How would I approach an essay for Pride and Prejudice on the topic that it is a novel about women who feel they have to marry to be happy, using Charlotte Lucas as an example and asking if Austen is making a social critism of her era's view of marriage?
In addressing this essay topic, you first need to define the distinctions between "happy" "independent" and "financial secure." You then need to make a close reading of the comments Elizabeth, Charlotte, Jane, and Miss Bingley make about women, accomplishments, and marriage.
- Pride and Prejudice is not a novel about women who feel they have to marry to be happy.
- Jane Austen is offering a social criticism on her era's dependence upon marriage.
Elizabeth rejects the idea of marrying for reasons of money, comfort and independence. She insists that marriage must occur because of love, esteem, admiration and for no baser reasons that this, certainly not for social advancement and certainly not without love.
Charlotte clearly explains that she marries Collins because she doesn't believe that marriages for love work out any better than marriages without love. She clearly reminds Elizabeth that she has never agreed with Elizabeth's romantic notions of the necessity for love in marriage. Charlotte realizes that since her father, like Mr. Bennet, has limited wealth and that since she herself has limited beauty, her chances of any marriage grow fainter each year. She clearly explains that her wish is to have independence from her mother and father and to have a home and a family of her own (we might say her biological clock for childbearing was ticking). Charlottes' reference to "happiness" is strictly in context of the success and felicity of the marriage. Charlotte does not pronounce "happiness" as the motivation for marriage but as the desirable mutual outcome of a successful marriage.
But when you have had time to think it all over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins's character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state. (Vol. I Chapter XXII (22))
Jane's comments about marriage are generally all on the need for love in marriage: one marries because of and for love. Like Charlotte, Jane never identifies "happy" as a motivation for marriage.
Miss Bingley reliably addresses the qualities of womanhood that are desirable (she takes it to an extreme somewhat, but her opinion, though surprising to Elizabeth, is supported by Darcy, Miss Georgiana Darcy, and Colonel Fitzwilliam). Her implication is that a woman's happiness comes from accomplishment and the esteem of others, not from marriage. Her designs for a marriage with Darcy are never clearly explained in terms of motivation, but we can reasonably speculate that she was motivated by genuine admiration and deep affection for him, whatever her personality weaknesses might be.
Austen is certainly illustrating and thereby criticizing the social interconnectedness between financial independence and marriage: independence and financial security could not be had by women (unless widows or otherwise independently wealthy) in her era without marriage.