12/9/05

For Truth or Tradition?

The Truth behind the Oppression of Women in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen's 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, has been world-renowned as one of the romantic era's most intriguing love stories. Although the main plot is quite simple as far as romance novels go, Austen has managed to breathe life as she knew it to be into her characters and thus keep the reader completely captivated. The main character, Elizabeth Bennet, is a poor, but practical and spirited, upper-class young woman. She the second daughter in a family of five girls whose mother's only real wish is to have them all married off as soon as possible. Austen does not fail to link this frantic scramble for the ring to the fact that the all of the girls' futures depend upon not merely marrying, but marrying well. It was the way of the day. Women were not believed to be capable of holding challenging jobs or even taking care of themselves. It was improper for a woman to live alone or with an unmarried man for fear that she may fall victim to unholy temptation. The common belief of the time was that women were incapable of doing the right thing if left on their own. Some several years later, the famous founder of modern psychology himself, Sigmund Freud, would affirm the evil of woman's nature as being one of mankind's worst downfalls. In Pride and Prejudice, the intellectually mature Elizabeth unintentionally puts this common stereotype to shame with her wise and selfless disposition. It is the main part of her appeal as a character. She was certainly my favorite part of the story. Her amazing self-control and dedication to her family were very admirable.

The novel opens with the arrival of a new gentleman in the neighborhood, a friendly, and more importantly, wealthy, socialite called Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth's family, the girls of Longbourn Estate, were entranced by the new guy on the block, and quickly arranged a dinner ball between the two families and a few good friends. Among the friends the kind-hearted Mr. Bingley brought with him was the handsome, and not to mention exceedingly wealthy, Mr. Darcy. At first, everyone present was as enthralled by Darcy's presence as Bingley's, but any interest in the rich young gentleman was quickly exterminated when the Bennets discovered Mr. Darcy's appalling arrogance. Even the oblivious Mrs. Bennet did not wish him for her children. He had not been there for even one whole night before nonchalantly insulting Elizabeth and her family with his obscene ignorance of manners.

Although Elizabeth quickly put him out of her mind after that, she did not really kindle any real animosity for Mr. Darcy until she met his childhood friend, Mr. Wickham, at a party some time later. The pleasant young soldier Mr. Wickham, who had, at the time, been Elizabeth's love interest, recounted to her the story of his childhood growing up with Mr. Darcy, and how after Mr. Darcy the senior, his caretaker, had passed on, Mr. Darcy his son had purposely cut Wickham out of the will. Elizabeth was aghast that anyone, even someone like Mr. Darcy, could do something so cruel. She resolved from then on to shut him out completely.

After the party, life went on, and things only became messier and messier for the Bennet girls. Jane, Elizabeth's older sister, had gotten her heart broken when Mr. Bingley left her without so much as a goodbye, and Elizabeth herself had been proposed to by her own cousin who wished to marry her purely to alleviate some of the guilt he would feel for claiming the Bennets' estate which had been legally entailed to him upon Mr. Bennet's demise. Much to her mother's dismay and her father's pleasure, Elizabeth bluntly refused the offer on the count that she did not love him. Mr. Wickham disappeared into the military, and Elizabeth coolly gave up on his affections. The only other shadow she kept failing to repel, however, was the disagreeable Mr. Darcy. He always seemed to be around, no matter how hard Elizabeth would try to get rid of him. Then one day, he burst in on her and professed his love. The shocked Elizabeth turned him down cold and even went so far as to tell him that she hated him all together. Dumbstruck by her reaction, Mr. Darcy gathered his composure and left. He sent her a letter, some days later, explaining what really happened between himself and Mr. Wickham and how it had been he who had driven Bingley away from Jane to protect his friend from the impoverished Bennets. Elizabeth immediately regretted her unintentional prejudice, and after some time passed, began to like Mr. Darcy more and more, despite his insufferable pride. A few months later, Mr. Darcy shocked Elizabeth once again when his manners made a sharp turn for the better and he rescued her younger sister Lydia's bruised reputation by forcing her newest paramour, who was none other than the abominable Mr. Wickham, to marry her. He also re-united Jane and Mr. Bingley, and gave them his blessings. Finally, he met again with Elizabeth. He asked her again if she would marry him, and this time, she happily agreed.

