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

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

Start Free Trial

Does Jane Austen address the theme of gender injustice in her treatment of love and marriage in Pride and Prejudice? Elucidate.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Austen's implicit questions in Pride and Prejudice are: How can women exist within the economic institution of marriage, and how can women and men achieve emotional balance (re: love) under these socio-economic realities?

The injustices against women in Pride and Prejudice are mainly socio-economic.  Women could not control their own marriages, money, property without help from the male (fathers, husbands, or government).

Mr. Bennet is in a predicament: he has no male heir.  Therefore, how does he protect his daughters and family through his daughters' marriages.  Women, as was common, were seen as akin to property, a means to an end (wives of husbands, mothers of sons, keepers of dowries).  If unmarried, women became outcasts.

But, Austen provides practical alternatives to these injustices instead of polemics.  According to Enotes:

In Pride and Prejudice, the stakes of the marriage plots are high because Mr. Bennet's estate has been "entailed away from the female line" - a common legal provision of the period whereby only men may inherit property. If the Bennet girls do not marry well, they will be almost penniless when their father dies. The fact that the heir of the estate, Mr. Bennet's nephew Mr. Collins, is a buffoon who already has a comfortable living of his own, might suggest that Austen considers entailment unfair.

And according to critic Julia Prewitt Brown's essay "The Social History of Pride and Prejudice":

  • Women in the novel have less power and authority than men, but English matrimonial law did give power to and protect some of its women: they could retain money and property even in marriage.  She says, "Mr. Bennet cannot alter the entail requiring that his estate go to the nearest male relation, but he can settle money on his daughters that, if proper legal measures are taken, will remain their own after marriage."
  • Many men, e.g., Mr. Collins, see marriage as the only salvation from "spinsterhood," the ultimate socio-economic death of a woman.
  • Austen creates realistic women and a realistic hero in Elizabeth who is without exaggeration or sentimentality, who exists in society and marriage, not spitefully outside it.
  • Austen uses her satirical artistry to subtely call out the injustices made against women by men without alienating men or romanticizing women.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jane Austen certainly does address the theme of gender injustice to some extent in Pride and Prejudice through Charlotte Lucas's surprising marriage to Mr. Collins.

Austen makes it very evident that it is due to her situation that Charlotte forces herself to think of marrying Mr. Collins as an acceptable thing to do. The major problem with her situation is that, although her father was given a title due to his work as a mayor, Austen makes it very clear that Sir Lucas quit his trade business, bought an estate, and took on the leisurely life of a gentleman far too soon (Ch. 5). The result is that he has very little fortune to pass down to his children, and even his children must take on household chores. It is due to lack of fortune that Charlotte absolutely must marry. In addition, her choices for marriage are very limited as she has always been very plain. As Austen phrases it:

[For Charlotte], without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservation from want. (Ch. 22)

Had Charlotte, like a man, been able to acquire an occupation, she would not need to make sure she was cared for through marriage. Hence, Charlotte's marriage to a ridiculous man due to necessity certainly helps portray the theme of gender injustice.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

From the very start of the story Jane writes in her epilogue the subtlety ironic words:

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Austen, a staunch independent woman herself, obligingly ensured that the topics of gender injustice prevailed and permeated throughout the story. The character of Elizabeth represents Jane's own views and behaviors during this period in history, where women were admitted as the property of their husbands.

Through Elizabeth, Jane voices her opinion and frustrations albeit also her tolerance of this reality.

First, we have Mrs. Bennett having none other than 5 children, all of them daughters- Her mission is therefore to marry them off well, or else they will become destitute in society.

Second, the estate in which the Bennetts live is at the mercy of their far cousin Mr. Collins ONLY because Mr. Bennett, having 5 daughters, will die without an heir whenever he does. In that time, properties could only be transferred from males to males.

Charlotte, the anti-Austen, says plainly how she will accept to marry Mr. Collins so that she can come of some property, company, and earn social respect.

Lydia, Elizabeth's younger sister who eloped with Wickham to  her social disgraced was married off by the generosity of Darcy and his intentions to clean up her act and that of Wickham's. As she returns, Lydia considers herself higher ranking than her sisters because she is now married and insists on everyone in town knowing it.

Lady Catherine DeBourgh, who wanted to marry Darcy to her own daughter Miss Debourgh had already that marriage planned and flattened out simply because it was "natural" that marriage was made for the purpose of acquiring or joining fortunes rather than for love.

In Pride and Prejudice, the women who were happy and content were, gladly, the women who waited for their true love. The rest were all seen as victims of their own social limitations.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The best example of gender injustice comes through the example of the charming bad boy Mr. Wickham.  Here is a man who has repeatedly done foolish, unwise things and yet enjoys a solid reputation in society, and could still have his pick of young ladies to marry if he so desired.  Even after he absconds with the foolish Lydia, his reputation remains relatively unscathed, while Lydia becomes a marked, fallen, disreputable woman.  If Wickham were to walk away from the Lydia situation without marrying her, he could probably have gone on to lead a life unmarked by his actions, and continue on to find another girl of some means to marry.  Lydia on the other hand, if she hadn't married, would have been ruined.  It would have been the end of her chances in society, of ever finding a suitable match, or being considered worthy of any sort of social standing.

This demonstrates the great injustices that were found in Austen's time, in regards to gender.  Women were held responsible for any bad behavior, while men could do pretty much as they pleased.  Women also became a "burden" on their parents if they didn't get married (hence Charlotte's marriage to Mr. Collins to get out of her parent's house), and were held accountable for their family's foibles and faults (Mr. Darcy convincing Bingham, in part, to walk away from Jane because of her silly family).  Overall, women really got the short end of the stick when it came to freedom to pursue love and marriage separate from reputation, money, burden of family and societal norms.

I hope that those thoughts helped a bit; good luck!

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on