The main subject of Pride and Prejudice is marriage in an acquisitive society. Jane Austen uses the relationships of the characters in Pride and Prejudice to show the conventional idea of marriage with a tone of satire. Austen mainly concentrates on the relationship of Elizabeth and Darcy. Furthermore, to contradict the conventional ideals and beliefs of society, she concentrates attention on a number of important courtships. All these help to further show how Austen satirizes the convention of marriage.
At the very opening of the novel, the main theme of the novel and the chief objectives of the parents for their daughters’ marriage are revealed:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (p.2)
Mrs. Bennett, “the business of [whose] life was to get her daughters married”, looks for men with monetary means. Because, her daughters have beauty and intelligence, but an inconsiderable fortune. However, Mrs. Bennett’s desire to have her children married is itself natural and laudable.
Money and marriage are inseparably related in the novel. Most of the relationships in the play are based on interest of money and property. Charlotte explains to Elizabeth her the purpose of her marriage with Collins, “I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.” (p193)
Wickham marries Lydia only being assured of getting a fabulous amount of money. Mrs. Bennet is happiest when she knows of Elezabeths marriage with Mr. Darcy, the richest among her relatives. Even, Darcy hesitates to choose Elezabeth for her lower class identity; he tries to keep Mr. Bingley away from Jane. Elizabeth questins Mrs. Gardiner “what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive?”.
In Jane Austen’s time, courtship was a central and absolutely necessary convention. Economic condition of women was not so good because they mainly inherited through and favoured by their husbands. The situation is expressed in Mrs. Bennett’s speech to Elezabeth, “and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead. I shall not be able to keep you.”(p.173)
Jane Austen in one of her letters says, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony”. (letter of March 13, 1816)
As a result, the women did not wait for their parents to die so ultimately they had to buy themselves a husband of good social and economic status. Because, Julia Prewitt Brown, an American scholar, writes, “selecting a mate was the arena in which women’s whole future was decided.” Thus Austen shows that marriage should be a unique moment of adventure, a time in a young girl’s life where her destiny lay not in her family’s hands but in her own. (Rubinstein 6-9)
Pride and Prejudice questions the tradition, definition, and purpose of marriage. Through some relationships Austen wants to show that an ideal marriage should include a high degree of love, understanding, and commitment.
First, Lydia and Wickham is portrayed as the least unstable couple, because they have a serious lack in all these three virtues. Rather they marry out of lust and money.
Next, Austen describes the marriage between Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas as a typical marriage during the Regency Period, which completely lacks love, but includes a moderate degree of understanding and a lot of commitment. They marry each other mainly to maintain their social status like a business agreement than a spiritual attachment.
To refer to spiritual attachment and love for each, Jane and Mr. Bingley’s marriage can be regarded an ideal one, though perhaps not quite the most ideal one. They both shared a mutual understanding and are committed to their partner at a high degree. Mr. Bingley is quite attracted to Jane and his “attentions to [Jane] had given rise to a general expectation of their marriage” (ch.35,p.298). Neither had to change themselves or alters any of their daily rituals to match the other.
Elizabeth and Darcy, on the other hand, are portrayed as the most ideal couple for an ideal marriage. Mr. Darcy “ardently love and admire” (138) Elizabeth, who eventually returns the same affection to her companion. Not only that, before their union, the couple had to overcome many difficulties- first bad impression, personal differences, pride and prejudice, misunderstanding. Inspite of many hardships, their successful relationship proves commitment to change.
Austen also presents a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, lacking some virtues of an ideal marriage. This marriage is somewhat a tragic experience for them. Mr. Bennett was captured by a pretty face, and was in a marriage that tied him to a foolish woman for the rest of his life. The result was disastrous to Mr. Bennett’s character: he was, as Daiches comments, “forced into an unnatural isolation from his family, into virtual retirement in his study and the cultivation of a bitter amusement at his wife’s folly and vulgarity,” (753-754).
At the end of the discussion it must have been evident that Austen presents a vivid picture of some practice of marriage. Moreover, all of the relationships presented show how Austen satirizes the convention of marriage in her novel, with a didactic purpose. She shows that the likely consequence of a marriage based on mere personally liking, wealth, and class factors can produce only misery and shame, as an anonymous reviewer in the British Critic says, “The line she [Jane Austen] draws between the prudent and the mercenary in matrimonial concerns, may be useful to our fair readers”
She also makes it clear that a woman should be able to choose her husband for herself. Austen breaks the ideals and morals of the society during her time by showing that is it wrong to make marriage an economic investment, and that love should be the basis of any relationship and marriage.
Daiches, David, ed. A Critical History of Englilsh Literature. 2 vols. New York: Ronald Press, 1960.
The British Critic, February 1813.
Brown, Julia Prewitt. Jane Austen’s Novels-Social Change and Literary Form, 1979.