This story, without intending to, often delves quite deep into the social oppressions of a young woman's world in the early 1800s. Elizabeth Bennet does what was quite extraordinary for young women of her time. She married for love. Most young woman did what a friend of Elizabeth's did early in the novel and married purely for money and status. Women had so few options that marriage was usually the best, if not the only, choice. Other than becoming a wife, a woman could become a maid, a governess, in some places, a factory worker, or perhaps, if she was educated, a teacher. For women of gentile-birth, as being upper-class was sometimes called, such choices were absurd. No woman of money or family would have been caught dead in a workplace of any kind. It was almost scandalous. Marriage was the only path deemed proper by the traditions of the times.

Proper young women clandestinely leapt at any well-off bachelor they could find. Age, preference, and even their marital happiness, were often of no consequence. Many young women, like Elizabeth, had to marry so that when their fathers passed on they would have somewhere to live. Elizabeth's mother shunned her daughter for nearly a week after Elizabeth turned away her cousin. Mrs. Bennet had been truly concerned that another offer like that would never find Elizabeth again. She knew that spinsterhood, for her daughters, would, in truth, mean complete poverty and homelessness. Elizabeth had to be especially brave when she chose to accept this sad truth while she waited for true love. Alas, even once she did find true love, things did not become easier. In pursuing Mr. Darcy, once she admitted to herself that she did indeed like him, Elizabeth had to handle the bitterness of Mr. Bingley's sister, who had an interest in Darcy from the beginning, and that of Lady Catherine, Mr. Darcy's noble, but rude aunt who wished him to wed her daughter. Yet somehow, Elizabeth always followed her better judgment, which only further raised one's esteem towards her.

Clearly, one would think, if nothing else, that this in itself disproves Freud's theory about women. For much of our history, mankind has often denounced women as incompetent, outright evil creatures, but were these prejudices to be true, how then, would such profound anomalies in womankind like Elizabeth Bennet exist? They simply would not. Fact of the matter is, however, that they do. There really are women like Elizabeth who easily manage to think outside the box while also keeping a careful eye on the contents within. But Elizabeth is not the end of it, not in the least. Women have slowly but surely begun to learn and grow and break free of the shells into which society has crammed and abandoned them. Amazing and brilliant women such as Margaret Fuller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Theresa, Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, among others, have since spread their gossamer baby-wings and flown. This huge step is just the beginning. Soon, women, like men, will be paid the best economy can afford, and perhaps, by then, times will have changed in a way that society won't even notice it happening. Today, there are women doctors and lawyers, sailors and CEOs, prime ministers and presidents. The world as we know it is rapidly expanding under the loving care of two dexterous and busy pairs of hands; one is a man's and the other a woman's.


Author's note-

Please R&R! I write back!

PS- Pride and Prejudice is the work of the marvelous mind of the late Jane Austen, not me! Juststating itfor the record. I wrote this analytical essay/summery between 10:50 pm-ish and 12:42 am tonight exactly for a world history class in which I chose to research the rights of British women in the upper middle-class in the 1800s. I abhor Dickens and although A Tale of Two Cities was ok, I made the fatal mistake of reading Great Expectations, and now I resolutely refuse to read him or his copycats.

Fortunately, however, before he desecrated my love for victorian authors, I had been left in totalawe by Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and I had to read more. Jane Austen's book came right on cue. While it is not nearly as good as Jane Eyre in any way, shape, or form, it was still a pleasing read. If you like victorian/romantic age novels, PLEASE READ JANE EYRE! It is a literary masterpiece, and I hope to write an analysis of it sometime later on...

Bah, oh well. I've always prefered writing my own stories to analyzing great literary masterpieces, so I'll prolly write lots more of those before I ever touch another analysis. Sigh- Secretly, though, I'm wicked proud of how quickly this baby pulled itself together.

(Yes, I realize I just typed 'wicked.' Yes, I am Bostonian. Aww, I love you too!)