How would I attempt a feminist reading of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Feminist literary criticism is, in brief, the study of literature for expressions of women's place in a male-dominated patriarchal society, the characteristics of which are illustrated by such cultural designations as "postman" "spokesman" "chairman" and "Father Knows Best." Attempting "a feminist reading" of literature is analyzing a work or works for expressions of the principle interests of feminism. Some chief ones are:

  • undervalued women writers
  • expressions of patriarchy or patriarchal hierarchy
  • marginalization of women as "others"
  • stereotypical representations of women
  • stylistic aesthetic of women writers
  • textual reflections of masculine ideology
  • textual reflections of masculine anti-women politics

Let's see what one or two of these points of feminist reading might look like. To start with, (1) Jane Austen was herself a minor, undervalued author who was excluded from the classical English Literature canon because her writing features a woman's perspective on and examination of social and cultural constructs. Her woman's perspective may be identified in elements like the omission of historical and political references; the secondary role of the male protagonist, Mr. Darcy; and the dominance of the character list by women; the intentional neglect of detailed set description.

One other point is that (2) male dominance and patriarchal hierarchy is manifest in her text in that the solutions to problems come from secondary male characters. For instance, Uncle Gardiner, Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy (secondary protagonist) find the solution to the Bennet's problem caused by Lydia.

"your uncle had a most unexpected visitor. Mr. Darcy called, and was shut up with him several hours." (Aunt Gardiner's letter to Elizabeth. Vol III, Ch. 10; Ch. 52)

That men are the active problem solvers undermines the preponderance of Austen's message that women are intellectually independent and at liberty to set their own values apart from society's norms, as Elizabeth's rejection of both Darcy and Collins (Darcy's notice and Collins' proposal) and her initial conversations with Lady de Bourgh at Rosings indicate.

In addition, (3) patriarchy is ironically supported when Jane and Lydia and Miss Darcy cause the problems dealt with in the present chronology of the text, notwithstanding Wickham's and Mr. Bennet's activity in Darcy's, Miss Darcy's and Lydia's troubles.

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