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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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