Characters & Their Class in Society
The novel Pride and Prejudice is pretty well known for most people. Don’t let the fluttery speeches fool you, for this is much more than a love story. Behind the grand gestures hold common themes, distraught and conflicted characters and a thinly veiled criticism on gender.
Class & Social Status
The Victorian age was a time confined within the constraints of a society, which was determined by social status and gender. These essentially cause the moral compass of the characters to become blinded and not see things for what they really are. Austen clearly discusses this in her novels and no more so than in Pride and Prejudice.
Pride and Prejudice is a novel which above all, is about our perceptions. These are construed based on the hypocritical measures which our society places on us. There is a clear notion of this when we are given the first scene. “Pride…is a very common failing…human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other”(19).
Each character plays a key role in criticizing the society’s perception of class and gender. Austen takes different characters who become prejudiced by their own goals, ambitions and narrow mindedness. Their own limitations causes them to become blinded to people’s true nature.
Here there are several daughters, essentially transferable commodities if they cannot be married off. The pivotal decisions people make, based on the societal constraints are what cause us to feel inhibited in a way.
By far the most transparent character is Mrs. Benett. Her only desire is for her daughter’s to get married to the right suitor. Because women’s wealth and status is essentially determined by who they are married to (the lowest becoming a governess) she wants to marry her girls at all costs. When Mrs. Bennett wishes to marry off her daughters, she is blinded to her daughter’s unhappiness. It is essentially why all three daughters fall victim to her “matchmaking ” ways. In some ways she is the grown up Emma (another terrific Austen book), without the wealth.
However what she doesn’t realize is that her attitude is a serious detriment to achieving her goal. Her desperation is evident in her exchanges with the male suitors of her daughters, which causes some discomfort.
Her worst fear is that her daughters would become spinsters, and essentially poor without any futures. This is in a way a feminist criticism from Austen which states that women are left no option but to become male possessions.
Elizabeth Bennett is by far the heroine of the novel. She is vocal, intelligent and independent. She is also a contradiction. While she hates snobbery she exhibits the very same behavior she rejects in others. She tends to view other women who do not uphold her standards in a judgemental way.
She does not have the same luck as her sister who tends to get things easier than her. While her sister is quiet and submissive, Elizabeth is loud and stubborn. Being second born, her mother’s desperation to marry her allows her to be an easy target for her cousin. Elizabeth is romantic and has a certain idea of how gentlemen should behave.
For this reason, Elizabeth is “given” to her wealthy cousin, who does not have any romantic bones in his body. What we do learn eventually is that he is not as silly as he seems. However, because of Elizabeth’s attraction to the beguiling Wickham she is blinded by the core generosity which he displays.
It is not until she rejects him and her friend, a dowdier less interesting specimen is she a tad insulted. However she is quickly brought to wisdom to the fact that some just wish to get married. When we see the happy couple again we are shown that they truly were happy,
Wickham, essentially represents everything she desires, although not wealthy he is educated, and a dashing heroe. However Wickham is not what he appears to be.
Relationships and Entanglements
Elizabeth & Mr. Darcy
The differing way each character sees reputation and wealth causes numerous misunderstanding throughout the book. Take Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. The reason why there was so much confusion lies in a simple exchange in the ball that occurred between them. This subjective context, did not really seem what they appear to be.
In a way both characters are kindred spirits from the start, both having to conform to roles which they do not wish to be applied to. They also have to fall under an expectation to be a certain way according to societal norms.
Both, in turn, rebel at this notion. Mr. Darcy, with his stubborn temperament and haughtiness, and Elizabeth with her witty replies. However, Elizabeth is blinded by his rudeness, and he is blinded by his fear to love her and lose his position of respect amongst his peers.
Although this ensues the numerous disagreements which occur within the novel between them, it also unravels a series of events which leads to people’s misunderstandings.
Collins & Catherine
Observe the other couple, Collins and Catherine who by temperament are the contrary of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. They are content to fulfill their societal obligations, and to try to conform. For this reason, they amicably become matched from the beginning.
However, the conniving nature of the society and the social climbing mother does not permit them to live entirely happily ever after. Catherine is blinded to the Collin’s snobbery, and he is blinded by the advice that Darcy chooses to impart upon him which causes him to separate himself from his love. He believes that her quiet nature does not seem like true love simply because of her overbearing mother. It is only when Catherine and her lover rebels completely that they are able to break free from the paternal influence to marry their love at last.
Together at Last
It takes a longer revelation Darcy and Elizabeth to come together in the end. Mainly because of what the book entails “pride and prejudice” their moral ambiguity, and blindness to each other’s complmentary character is what leads to several downfalls. Darcy and Elizabeth must reconcile with a different view of love and leave behind the barriers they have placed determined by their status in society.
Elizabeth cannot think that there is kindness in a man like Darcy who is of a class and society she tends to think has little to offer. Darcy must reconcile with the fact that she is of a “lower” status and has a family who does not behave in a way conducive to proper society. Yet when he is presented the alternative, to marry someone of his class who is boring, dour and limited, he realizes that it is better to love someone with Elizabeth’s nature than not to love to uphold your status. Elizabeth as well has to overcome her initial reservations when she sees the inner beauty he has inside.
It is only when she sees what unravels with our antagonist, Wickham, in every way he is the antithesis of Mr. Darcy. He is charming, good looking and knows exactly what to say. But underneath his sleek exterior is a manipulative character prone to trickery and seduction. He is completely blinded by his own egotism and ambition and essentially his lust for women.
Because of Elizabeth’s conformity to what society sees fit for her to behave, she reacts well to him. She is even quick to believe the account of events which Mr. Darcy foresees about Mr. Darcy. Again, we see another way that Elizabeth is blinded by appearances of goodwill and not the true thing.
Because he is an antithesis of everything that is Mr. Darcy, it is only when she sees her sister’s downfall, who is in essence another symbolism of a woman’s stereotype. Lydia is silly, vain and stupid. She is also the result of her mother’s upbringing. She ends up marrying in shame and completely oblivious of her having risked ruining the family’s reputation.
Reputation & Risks
Reputation is essentially something which causes people to react in certain ways and is essential for maintaining social status. For this reason, things that are causes of shame (such as sexuality, or liberalism) is kept under wraps, at the risk of it being exposed.
We essentially learn, through Elizabeth’s eyes, the true nature of Mr. Darcy. Once we see him for who he is, behind all the rough exterior lies an extraordinary human being who loves Elizabeth for who she is and now what she conforms to be. She is everything that we hope for in a heroine but only because of the self discovery that she is given through obtaining Darcy’s love. When she truly embraces the wild part of herself, it is then that she can be truly free and not be constrained by the norms and Mr. Darcy in turn learns to reveal his true self.
All the characters in the book are blinded in some way, shape or form limited by their status and wealth. It is only through a journey of self awareness that they are able to see people for whom they truly are and accept them for it.
This post is part of the series: Pride and Prejudice Study Guides
- Pride and Prejudice: Summary & Character Guide
- The Complicated Web of Marriages in Pride and Prejudice