The theme of oppression is mainly seen in Pride and Prejudice through class snobbery. During this time period, England was experiencing a rise in the merchant class in which many members of the class were becoming as wealthy as the established landed gentry and able to buy estates of their own. The result was that members of both the established landed gentry and the merchant class began mingling and intermarrying, which of course led to snobbery from those who still thought of themselves as higher than the merchant class.
One example of oppression in terms of class snobbery can be seen in Lady Catherine de Bourgh's treatment of Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth and Darcy are actually members of the exact same class. Elizabeth's father is an untitled, landowning gentleman and so is Mr. Darcy. However, Lady Catherine judges Elizabeth to be beneath Darcy for a couple of reasons:
- Elizabeth's father married beneath him in marrying Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet is a member of the merchant class and has both a sister and brother who are still members of the merchant class, though they do pretty well financially. Mrs. Bennet's sister is married to Mr. Philips who is an attorney in Meryton. In addition, Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Bennet's brother, is a merchant in Cheapside, London.
- While Mr. Darcy is untitled himself, he has titled relations, Lady Catherine being his aunt, for example.
Therefore, since Elizabeth has merchant class relations while Darcy has titled relations, Lady Catherine warns Elizabeth that if she should marry Darcy, Elizabeth would be "quitting" her social "sphere" and upbringing and would "disgrace him in the eyes of everybody" (Vol. 3, Ch. 56). Hence, in snubbing Elizabeth as one who is inferior to Darcy, even though she is a gentleman's daughter, Lady Catherine can be said to be guilty of oppressing Elizabeth.
Other examples of oppression in terms of class snobbery can be seen with respect to the Bingley sisters' treatment of the Bennets. Ironically, Mr. Bingley is an example a member of the merchant class who has risen enough in wealth to match the landed gentry, even though he does not yet own his own estate. Therefore, the Bingley sisters come from a class that is technically speaking lower than Elizabeth and Jane's own class as their father is a gentleman. Yet the Bingley sisters snub the Bennet sisters and treat them as if they are lower, giving us another example of oppression.