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,...
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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.