What do various events and relationships in Pride and Prejudice suggest about the benefits and drawbacks of being a woman in Austen's era?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice probably gives the best illustration of the drawbacks of being a woman in the late 18th (when Pride and Prejudice was written) and early 19th (when Pride and Prejudice was published) centuries. Charlotte makes it clear in Chapter 22 that for a woman of small or no wealth, with limited options for marrying, a comfortable establishment of a home of her own is more desirable than a lifetime as a single woman dependent upon her parents until her death. When the woman in question is less than beautiful, her options become even more narrow and her definition of personal happiness has to be a broader, more practical and rational one. These are the reasons Charlotte accepts Mr. Collins' proposal. Come to think of it, the male versions of these same reasons are the reasons why Mr. Collins makes his proposals: a man of modest means, not handsome, and more than a little silly, has to have a broader definition of love that inspires a proposal of marriage.

On the other hand, Miss King who is an heiress of a substantial fortune, demonstrates the disadvantages attached to a woman with wealth. Wickham is the embodiment of this particular disadvantage. Unscrupulous men who have good looks and charming manners can falsely inspire love when their only aim is to pay off their debts (to avoid imprisonnment) and profligately waste the rest of the lady's fortune, just like Wickham wanted to do.

A benefit that such young ladies as Austen writes about had was that of admirable educations and the attainment of many accomplishments. This can be seen in the conversation of Elizabeth, Jane, Charlotte, Caroline Bingley, etc. Of course, Austen introduces the ironic opposite of such opportunity and attainment in the persons of Lydia, Kitty and Mary who waste their opportunities through silliness of some sort. Interestingly, contemporary education and opportunities for women are broader and theoretically unlimited but there is some debate as to the comparable depth and excellence of contemporary education.

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Pride and Prejudice

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