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Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" raises important moral issues concerned with the institution of marriage. The opening sentence of the novel announces the central theme of the novel:
IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
The opening sentence also links this theme with the most important aspect of the institution of marriage, namely, money. In "Pride and Prejudice" Jane Austen's main concern is to try to answer the question as to how much money is necessary for a happy and successful marriage:"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?" (Ch.27)
In Ch.33 Col Fitzwilliam Darcy the younger son of an earl and obviously a very rich man hints to Elizabeth that he can't marry her: "Our habits of expense make us too dependent, and there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marrywithout some attention to money." Was he beingprudent or avaricious in not marrying Elizabeth? Jane Austen leaves it to the readers to decide.
On the contrary, Darcy also a very rich man overlooks Elizabeth's impoverished financial status and goes out of the way to ensure that Wickham marries Lydia so that the Bennet's family honour is intact. His love for her compels him to virtually bribe Wickham his worst enemy into doing so. This clearly establishes that he is a noble and generous person and Elizabeth readily accepts his second marriage proposal in Ch.58.
Another important theme is the contrasting lifestyle of different social groups which 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 class represented by Bingley.
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.
'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 classto 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).
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