Illustration of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy with neutral expressions on their faces

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

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How is Pride and Prejudice a social novel?

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Pride and Prejudice is a social novel, as well, because it provides some—at times, subtle—social commentary on several issues. For example, Charlotte Lucas is an intelligent young woman, though—at age twenty seven—she is fast becoming a spinster in the eyes of society. She can either accept this fate, where she will be a financial drain on her family and pitied by society, or she can marry the ridiculous Mr. Collins, a man she knows cannot truly be in love with her. If she marries, she gains social respectability and avoids the pitiable fate of an "old maid." This is a lose-lose situation for Charlotte in some ways: she can choose to remain a spinster or she can choose to marry an idiot. There is so much pressure placed on women to marry, and this was the only way for a woman of Charlotte's status to really have a respectable identity, but this hardly seems just, does it? Mr. Collins can be a total idiot, and yet he has a career and position that gives value and legitimacy to his existence, but Charlotte does not and cannot. In critiquing the system of marriage in this way, Austen provides social commentary on this—and many other issues as well—making this a "social" novel.

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Pride and Prejudice certainly reflects the social realities of its time, especially for women. Marriage was almost a requirement for middle-class young ladies to secure their future since they were not legally able to inherit property. Since their father's estate will go to their cousin, Mr. Collins, the five Bennet girls must marry, and preferably marry well.

Another social reality that the novel addresses is the notion of propriety. The fact that Elizabeth's family so often behaves improperly is a serious concern for Darcy, since behavior was considered the outward manifestation of inward morals. (The idea of having a "public face" to present to the outside world is much more modern). Therefore, Lydia's elopement with Wickham is a grave social mistake. The fact that Darcy is willing to help "fix" this disaster says a lot about his character and about his feelings for Elizabeth. 

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