Elizabeth Bennet: Our First Feminist
Written during the Napoleonic Wars times, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice seems to be a story of the pursuit for true love that lies far beyond first impressions but looking deeper into her work her true purpose reveals itself to be to inspire independence and self worth within women. With men being sent away to fight the war, women, for the first time in their lives, were left to be independent and to fend for themselves. Their entire lives they always had someone to take care of them whether it was their father or their husband women were not expected to live on their own. Within Austen’s novel, Elizabeth is the only female that goes against Regency society’s social norm in search for a true relationship fueled by love and passion going against the idea women are defined by the man that asks for their hand in marriage. Social wealth trumped all but could only be achieved for women through a high class husband; women meant nothing without a man to rely on. Austen’s depiction of female characters within the novel portray Regency society’s blatant disregard for anything but monetary status. One’s monetary status determined everything from where one lived to whom one married. The entire society was fueled by wealth and reputation, yet reputation was dependent on your wealth. Take for instance Mrs. Bennet; her sole purpose in existing was to wed her daughters to wealthy husbands. She obsessed over ensuring her daughters were going to be well off. Her behavior resulted from the societal pressure that restricted women’s financial wellbeing to marriage. It wasn’t just a matter of being rich or poor women were completely worthless if they didn’t have a man to be completely reliant on. An unwed woman was deemed unrespectable and forced into doing petty jobs in order to generate money to support herself. Men during this time seemed to be the only key to happiness to women, without a husband to provide for them their lives were utterly miserable. Marrying for love was unheard of. Although making husbands happy was undoubtedly important, women’s happiness didn’t matter; women meant little to the common good, serving only to be good for house making and mothering children. Most women just accepted their fate and came to terms that they would marry whomever their wealthiest offer came from and they would devote their entire lives to a stranger in order to please their family and uphold their family name. None of the women wanted to shame their family and be petty enough to look for love. Just as in the case of Mr. Collins, he came to town determined to find a wife to take back home with him. He set his sights on Elizabeth and he proposed to her without a shadow of a doubt that she would accept his offer, but to his surprise she promptly denied. She simply stated, “You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last women in world who could make you so” (102). It was unheard of for a woman to do such a shocking thing. Mrs. Bennet put forth her best effort to force Elizabeth to marry Mr. Collins because, although odd, he was a respectable husband to have. Having a comfortable home with a respectable man was all any woman could hope for, but Elizabeth principles outweighed the pressure she faced from society. Charlotte Lucas on the other hand felt doomed to be an old maid with no money, so she decided to marry Mr. Collins in order to have a comfortable life. She stated to Lizzie, “Happiness in marriage [is] entirely a matter of chance” (21). She could barely even tolerate Mr. Collins but she pushed her happiness aside and married for stability and money. Charlotte felt it was better to marry for convenience then to risk being alone the rest of her life. It was every woman’s duty to marry in order to increase her family’s wealth and therefore overall worth in society.
Men in the novel had their own selfish agendas when looking for a spouse. Mr. Wickham’s sole purpose for looking for a wife was just to receive an extra source of income. He had tried to marry Miss Darcy, but quickly ended that relationship, with not a hint of remorse, when he discovered he would not receive a penny of Miss Darcy’s inheritance. Lydia was used as a pawn by Mr. Wickham in order to establish prosperity and wealth. Lydia meant only a paycheck to Mr. Wickham. Mr. Wickham didn’t even express the slightest amount of regret for using an innocent girl, who didn’t know any better, in order to gain money. He tricked her into believing that he loved her when in fact he was just taking advantage of her naïve nature. Mr. Wickham didn’t care at all he was going to shame the Bennet family name by running away with Lydia; he had no interest in marrying the young girl without a large sum of money beforehand. Lydia is so ill witted that she doesn’t even care about the shame she brought her family, instead she waste time boasting about being a “married woman.” Men took advantage of women’s dependence on being married. Marriage was treated as a business ordeal. Mr. Collins went spouse hunting in order to please his patron Lady Catherine. She stated to him, “A clergyman like you must marry” (100). The pressure he felt from Lady Catherine de Bourgh made his search for a wife even more desperately urgent. Love was a foreign idea when deciding who to marry; most men were just looking to benefit themselves when looking for a woman to call their wife. Austen used Elizabeth to prove that the only way to overcome society’s shallow standards and find actual happiness was to go against society and stand up for what you believe in. Women allowed society to walk on top of them, but Elizabeth on the other hand was a strong woman who refused to be like other women and stood up for herself and her pursuit in looking for love. Elizabeth knew life without being happy and experiencing love was pointless and she was determined to find love or die trying. Elizabeth’s intellect prevailed much greater than most of the other women characters and she possessed much more independence. Elizabeth took time to become an educated human being with morals. She preferred reading alone to spending pointless hours socializing with people she didn’t even like. She chose to be fearless and defy society’s standards. Elizabeth’s duty to herself shone through quite frequently and was proven when she stood up to Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She ignores the fact that Lady Catherine is of high society and declares, “I am only resolved to act in a manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or any person so wholly unconnected with me” (322). Although a woman standing up for herself was unacceptable, Elizabeth denounced society’s expectations in order to fulfill her personal morals. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen uses Elizabeth to show the strains and limitations women faced in Regency society, with their ultimate ambition in life to be finding a wealthy spouse to be reliant on. Elizabeth Bennet goes against society’s expectations yet ends up the happiest character within the book, proving overallmen are not superior over women. Women have the capability to do anything a man can and should not be treated just as a piece of property.
Pride and Prejudice. Chicago, Ill: M.A. Donohue & Co., 2005. Print.