How do economic concerns touch the lives of the characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

Expert Answers

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

Nearly all characters in Pride and Prejudice are touched by economic concerns. A couple of economic concerns are described below.One example can be seen with respect to the Bennet family. The Bennet family is a member of the landed gentry class. Mr. Bennet owns an estate that...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Nearly all characters in Pride and Prejudice are touched by economic concerns. A couple of economic concerns are described below.

One example can be seen with respect to the Bennet family. The Bennet family is a member of the landed gentry class. Mr. Bennet owns an estate that earns its living from its tenant farmers. However, since Mrs. Bennet only gave birth to five daughters and no sons, the land will not stay in the family. It was not entirely illegal for women to inherit land. However, a woman could only inherit if there were no male heirs. We see this in the case of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She inherited her estate and her only daughter Anne de Bourgh will inherit next. The real problem is that when there is more than one sister whoe can inherit from the parent, such as five Bennet sisters, then the land inheritance is split up equally among the sisters. Therefore, if the Bennet sisters were to inherit, all of Longbourn would be divided between them, which would greatly diminish the value of the land. The solution to the problem is entailment. Through the legal process of entailment, the next male descendant will inherit the land rather than the sisters. Hence, one of the Bennet family's economic concerns is that the Longbourn estate has been entailed to Mr. Collins ("Male Primogeniture Succession"). Hence, if the women are still living or still unmarried by the time Mr. Collins is due to inherit, the women will be turned out of the house as paupers. In order to remain as members of the gentry class, rather than having to become members of the working class, the Bennet sisters must also marry into the landed gentry class.

A second economic concern we see in Pride and Prejudice stems from the social phenomenon that was occurring during this time period. The social phenomenon was that many in the merchant class were becoming wealthy enough to be able to establish themselves among the landed gentry. The Bingley's were actually a part of this rising merchant class, as we learn when we are first introduced to them and Austen makes a point of describing the Bingley sisters as "entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others" despite the fact that "their bother's fortune and their own had been acquired by trade" (Ch. 4). The Lucases are also part of this rising merchant class. It is described that, before he was knighted, Sir Lucas also worked in trade, earned a "tolerable fortune" and became mayor of Meryton (Ch. 5). The king was so impressed by his work as mayor that he knighted him. Sir Lucas's response to becoming knighted was to quit his work in Meryton and to purchase his estate, Lucas Lodge, in order to continue living life as a gentleman (Ch.  5). The problem with this is that he was really not yet wealthy enough to have purchased an estate. His children had to do work around the house because he could not afford all of the servants he needed. Plus, there was not enough fortune to divide among his children. The difference between Mr. Bingley and Sir Lucas is that Mr. Bingley's father continued working, allowing the next generation the luxury of purchasing an estate, which ensured greater wealth for that generation. The result of Sir Lucas's poor choice is that Charlotte is forced to marry for money. She is forced to marry a clergyman who will later inherit Longbourn, all because she lacks a fortune of her own. Hence, economic concerns even touch the lives of the Lucases.

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

In a sense, Jane Austen`s Pride and Prejudice is almost as much a book about money as it is a book about romance. The essential plot hinges around the problem of the entailment of the Bennett estate.

More generally, the problems of the Bennett and Lucas girls stem from the overlap of class prejudice, qualifications, and economics for Victorian women. there was a great social prejudice among the upper classes against earning money in `trade`and yet investment and land income was not sufficient to maintain the aristocratic lifestyle for many families (the main theme of Austen`s Persuasion). Women had few saleable skills – work as a governess was hazardous and badly paid – and thus needed to marry for money.

The 19th century marks an economic shift, in which the old landowning class (the country gentry of Austen`s novel) were being left behind by a new industrial economy.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is as much a novel about money as it is about romance. The central plot element is that Mr. Bennett has five daughters and no son, and thus his estate is entailed on a nephew, Mr. Collins. The girls, being members of the gentry are expected to marry gentlemen, but they have meagre dowries, making such prospects unlikely. The advent of Darcy and Bingley, two rich young men, into the neighborhood solves the problem for the novel; readers, if course, in the period, would be aware that this solution is fairly improbable in real life. Instead, a more typical example is that of Charlotte Lucas, belonging to a similarly genteel family of modest means, who marries Collins despite his rather unappealing character to avoid becoming an old maid. When Elizabeth expresses outrage at this, Jane reminds her:

"My dear Lizzy, do not give way to such feelings as these. They will ruin your happiness. You do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper. Consider Mr. Collins's respectability, and Charlotte's steady, prudent character. Remember that she is one of a large family; that as to fortune, it is a most eligible match; and be ready to believe, for everybody's sake, that she may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin." (Ch. 24)

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

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, one way in which econimc concerns touch the lives of her characters is that many characters' decisions and actions are actually governed by their economic concerns.

One major example is Charlotte Lucas' decision to marry Mr. Collins. After Elizabeth rejects Mr. Collins' offer, Charlotte goes to great lengths to win him. Charlotte had always intended to be married because it was the best way for women of little fortune, like Charlotte, or even of no fortune, to be provided for. While her father was a knight, he actually had a small fortune and very little to give his daughter. So, even though Charlotte thought that Mr. Collins "was neither sensible nor agreeable" and that "his society was irksome" (Austen, Vol. 1, Ch. 22), she agreed to the marriage because she knew that she would be well-provided for. She also knew that regardless of the fact that he was annoying, he was a respectable man. Furthermore, although presently he only owned the parsonage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, after the death of Mr. Bennet, Longbourn would be entailed to Mr. Collins, making him even more wealthy. Therefore, Charlotte's life was touched by economic concern in hat her decision to marry Mr. Collins was governed by economic need.

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

Economic concerns dominate the whole book in very subtle and powerful ways. A few points should make this clear.

First, we need to realize something of the historical context. England was a very socially and economically stratified society. So, for instance, in the book, the Bennets (middle class, for the lack of a better word) are clearly socially inferior to the Bingleys and Darcys, who are upper class. I suppose we can say that there is class consciousness to a new level and all the characters feel it and there is social pressure to confirm to it.

Second, a person's reputation and even "worth" is tied to economic concerns. In light of this, we can say that there is a superficial quality about this setting. Austen clearly show the ridiculousness of all of this as people from a lower classes kowtow to people of a higher class. Mr. Collins is a perfect example of this. The mentality is also reinforced by those of the upper class, like Dr. Darcy, who sees himself in an elevated way due to his family and his lineage. Miss Bingly is far worse and even more arrogant.

What makes Austen's work so enjoyable is that these economic and social concerns are dashed in the face of love.  The marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth makes this point loud and clear.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team