In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen was clearly commenting on marriage, but what is her view?
Marriage in the 18th and 19th centuries was seen as the only way for a young woman to find financial security.
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A short answer to this question about Austen's view of marriage is inadequate for the reason of (1) Jane Austen's ironic authorial voice in close proximity to the narrative (as opposed to a distant authorial voice that doesn't comment on the narrative) and for the reason that (2) Austen follows the Greek and Renaissance mimetic theory that literature should present all aspects of the issue being explored: i.e., all views about love and marriage. For theses two reasons, it takes thought to sort Austen's view out from her myriad ironic comments and to settle upon which idea(s) of love and marriage she identifies in the end of the story as the view(s) she considers to be the most suitable.
Elizabeth might be suspected of being the spokesperson for Austen's view of marriage, but Elizabeth goes through some significant character development so that her views at the end of the novel are not her views from the beginning of the novel. Jane might be suspected of representing Austen's view but Jane comes in for well founded criticism on points that nearly lead her to sabotage her own happiness--in fact, for a short time do cause her to sabotage her own happiness. While it is clear that the minor female characters (Mary, Kitty, Lydia, Miss Bingley) and the mother figures are the representation of views that Austen does not hold with, it is harder to see Austen's view in relation to Charlotte, since Elizabeth does come to take a different view of Charlotte's marriage to Mr. Collins after her own misadventures; although Austen never lets Mr. Collins off the hook of disapproval.
Austen does make clear her view that avarice and greed and vanity in motives of marriage are woefully wrong through characters like Miss Bingley and Lady De Bourgh and Mr. Collins. She also clearly rejects the unreasoned, reckless and harmful approaches to marriage of Lydia, Mary, Kitty and Wickham.
In the end of the story, Elizabeth has learned that infatuation, as hers for Wickham, does not make the foundation for marriage. She has also learned that superficial knowledge of an individual cannot make the foundation of a decision for or against marriage, as her marriage to Darcy proves. She has further learned to take a gentler view of the needs to marry--or not marry--for independence and self-fulfillment, as in the cases of Charlotte and Fitzwilliam. In the final result, Elizabeth comes to agree quite well with the position presented by her Aunt Gardener, who advocates a rational, practical approach to potential marriage partners and marriage.
Therefore, Austen's view can be identified in what she denounces, e.g., Lydia, Wickham, etc., and in the developed end form of whom she presents as admirable; i.e., Elizabeth, Jane, Charlotte, Fitzwilliam, Darcy, Aunt and Uncle Gardener, Mr. Bingley, and in the lessons Elizabeth learns.
I think Jane Austen's true feelings about society's expectation to marry within your station in the 18th & 19th centuries can most clearly seen in the interchange Mr Collins and Elizabeth have after the Netherfield ball in Chapter 19.
Mr. Collins has studied the "rules" of polite society to secure himself in his respectable position as Lady Catherine's personal clergyman. He is coming at the request of his patroness. Here is his or the standard of society's list of reasons to marry.
He feels he needs to show an example of matrimony in his parish, add greatly to his happiness, follow the unsolicited advice of his lady patroness Lady Catherine De Bourgh and because he feels bad that he will inherit the Bennet estate on the death of Elizebeth's father.
- Lady Catherine says, "Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. Choose properly, choose a gentlewoman, for my sake and for your own; let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her."
- Jane quickly refuses Mr Collins two times. The second time she gets to the point. She says, "I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so."
- Then Jane speaks more clearly, "I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretension whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart."
- I think this is classic Jane Austen, "My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer?"
I think Jane Austen is also seen as the keen observer that says few works but always has an opinion. This shows up in Mr. Bennet in Chapter 20.
"An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."
Elizabeth could not but smile at such a conclusion of such a beginning; but Mrs. Bennet, who had persuaded herself that her husband regarded the affair as she wished, was excessively disappointed.
"What do you mean, Mr. Bennet, by talking in this way? You promised me to insist upon her marrying him."
"My dear," replied her husband, "I have two small favours to request. First, that you will allow me the free use of my understanding on the present occasion; and secondly, of my room. I shall be glad to have the library to myself as soon as may be."
Jane Austen speaks her opinions about marriage through several of her characters. In the beginning of the novel only the Bennet girls have such silly notions of marring for love. At the close of the novel Jane and Elizabeth marry the men of their dreams and are financially secure.
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