What are various examples of poverty represented throughout the novel in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen? 

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator
  • Poverty, destitution, need, want imply a state of privation and lack of necessities. Poverty denotes serious lack of the means for proper existence: (Random House Dictionary)

Poverty is associated with the undermining of a range of key human attributes, including health. The poor are exposed to greater personal and environmental health risks, are less well nourished, ... they thus have a higher risk of illness and disability. (World Health Organization)

By all defintions of poverty, now and in the 18th and 19th centuries, none represented in Pride and Prejudice even approach a level of poverty. Austen does bring people living in poverty into the story in Emma when Emma goes to help villagers who are living in poverty in illness, with no source of income. Yet, Austen does not include this element of poverty and aid in Pride and Prejudice.

What is there in Pride and Prejudice that represents lack of wealth, though? Bear in mind that "lack of wealth" is very very far from poverty. Sir and Lady Lucas are represented as having too little wealth to allow Charlotte to spend the social season in London or to have an ample dowry. Mr. Bennet is represented as having squandered much of the principle of his wealth (as opposed to living on just the intereset generated from the principle) so that his five daughters, like Charlotte Lucas, have meager dowries that will do little in attracting them good social marriages. 

Mrs. Bennet makes a repeated point of the incomeless state she and the girls will be in if the Longbourne estate is passed through entailment to Collins. Yet in the narrative of the story, this is strictly a possibility projected for the uncertain future. They are not in poverty during the chronology of the narrative (or ever). Mr. Collins is represented as a successful working clergyman who earns a salary, but the salary is said to be an enviable one, one not in the least leaving him in a state of poverty or near poverty.

Colonel Fitzwilliam is represented as a second son of an Earl who must plan to marry a woman of wealth because all the Earl's money and estate will go with the title to the first son. Yet, Fitzwilliam has a commission in the Regiments with an income from that and an allowance from his father (though this is assumed social knowledge and not mentioned in the text). Fitwilliam is not penniless.

Lady de Bourgh comes closest to bringing poverty into the story when she talks to (brags to) Elizabeth about how she manages her estate, to which she has full leagal, contractural and management rights as her husband's widow. She explains how she interceds in the lives of the villagers who live on the Rosings estate working the farmland and performing other work necessary to the estate, for example, jobs like blacksmithing, wheat milling, timber cutting, bread baking. Lady de Bourgh is said to take an active interest in the lives of her villagers, even on the topic of poverty, which she does not tolerate:

[She] was a most active magistrate in her own parish, the minutest concerns of which were carried to her by Mr. Collins; and whenever any of the cottagers were disposed to be quarrelsome, discontented or too poor, she sallied forth into the village to settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into harmony and plenty.

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Pride and Prejudice

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