occupation is gossiping and gaining news of potential husbands for her daughters with a determination to marry them off as soon as possible, Mr. Bennet has a less serious purpose in life. His opinion, that we live "to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn," clashes significantly with Mrs. Bennet's goal in life which is devoid of humor (Zimmerman 66). This disagreement of parts and interests, not their different social classes, fuels their disregard for one another. An example of Mrs. Bennet's unhappiness with her husband further depicts this clash of characters. When Mrs. Bennet asks her husband to persuade Elizabeth into marrying Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet first pretends to comply with her request, but then acts contrary to her desire. This situation illustrates Mr. Bennet's lack of respect for his wife's character, and leaves Mrs. Bennet furiously disappointed and angry with her husband. When identifying the moments of incompatibility between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Austen emphasizes the follies of their character in regard to one another rather than in light of their social class, thus depreciating the value given to social status in early nineteenth century England.
The character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as a wealthy aristocrat in the novel, attempts to restore the value of social status and the consequent obligations of one's status. Austen utilizes Lady Catherine's...
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