Comparing Austen's late 18th century world, as shown in Pride and Prejudice, with ours, is social class still important in our society?

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tamarakh's profile pic

Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Jane Austen was actually quite the social critic of her time. One thing she points out in Pride and Prejudice is the ridiculousness of class distinctions. One reason she was able to criticize social behavior that divided classes is that during her time period, society was witnessing a new trend, the rise of the middle class. Many members in the labor, or merchant class were becoming increasingly wealthy through trade, wealthy enough, in fact, to be able to purchase their own estates and rub shoulders with the landed gentry. As the merchant class became more wealthy, they began mingling more with the upper class, even intermarrying. At the same time that the classes were beginning to mix, the French revolution was taking place, and in an effort to prevent themselves from also being beheaded, some of England's noble class began to become more accepting of the mixing of classes ("Social Evolution in Pride and Prejudice"). Austen's Pride and Prejudice portrays the mixing of these social classes as well as the class snobbery still taking place, showing us that while class really was unimportant, there were still those in Austen's society that viewed it as important, ridiculously so.

Austen portrays the mixing of social classes through both the Bennets and the Bingleys. Mr. Bennet is a non-working gentleman who owns an estate, thus earning his income from his estates tenants. However, Mr. Bennet actually married beneath him in class. Mrs. Bennet is actually a member of the merchant class and has both a sister and a brother who are still in that class. Mrs. Philips' husband is an attorney in Meryton while Mr. Gardiner is an accomplished tradesman who lives in Cheapside, London's business district (Ch. 7). In addition, Austen makes it well understood that Mr. Bingley actually also comes from the merchant class. Bingley's father earned their fortune through trade and has left it up to Bingley to purchase an estate (Ch. 4). Therefore, when Bingley marries Jane, a gentleman's daughter, despite his sisters' criticism, he actually marries from the class above him. Austen uses the criticisms of both Bingley's and Darcy's marriages to show just how ridiculous class distinctions and class ridicule really are. Nevertheless, while classes were mixing more in this time period than centuries prior, the fact remained that class distinctions were still drawn and those born in one class were most likely to remain in that class.

Current evidence is actually showing that even in today's society, such as England today, class is "still the best predictor of how well he or she will do at school and later on in life" (Kirkup & Pierce, "Harriet Harman: Social class"). Current research shows that a child born in one economic/social class, especially the lower class, is more likely to remain in that class. This is even proving to be true in America: Children of blue collar workers are more likely to become blue collar workers themselves (McMurrer & Sawill, "The Declining Importance of Class"). Hence, we see in both Austen's era and our own that, while we say that class is unimportant, it still creates a strong barrier.

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darcys-tango's profile pic

darcys-tango | (Level 2) eNoter

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Chapter eight, dealing with a time when Jane was indisposed at Netherfield and Eliza had left the drawing room to be with her, has most of the elements of social class thinking exposed. Eliza ia ridiculed for her conceited independence as a mere country person and the Bennet family relations looked down upon by Bingley's sisters, due to associations with trade and living in an unfashionable area of London. Darcy also states reasons for such traits making an opportune marriage difficult to imagine as feasible.

Chapter 56, in which Lady Catherine states her pompous views ( "Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?) on the unsuitablity of class-mixing and the huge gulfs (in her way over-magnified views) of class , weath and breeding, is also is useful in putting it all in perspective.

Even today some attitudes amongst the gentry and very rich create social barriers in society but are less publicly spoken of in respect of the many "isms" that create outrage in many quarters in the public domain. A lessening of the divides, but not a total revolution perhaps?

Hope this helps.

darcys-tango's profile pic

darcys-tango | (Level 2) eNoter

Posted on

Chapter eight, dealing with a time when Jane was indisposed at Netherfield and Eliza had left the drawing room to be with her, has most of the elements of social class thinking exposed. Eliza ia ridiculed for her conceited independence as a mere country person and the Bennet family relations looked down upon by Bingley's sisters, due to associations with trade and living in an unfashionable area of London. Darcy also states reasons for such traits making an opportune marriage difficult to imagine as feasible.

Hope this helps.

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