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