How does feminist criticism apply to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

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

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The major objectives of feminist criticism, begun aggressively in France by Simone de Beauvoir in 1949, are to (1) identify patriarchal ideological dominance inscribed in classic English literary cannon; (2) explore woman as the "other" with man as the "subject" and definition of humankind and the essence of humanity; (3) examine what is referred to as the great collective myths about women as inscribed in classic cannon; (4) examine derogatory stereotypes about women in literature; (5) examine political, social, economic discrimination against women as inscribed in cannon; (6) examine how nonbiological gender identity is culturally constructed and represented in literature; (7) explore "gynocritique" to identify how women writers of all ages "perceive themselves and imagine reality."

Applying one of these points to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, feminist critique reveals the life burden ascribed to women according to economic standing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Women without money were in sorely limiting constraints as was true for Charlotte Lucas and to a lesser extent the Bennet daughters. On the other hand, women with wealth held an awesome power over men when they were sole owners of their wealth as widows, unmarried older women or betrothed women with wealth as Austen shows in Pride and Prejudice through Lady de Bourgh (more is demonstrated on this topic in Sense and Sense and Sensibility with Miss Grey and Mrs. Smith).

Feminist criticism would also examine Austen's perception of womankind and reality as she draws a parallel between women's plight and the plight of younger brothers through the relationship of Elizabeth and Colonel Fitzwilliam who, as a younger son, has similarly limited independence of action. Austen's perceptions would also be examined as she draws a portrait of the beneficial symbiotic relationship between husband and wife as demonstrated by the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner in which Mrs. Gardiner has seemingly equal dignity and humanity with Mr. Gardiner, though not equal socioeconomic power as all Darcy's dealings regarding Lydia and Wickham were with Mr. Gardiner.

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