How does social class affect the characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the rise of the Industrial Revolution created new wealth, making many working-class members of society as wealthy as the landed gentry. As the working class rose in wealth, many of the working class began marrying members of the landed gentry and of the nobility. Such rises in wealth and unions increased the prejudices felt among all classes. One of Jane Austen's main points in Pride and Prejudice is to show that social class structure affects individuals by feeding prejudices and to satirize the foolishness of such prejudices.
One example of Austen portraying the affects of prejudices created through social class structures can be seen in the Bingley sisters treatment of the Bennets. Mr. Bingley's sisters, Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Louisa Hurst, behave as snobbishly as if they were members of the landed gentry. Yet, Austen points out in Chapter 4, that the Bingleys were actually tradesmen who gained wealth through the Industrial Revolution; they now have enough wealth that Mr. Bingley is able to afford to purchase an estate. Despite being tradesmen, the Bingleys earned a respectable reputation for their family, a reputation that makes the Bingley sisters feel superior to those around them, even those who are actually in a higher class. Austen points out the excessive pride of the Bingley family in the following passage:
They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that there brother's fortune and their own had been acquired by trade. (Ch. 4)
Since Mr. Bennet is a member of the landed gentry, the Bennet family is actually in a higher social class than the Bingleys. Yet, the Bingley sisters insult the Bennets, and one reason is because they are aware that Mr. Bennet married a woman from the working class, ironically, the same class the Bingleys originated from.
One example of the Bingley sisters insulting the Bennets can be seen when, talking behind Elizabeth's back, Miss Bingley and Louisa Hurst insult Elizabeth's appearance after having walked through mud just to get to her ill sister. They also sneer at the fact that the Bennet sisters have an uncle on their mother's side who "is an attorney in Meryton" and a second uncle on the same side who is a tradesman living "somewhere near Cheapside" in London, historically a major business district. In addition, Miss Bingley is very guilty of showing a false friendship towards Jane Bennet as she first shows affection for Jane but, in London, behaves as if she can't get away from Jane and her uncle's house near Cheapside fast enough.
Through the Bingley sisters, Austen is showing us the affects of class structures as well as of mixing classes. Since the Bingley sisters have risen in economic status, they feel false justification in looking down their noses at others, even those in the same class or higher. Austen is also using the Bennets to show that mixing classes can create the appearance of tainting the classes, which feeds prejudices. Since the Bennet sisters are of a mixed class, even though class is inherited from the father, not the mother, others in society, like the Bingleys, prejudicially feel they have the right to judge them harshly. Hence, all in all, Austen is showing us that social class structures affect individuals through the fact that social classes breed prejudices.