How does Jane Austen present the social problem of classes in "Pride and Prejudice?"
"Pride and Prejudice" faithfully reflects the social realities of the Regency Period (1811-20).
The contrasting lifestyle of different social groups is structurally central to a Jane Austen novel. In "Pride and Prejudice" the landed gentry represented by Darcy is contrasted with the newly rich trading classrepresented by Bingley.
At that time, ownership of land and not money was the single most important criterion which determined the social status of an individual. Lady Catherine tries unsuccessfully to dissuade Elizabeth from marrying Darcy,because she is poorer than him but Elizabeth angrily retorts: "In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter: so far we are equal."(Ch.56).
At the end of Ch.59 when Elizabeth announces to her mother that she is going to get married to Darcy, Mrs.Bennet exclaims: "'Tis as good as a lord!" Darcy unlike his cousin Col.Fitzwilliam Darcy who is "the younger son of an earl" (Ch.33) is not a lord and does not have a title, but unlike Fitzwilliam he is the only son and has inherited a large estate with an annual income of 10,000 pounds.
Mr.Bingley inherits his father's commercial success of 100,000 pounds (Ch.4). But he knows that money alone will not confer him social status and so he finally buys "an estate in a neighbouring county to Derbyshire." (Ch.61). Something which his father had intended to but couldn't(Ch.4).
Similarly, Bingley's sisters who are also financially rich, try to disguise the fact that they belong to the trading class by "associating with people of rank." (Ch.4).
Since women of this period had no right to ownership of property they were financially dependent on their husbands,and hence the urgency and anxiety throughout the novel for the ladies to get married to "young men of large fortune" (ch. 1). But most importantly the harsh reality of a bleak future for a dependent unwed old woman is hinted at when Charlotte Lucas' brothers are relieved that Collins is going to marry their sister, for otherwise they would have to look after her in her old age:
"and the boys were relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte's dying an old maid." (Ch.22).
Mr.Bennet's estate is 'entailed' to Mr. Collins because Mr.Bennet does not have a son. In 'Regency England' only male heirs could inherit the title and the estate of their fathers. The third paragraph of chapter 50 clearly reveals the 'economic' necessity of having a son and the disappointment at not being able to have one and the consequent predicament which Mr.Bennet faces in not being able to personally meet the financial demands of Wickham.
In Ch.33 Col.Fitzwilliam tells Elizabeth "I may suffer from the want of money. Younger sons cannot marry where they like." Clearly hinting at her impoverished status.
The central theme of the novel--how much money is necessary for a successful and a happy marriage--is explicitly stated by Elizabeth in in Ch.27 :
"Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive? WHERE DOES DISCRETION END, AND AVARICE BEGIN?"