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

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

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

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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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How do you analyze feminism in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

For her time period, I would actually argue that Jane Austen was rather pro-feminism. Although women of her time period were expected to remain at home and be "accomplished" by being able to sing, perform musical instruments, paint, embroider, sew, perform many other crafts, and speak foreign languages, it can often be seen that Jane Austen's characters rebel against the traditional roles and responsibilities of women.For instance, Elizabeth, herself, is not what Mr. Darcy would call "accomplished." She plays the piano only moderately well, does not paint or draw, and is far too rebellious and independently minded to have a lady-like "air and manner," and yet, we see that Darcy falls in love with her (Ch. 8, Vol. 1). Because Austen is not having her heroine conform to the commonly held notions of accomplished women, Austen is playing the role of a feminist. Aside from rebelling against being accomplished, another way Elizabeth rebels is in expressing her mind. We see her doing this throughout the novel, especially in her repartee with Darcy at...

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Netherfield, however, my favorite verbal rebellion takes place at Rosings. WhenLady Catherine de Bourgh revolts at the thought of all of Elizabeth's sisters being out in society at once, Elizabeth gives a long speech as to why it should be socially acceptable. Particularly, she says "The last born has as good a right to the pleasures of youth, as the first. And to be kept back on such a motive [as marrying the eldest daughters first]!" (Ch. 6, Vol. 2 ). She even further rebels against Lady Catherine's self-righteous, aristocratic air when she refuses to give her age saying only that she is "not one and twenty" (Ch. 6, Vol. 2). Contrary to social norms, Elizabeth's rebelliousness and independent mind is further demonstration that Jane Austen actually was a feminist.

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

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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What are some examples of feminist critique of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

The Purdue OWL refers to criteria established by Lois Tyson in examining literature through a lens of feminist criticism. A couple of those include the following:

  • Women are oppressed by patriarchy.
  • Women are marginalized, defined by the way they differ from male norms.

Some may fail to see Jane Austen's work as particularly feminist because it was written in an incredibly traditional society over two hundred years ago. Yet if we take a close look, we can see that Austen was trying to voice her dissatisfaction with her patriarchal society through the conflict and characterization of her characters.

Elizabeth Bennet in particular offers a condemnation of the male patriarchy in Pride and Prejudice. On the surface, Elizabeth seems a product of her society. She is likely to end up destitute due to the way land and money must be transferred between males upon the death of her father. She isn't able to earn any income herself and must rely on the males in her life to provide for her. She is subjected to her mother's whims for marriage proposals and is expected to comply with plans that will provide for her future.

Yet Elizabeth retaliates against patriarchal norms. When Darcy initially proposes to her, he doesn't consider that she might refuse his offer. After all, her own social standing is lower than his. Darcy presumes that his wealth and social connections will equate to Elizabeth's ready acceptance of his proposal. His demeanor infuriates Elizabeth:

As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security.

Elizabeth, however, is not willing to sacrifice her own independent spirit to acquire financial stability. She insists that she has "never desired [Darcy's] good opinion" as she refuses his marriage proposal. Darcy is floored and angered that Elizabeth should refuse him:

Mr. Darcy ... seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise. His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature.

Though society offers her no real power, Elizabeth seeks to escape patriarchal expectations; she is willing to live in poverty rather than marry a man whom she does not feel is worthy of all she offers. This is a fiercely independent position for a woman of this era, demanding respect from men who outrank her in positions of societal influence. Her insights and bravery expose Darcy's own security within their patriarchal society and eventually serve to establish them as equals when she finally does see a transformation in his character.

I am attaching several analyses that further examine this work from a feminist lens.

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