Illustration of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy with neutral expressions on their faces

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen
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Attempt a feminist reading of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

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As a reader, you first read the story for the sake of the plot events and the style and themes of a work, but as that is happening, you may also consider alternative perspectives of a work.  When you do this, it is like you are standing a bit outside the text and looking at it through a specific lens to evaluate what is happening in the text.  You have been asked to look at this classic novel by Jane Austen to ask yourself, "What would a feminist say about this novel?  What is Austen intentionally, or unintentionally revealing about the place of women in society?"

Feminist criticism evaluates novels for what they illustrate about the role of women in society; how they struggle to be seen as independent individuals in a traditionally patriarchal society.  This criticism also evaluates the relationships between men and women.  Clearly this novel is a bounty for the reader who wants to create a feminist reading a novel.

The novel is dominated by female characters and focuses on their many varied attitudes about marriage.  This right there would draw the attention of feminist reader.  There are NO women in this novel who can or who are even interested in living an autonomous life outside the realm of marriage.  Getting married, for any number of additional motivations (love, financial security, sexual relations) is the primary subject of this novel.  Austen is drawing a picture of a society in which women are almost completely dependent on men for financial and emotional security.  While Elizabeth's quest for marriage for true love only is perhaps more admirable than Charlotte's practical attitude about marriage for financial security, it doesn't change the fact that Elizabeth would be absolutely destitute without a marriage of some sort.  Their father's estate is entitled to a MALE heir, and the daughters will all be literally out on the street if he should die before the girls are safely married.  (Or at least one of the girls be safely married to man of enough means who can support the unmarried sisters.)

To do a complete feminist reading of the novel, you will need to explore and prove the various similarities and differences the women in the novel have about marriage.  You could look at how the men treat the women -- what are their prejudices?  How do the men, ultimately, "hold all the cards?"  You could evaluate the strength of the female characters in comparison to the failings of the male characters -- looking specifically at Mr. Bennet, Mr. Collins, and Mr. Wickham.  You could think about the significance of the fact that this very satirical novel is written by a woman about the circumstances of women at the beginning of the 19th century.  This novel is filled with angles from which to explore what a feminist would notice or have to say about it.

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It is not difficult to develop a feminist reading of Pride and Prejudice. In it, Austen critiques a social system that leaves most women of the gentry with no reasonable economic alternative to marriage.

The system of primogeniture, in which inheritance passes down only through male hands, stacks the deck against the five Bennet sisters from the start. Because their parents never gave birth to a boy, their estate and its comfortable income will go to their cousin, Mr. Collins, upon their father's death. Their father married late in life, and if the girls do not marry, they will end up impoverished after he dies. Austen's novel implicitly (but never explicitly) questions why this is so: for what logical reason are the five daughters, who need the money more than Mr. Collins, a clergyman, passed over? A feminist reading would point out how unfair primogeniture was—and perhaps even note that earlier writers, like Richardson, spoke out against it (he does so in Sir Charles Grandison).

In a feminist reading, Mrs. Bennet's desperate quest to marry her daughters as quickly as she can to well-to-do men can be framed as less ridiculous than prudent. She knows that the alternative to marriage is poverty for her daughters, and she wants to protect them from that fate. Likewise, although Elizabeth is shocked and judgmental in response to her best friend's choice, in a world in which marriage has been made the only occupation with any kind of status or security for a woman, readers can easily understand Charlotte Lucas's hardheaded decision to marry Mr. Collins. He is a man who can provide for her, even if she does not love him.

Lydia's desperate situation when she runs off with Wickham illustrates the sexual double standard in operation during this time. She will be ruined and her family will be disgraced if Wickham does not marry her; Wickham, however, would get off for abandoning her with a mere slap on the wrist.

Finally, while the witty and assertive Elizabeth manages to marry for love—or at least a man she can esteem—she also understands the economic value of being mistress of Pemberley. Even for someone as talented as she is, marriage is her one and only way up the social ladder.

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