Another aspect of social commentary is what Austen suggests about the class structure in England at the time. In England, there were rigid class distinctions and it is only in the half decade before Austen writes her novels that there is the idea of a rising middle class whose wealth comes from commerace. But wealth does not allow for an upward movement in social class. The landed gentry such as Darcy and Lady Catherine are the elite of the land and actual money is only a part of the reason. They are noble blue-bloods who through land and title are the superiors of everyone else. Maintaining the class heirarchy is important to them, especially someone like Lady Catherine who sees the marriage of her daughter to her first cousin, Darcy, as a logical way to maintain the status quo. Darcy's first proposal (and 2nd for that matter) are very far from the expectations of his class. Marrying for love, especially to someone of such a significantly lower class is a shocking decision. Some of his poor behavior comes from his tradition in this class structure, but Austen has drawn a picture of a changing social picture of England.
One of the major aspects of this novel as a social commentary is the position of women at the time of writing. lit24 is right in highlighting the case of Charlotte Lucas and her willingness to marry even such a man as Mr. Collins so that she can gain independence and social status in a way that she would not be able to do as a single spinster. Back in Austen´s times, really marriage was the only future for women who wanted some form of autonomy or limited independence. Obviously Mrs. Bennet is a caricature of a mother who is completely obsessed by marrying off her daughters, but it does reveal the grain of truth behind this exaggerated character by stressing the importance of marriage. This is why Charlotte Lucas was so willing to make the compromise of marrying the ridiculous Mr. Collins. To her, as a 27 year old (and thereby nearly classified a spinster without hope of marriage), Mr. Collins represented her last hope to have her own house and gain the social status that married women had at that time. Again and again in the novel, the fate of not marrying is referred to, such as when Mr. Collins rather insensitively alludes to Elizabeth maybe not having any further hopes of marriage if she refuses him. In many ways it was a brutal world for women, who had severely restricted choices and options open to them.
Jane Austen belongs to the Romantic Age in English literature.
"Pride and Prejudice"(1813) like all of Jane Austen's novels reflects faithfully the socio-economic conditions of what historians term as 'Regency England'(1811-20).
Since women of this period had no right to ownership of property they were financially dependent on their husbands,and hence the urgency and anxiety throughout the novel for the ladies to get married to "young men of large fortune" (ch. 1).
Mr.Bennet's estate is 'entailed' to Mr. Collins because Mr.Bennet does not have a son. In 'Regency England' only male heirs could inherit the title and the estate of their fathers. The third paragraph of chapter 50 clearly reveals the 'economic' necessity of having a son and the disappointment at not being able to have one and the consequent predicament which Mr.Bennet faces in not being able to personally meet the financial demands of Wickham.
In Ch.33 Col.Fitzwilliam tells Elizabeth "I may suffer from the want of money. Younger sons cannot marry where they like." Clearly hinting at her impoverished status.
The central theme of the novel--how much money is necessary for a successful and a happy marriage--is explicitly stated by Elizabeth in in Ch.27 : "Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive? WHERE DOES DISCRETION END, AND AVARICE BEGIN?"
Was Col. Fitzwilliam Darcy 'discreet' or 'avaricious'?
The contrasting lifestyles of different social groups is structurally central to a Jane Austen novel. In "Pride and Prejudice" the landed gentry represented by Darcy is contrasted with the newly rich trading class represented by Bingley and his sisters.
The novel was written against the background of the threat of an invasion by Napoleon. The militia was a temporary voluntary force raised especially during times of a national emergency. Wickham was a member of this militia. Col.Fitzwilliam Darcy the younger son of an earl, on the contrary, is a fully commissioned officer of the regular army. In those days only an aristocrat or a member of the gentry could afford to purchase a commission in the army. In "Pride and Prejudice" Darcy purchases a commission for Wickham so that Wickham agrees to marry Lydia.
Jane Austen portrays only the elegant aspects of Regency England. The seamy side,however, is sometimes hinted at. Discipline in the army was very harsh and there is a report of a private being whipped. Similarly the prevailing poverty of the lower classes is revealed by the reference to poor feeding.
But most importantly the harsh reality of a bleak future for a dependent unwed old woman is hinted at when Charlotte Lucas' brothers are relieved that Collins is going to marry their sister, for otherwise they would have to look after her in her old age.