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Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a nineteenth century literary work which continues to have a significant impact on readers today. The novel is richly filled with themes of gender, class, wealth, love, and marriage. Just as portrayed in the novel, the notion of marriage was of great importance in the world of the Victorian society and is the ultimate thing that all women strived to achieve. Unlike the romanticized novels of the time, marriage was not seen as a fairytale. In reality, the idea of love had little to do with the majority of weddings that took place between a man and woman. Marriage was more likely entered by both parties as if it were a business deal or contract. A woman's life was seen as incomplete without a marriage as her sole purpose and role in life was seen as taking care of her husband and expanding his lineage by bearing children for him. Also, since a proper middle to upper class lady was expected to do lady-like things such as learning different languages, singing, drawing, and dancing, working was completely out of the question. Thus, another vital reason a lady was expected to enter into a marriage was for financial stability. Without the financial support of a husband, she would continue to be a financial burden on her family. Not only does Austen incorporate these Victorian realities into her novel, but she uses them to make a very bold and critical statement. Austen's Pride and Prejudice critiques the Victorian notion of the institution of marriage by illustrating that the foundations of a marriage should not be shallow feelings, pressure to marry, financial prosperity and social status. Through the relationship of Elizabeth of Mr. Darcy, Austen clearly voices her opinion that one should marry for love alone, and that all the aforementioned things should come secondary to it. She uses various other marriages in the novel to contrast the dynamics of the relationships of those who married for love and those who married for reasons that Victorian society imposes.
The first line that readers are exposed to in Austen's novel is: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" (Austen 29). This line alone foreshadows the entire plot and allows readers to see that this story will be centred on the pursuit of marriage. The irony is that readers won't come to know until later that Austen means the exact opposite: it is the women of the era who are always desperately in search of a wealthy single man to make a husband, and therefore secure their future. Thus, this opening line emphasizes the most important feature of marriage: wealth, something that Victorians were strongly fixated on.
The marriages of four couples take place throughout the course of the novel, each in contrast to the others, resulting in outcomes: Lydia with Mr. Wickham, Charlotte with Mr. Collins, Jane with Mr. Bingley, and Elizabeth with Mr. Darcy. Austen presents Lydia's marriage to Mr. Wickham as the worst marriage in the novel. Their entire relationship is based on the all the wrong reasons to get married: physical appearance and childlike ignorance. Lydia is an attractive lady who is ignorant towards Mr. Wickham's unsuitable conduct. Since neither character feels any true love for the other, they both appear to be unhappy with their married life and always try to stay out of each other's way. Austen demonstrates through this couple that physical attraction only goes so far in a marriage, and should never be the exclusive reason for it.
Another horrible marriage in the novel is the one that exists between Charlotte and Mr. Collins. There is absolutely no possibility that he could be in love with Charlotte, for it was only a few days earlier that he was interested in marrying Jane, and then Elizabeth. At the age of twenty-seven, Charlotte feel the pressure to marry any man with the wealth to financially secure her future. The two characters feel no emotional attraction to each other. She realizes that he definitely does not love her and that "his attachment to her must be imaginary" (Austen 162). However, "Without thinking highly of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object," she sees Mr. Collins as her best chance at living a suitable life (Austen 162). "I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home" (Austen 165). And so by accepting Mr. Collins "solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment", Charlotte and Mr. Collins decide to forsake their happiness for the sake of the social construct of marriage (Austen 162). Austen utilizes this relationship to show that marrying for wealth alone will never produce any happiness in the relationship of two people.
The relationship of Jane and Mr. Bingley differs from the previous two as it does result in a happy marriage. This is because their marriage is based on love and respect for each other. Jane is a humble-spirited lady who always tries to see good in other people. "With your good sense, to be so honestly blind to the follies and nonsense of others! Affectation of candour is common enough- one meets with it everywhere. But to be candid without ostentation or design- to take the good of everybody's character and make it still better, and say nothing of the bad- belongs to you alone"(Austen 46). Mr. Bingley's character is as equally agreeable as he has "a pleasant countenance and easy affected manner" (Austen 39). The only flaw of this marriage is that there are perceived to be too kind and naive, to the point where the couple begin to get taken advantage of by other. Through this couple, Austen shows that although the relationship is based on mutual love, there needs to be a level of accepting the fact that a world exists outside of the happy bubble of marriage and this bubble can be easily popped, if you will, if the reality of human nature and weaknesses are not understood and prepared for.
Lastly, Austen's ideal relationship of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy is in complete dissimilarity with the ideals of the Victorian culture. Austen uses Elizabeth to represent her stance on the value of marrying for love alone. Through Elizabeth's opinions on marriage, Austen presents the reader with the ridiculousness of marrying for someone on the grounds of appearance, status, and wealth. Elizabeth blatantly refuses to marry a man whom she has no emotional feelings for. She does this regardless of what the society and culture in which she lives imposes on women such as herself. Her rejection of Mr. Collins marriage proposal was a radical moment in the novel, just as it would have been in the real Victorian culture. Mr. Collins had a good social ranking and he was more than capable of providing Elizabeth and her family with secure, financial stability. In other words, he was everything that the culture taught young Victorian ladies to want in a husband. However, all it took Elizabeth to refuse his offer was the realization that she could never love such a man and have a happy future with him. On the other hand, there is an exciting spark when Mr. Darcy comes into the picture. Although the two are very disagreeable towards each other at first, through getting to know each other throughout the events in the book, the initial scorn turns into respect and understanding, and finally, into a love that is unbreakable. "She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man, who in disposition and talents would most suit to her" (Austen 352). Austen shows that love does not emerge out of thin air as romantic novels of the era often portrayed; it is rather something that needs time and emotional investment to develop, strengthen, and stand through the trials of life. When asked how long she's loved Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth replies, "It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began" (Austin 415).
Austen does a very brave thing by voicing her opinion on marriage through this novel as it had the power to forever change the way the institution was viewed. She presents a new social thinking and view through Pride and Prejudice, one that asks people to change the grounds they have for entering into a marriage. Austen presents the marriage between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy as one which stands in opposition to the reality of the Victorian social construction. However, at the same time, she shows that it is one that has the capacity to grow into a relationship filled with true love and understanding, ultimately leading to a happy, successful marriage.