How does Jane Austen present the themes of love and marriage in Pride and Prejudice?
For Jane Austen love was absolutely necessary for a good marriage. However, in English society at the time, which is depicted in the novel, love is not the greatest consideration for marriage. The ideal goal for marriage is to marry someone financially capable of supporting you. Love is secondary. Austen mocks this practice in the book.
For example, Mrs. Bennett is constantly reminding her daughters about the rule that since there is no male heir among her children, that their home will pass out of their family to the next male in the family, Mr. Collins. The Bennetts will be homeless when Mr. Bennett dies. So it is imperative that the girls, especially Jane and Lizzy, find husbands who can provide them with a home and possibly their mother and sisters as well.
Marriage is considered an arrangement between parties who occupy the same social level. Love is certainly a necessary consideration, but not required for a good match. For example, Darcy has been promised to Lady Catherine Debourgh's daughter since birth.
Even though he does not love her, he is supposed to marry her. Darcy is an exception, since he does fall in love with Lizzy, but is reluctant, at first to court her because he believes that her family is socially inferior. Darcy and Lizzy's marriage is an example of both love and financial security coming together. She and Jane both marry men who not only love them but can support them well.
'Romantic love' is the central theme which unites all the incidents and the characters in "Pride and Prejudice." But there is nothing 'romantic' about Jane Austen's treatment of 'romantic love' in the novel. 'Romantic love' is checked and controlled by the incomes and financial freedom of the partners involved. In this manner Jane Austen is able to blend 'romance' and 'realism.' For example, Lydia and Wickham who elope 'romantically' have to be rescued by the generosity of Darcy before they are married.
The restraining power of money on 'romantic love' is spelt out in the thematic statement found in Ch.27, "Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?", when Elizabeth replies to her anunt's query concerning Miss King the latest lover of Wickham. Her aunt is relieved to know that Elizabeth is not in love with Wickham who has virtually no income at all and is only employed temporarily in the Militia.
Another important consideration in love and marriage was the social class to which the characters belonged:
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).
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen actually presents us with two opposing pictures of marriage, side by side: the prevailing view of her society, and her own personal view.
Marriage in Austen’s time was mainly seen as a pragmatic social contract. For a man, it represented the act of settling down into the role of a solid citizen and reliable provider, leaving behind the wild fancies of youth; for a woman, it was the only chance to get out from under her mother’s roof and run a household of her own. And for both sexes, it was an opportunity to rise (or fall) in social status, in economic well-being, or both.
From society’s point of view, the joining of Mr. and Mrs. Collins is a perfect example of what constituted a good marriage. In choosing Charlotte, Mr. Collins gains an intelligent, prudent wife (as Elizabeth says, “one of the very few sensible women who would have accepted him”) and may even be slightly elevated by connection with the family of Sir Lucas, a former tradesman now in possession of a minor title. On Charlotte’s side the advantages are greater: by means of her marriage, she not only avoids an unpleasant spinster existence under her parents’ (and later her brothers’) guardianship, but also becomes the eventual mistress of Longbourn estate.
Austen’s own view, however, requires something more than this sheer pragmatism. Love is the key - but not necessarily the romantic love that defines modern views toward marriage. In fact, we are given two instances of romantic love that nearly end in tragedy - Lydia’s wildly insistent attachment to Wickham, and Jane’s steadier, but emotionally deeper, affection for Bingley. Lydia is barely saved from complete ruin - becoming a fallen woman, a social outcast - by a forced marriage with a man whose affection for her was, as Elizabeth notes, "not equal to Lydia's for him." Meanwhile, Jane, holding steadfastly to love while assured of Bingley’s indifference to her, sickens and becomes a shadow of her former self.
Elizabeth’s journey into marriage, however, is based on what Austen suggests is a rational preference, rather than a rush of romantic emotion. "If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection," writes Austen, "Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty" - and goes on to suggest that, considering the outcomes of the opposing method, "its ill success might, perhaps, authorize her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment." Elizabeth's feelings toward Darcy gradually solidify into affection based on her admiration for his personal qualities and gratitude for his ethical character and kind treatment. This is the kind of love that Austen sees as the best basis for marriage.
The famous opening lines of the novel speak volumes about Austen’s perspective on love and marriage. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” she writes, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” There’s something tongue-in-cheek about this passage—Austen is pointing out, with subtle humor, how silly it is to assume that any given man would want to marry just because he has enough money to do so. But she’s also establishing the novel’s environment in these first sentences.
In Austen’s day, marriage was not considered optional, and love was not generally considered a prerequisite. Marriage played a a practical role in the structure of family and community, especially for young women. Note that Elizabeth and her sisters don’t have much to do in their day to day lives, save for household chores and practicing skills that might make them more desirable wives one day. Especially because they don’t come from a particularly wealthy family, it’s important for each of the sisters to marry, and to marry well, or “up.” That’s why we see a variety of romantic situations in the book, ranging from the ridiculous—Mr. Collins, for instance, pursues Elizabeth romantically, despite her utter lack of interest—to the more conventionally romantic, as with the relationship between Jane and Charles Bingley.
Elizabeth feels pressure to accept Mr. Collins, even though she can’t imagine spending the rest of her life with him. That pressure, and the dependent role that women play in the book and in Austen’s era, is embodied in the character of Mrs. Bennet, who is desperate for each of her daughters to marry, while Elizabeth, in her refusal of Mr. Collins’ proposal, represents a more contemporary attitude toward the institution. The struggle between mother and daughter (and by extension, the struggle between old-fashioned and modern perspectives on marriage) is central to the novel.
From the first sentence through the end of the book, when several of the Bennet sisters are happily married, Austen continually addresses the themes of love and marriage—where they intersect, and where they do not—and reminds the reader of the important role that marriage played in English society in the early 19th century.