How are women portrayed in Pride and Prejudice and what is their role?

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The women we see portrayed in Pride and Prejudice range from the upper-middle and gentry classes to aristocrats like Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Elizabeth defends herself to Lady de Bourgh as a gentleman's daughter, and we note that her father owns an estate big enough to support hunting, a...

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The women we see portrayed in Pride and Prejudice range from the upper-middle and gentry classes to aristocrats like Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Elizabeth defends herself to Lady de Bourgh as a gentleman's daughter, and we note that her father owns an estate big enough to support hunting, a gentleman's hobby. We don't see what life is like for women in the servant or lower classes.

The women Austen depicts are united in being focused on their only career option (or their daughters' only career option), which is marriage. Marry they all must, or they face the humiliation and uncertainty of ending up old maids, dependent on fathers and brothers for support. In the case of the five Bennet sisters, the situation is dire: they have no brother to depend on, and after their father, who is not young, dies, the income and estate they have depended on will pass to Mr. Collins, the next male in line to inherit.

The book explores the various ways women try to cope with the race for a husband. Some, like Charlotte Lucas, are hardheaded and businesslike, marrying without illusions of love and happiness. Others, like Lydia, run off with the man they have a passion for in a soft-headed and foolish way that threatens ruin. Others, like Elizabeth, learn to fall in love with the man who also offers a financially prudent match. But all the women, one way or another, find that money plays a major role in the affairs of the heart.

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In the novel, there are many, many specific quotes that discuss exactly what lhc said in post #2.

Some of them are:
Chapter One: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."

Chapter 10: "Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger."

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Women in England in the 1800's, which is when Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is set, had one primary function, which was to marry, and marry well.  The Bennet girls have a temporarily comfortable life, for in the absence of sons, when their father dies, his property will be inherited by their cousin, Mr. Collins. For this reason, the Bennet's mother is usually in a frenzy trying to orchestrate the marriage of her daughters.   Elizabeth Bennet, her third of four girls, is a delightful young lady who refuses to lose her individualism and personal identity in a society that encourages women to do exactly that. However, much like her father, Elizabeth doesn't take too seriously her mother's flighty schemes to get her married. The role of women, especially upper crust women in England at the time is to look beautiful, speak only of pleasantries, and marry quickly, preferably to someone with some wealth at his disposal.  On this eve of the Industrial Revolution, this world stands in stark contrast to the one that will soon evolve in Britain, where women's roles will transform into something completely different.

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In Pride and Prejudice, women are portrayed through the different characters that inhabit the novel.  Take for example, Elizabeth Bennett, she is not your typical woman of the period, she should be set on getting married. She is in a difficult situation with her home being passed to her father's next male heir, Mr. Collins, yet when he proposes, she refuses.  Clearly, she is intelligent, strong minded and independent.  Jane, on the other hand, is considered the beauty of the family.  When Mr. Bingley comes to the country, she is a perfect candidate for his affections.  She is demure, socially acceptable, but, poor.

 Lydia is crazy and wild.  She doesn't seem to follow any of the social rules of her day and lacks a sense of morality.  Mary is quiet, most likely to remain unmarried.  She is content to stay with her books.  Kitty is too young to judge according to this standard.

The book allows us to observe women who are rich, Lady Catherine Debourgh and women who are poor the Bennett sisters and women who are desperate, Charlotte Lucas. Jane Austen's women characters are three dimensional, they are not paper cut-outs. Her women possess different characters, temperments and value systems. She is saying women are not one dimensional, not just decoration on a man's arm. But  valued members of society.

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Women are portrayed in many different ways in Pride and Prejudice. The main unifying characteristic they have is that they are economically dependent on men. Whether fathers, brothers, or husbands, women must have them to be socially acceptable.

Beyond that, though, there is little continuity. There are proud and silly women (Lady Catherine de Bourgh), there are silly and crude women (Mrs. Bennet), there are kind women (Jane) and there are women who are so smart they crackle (Elizabeth!).

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