Love in Relationships vs. Love for Oneself
In a day where loving yourself first is not only accepted but often expected, it is a stretch for the 20th (or 21st) century mind to see marriage as a necessity, as it was for Jane Austen and some of the greatest of her heroines. Marriage for money and convenience, as well as familial preservation, formally dominated matchmaking choices. Love and romance were but luxuries in the business-like fashion of marriage. Austen contested this reality and criticized it, but she also placed one thing above romance: the Self. Austen undoubtedly prizes respect for the Self above social expectation and relationships. Handler and Segal (45) noted that themes of "independence, dependence, and choice" are recurring throughout all of Austen's works. Recent film adaptations to Austen have decided to downplay these themes, however, in exchange for playing up the romance. These films reveal the 20th century emphasis on romance at the cost of excluding the already established importance of self-knowledge.
Pride and Prejudice, Austen's first written but later published novel, is a commentary on the importance in society of inheritance and achievement. Austen obviously valued one's achieved virtues over inherited status, a revolutionary notion for a female of the day. Elizabeth Bennet, Austen's own mouthpiece to criticize her times, bridges the gap between 19th century sensibility and 20th century self-exploration. Lizzy, though given the opportunity on more than one occasion (Mr. Darcy's first and Mr. Collins's only proposal) to save herself from her impending poverty as well as preserve her family's estate, choose rather to be alone than to be in a situation that would compromise her principles. She is a woman of a strong-willed character who puts herself above her society's expectations of her. If Elizabeth's parents had known of her initial refusal of Darcy their disbelief would have probably outweighed her reasons for rejecting him. Even Mr. Bennet, though a staunch supporter of Elizabeth, may not have felt that she had acted prudently considering the family's situation. This was before her sister Jane was engaged to the wealthy Mr. Bingley, and concern over the future entailment of the estate to Mr. Collins was still great. She didn't even consider Darcy until her began exhibiting signs that he respected her, such as his treatment of she and her aunt and uncle as well as his desire for Lizzy to know his sister better. These actions of Elizabeth are easier to understand in today's context, however. We presently live in a society and culture that emphasizes the Self over family and even wealth. A little tidbit of American wisdom explains this well: "it doesn't matter what you do as long as you enjoy doing it." Of course the desires for riches and success are still present, but it is certainly more acceptable for someone to abandon his job on Wall Street to "follow his dream," whatever that may be. And as for disappointing one's family, well young people today are almost always anticipated to do so. "Finding" oneself is even now considered a step in normal development. Elizabeth Bennet would have probably fit right in.
It should also be noted that Austen ignored the world outside of her respective settings. Pride and Prejudice does not make one direct mention of the on-going Napoleonic wars other than to state the presence of soldiers in Meryton. This is evidence of her investigation of the Self and how the quest for self-knowledge may overshadow the major events of the day. Today we still deal with this nasty exchange of concern for the world in favor of the concern for ourselves. Although Austen put emphasis on the Self she did not by any means ignore romance. Pride and Prejudice does include love-stories reminiscent of Shakespeare's comedies, like The Merchant of Venice, with the happy-ending-for-all-who-deserve-it conclusion. Jane and Bingley live happily...
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