Illustration of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy with neutral expressions on their faces

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Marxist and feminist perspectives on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Summary:

Marxist perspectives on Pride and Prejudice focus on class struggle, economic power, and social mobility, highlighting how characters navigate societal hierarchies. Feminist perspectives examine gender roles, women's dependence on marriage for economic security, and the critique of patriarchal structures, emphasizing Elizabeth Bennet's assertiveness and independence in challenging traditional gender norms.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss the Marxist approach to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

One possible Marxist approach to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice would be to examine how the novel promotes a form of false ideology. The basic plot of the novel suggests that two young women from a poor but upper class family can solve their economic problems by marrying rich men. In historical terms, such marriages would have been extremely rare. Realistically, the older economic system of land ownership as providing for large families was failing, and women's lack of economic power and earning capacity was not compensated for by the small chance of an economically beneficial and pleasant marriage. Thus one could say that Austen's novel promoted complacency among women who should have been actively protesting their economic oppression.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss the Marxist approach to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Marxist literary criticism attempts to read texts for discovery of (1) reference, direct or indirect, to oppression of the working classes by the privileged class and for the disclosure of (2) the economic situation at the time the text was written. What this means in terms of Pride and Prejudice is that a Marxist critic would read to find evidence of oppressed alienation of workers, for example, domestic staff, and for indications of the economic conditions in the text and during Austen's writing years, spanning from the late 1790s to the early 1810s, as she finished writing Pride and Prejudice in 1798 while it was not until 1813 that it found a publisher (recall that the text was not modified to reflect socio-economic changes, if any, that may have occurred in the 15 year span). 

The analytical tools used by a Marxist critic in a Marxist reading are examination of the text for indications of economic oppression of workers; alienation (estrangement) of workers from their creative selves, from other workers, from the products they make, and from the creative process that their labor advances but that is not under their control; economic exploitation by the upper classes resulting in conflict between classes.

Other analytical tools used are examination of the text for indications--related to the text and related to the author's own time period--of the economic base and superstructure, ideology and hegemony, and reification of workers. The economic base is the economic principles that establish the social and cultural order of things, which is called the superstructure and which includes such as religion, education, law, and art. Ideology is a belief shared by all (or most) in a society about the way things should be that grows up out of the superstructure, which is itself determined by the economic base. Hegemony is a collection of such ideological beliefs. Reification of workers is their objectification so that they come to be considered commodities available for market exchange, as in situations where there is great competition for available jobs: people aren't hired, rather commodities are hired because they are readily exchanged in the market place.

An example of how these Marxist critical principles would be applied to a Marxist reading of Pride and Prejudice might easily be illustrated by looking in the text for any signs of domestic servants. Despite the (misguided) portrayals by Hollywood of the Bennets' life, we know, from Austen's text, that Bennet, though having married beneath his social class, is a country gentleman of the upper class who has (rather had) a large income and ample estate. Mrs. Bennet is therefore a lady who, we are told in the text, employs a cook (whereas the Lucas's have no cook). We know that with five daughters, a lady of Mrs. Bennet's stature will certainly not do the housework and laundry etc herself. We know too that the Bingley's are even more elegant ladies with even more wealth (theirs not being wasted yet) and that Bingley and certainly Darcy would not expect less than a full quorum of servants.

"... he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and ... he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week."

We know too that Pemberley and Rosings are no less endowed with servants than Netherfield, yet these are virtually the only two references we read to servants.

A Marxist reading would analyze this as oppression, alienation and reification. The servant workers are so oppressed, thus dehumanized, that they do not even merit mention except insofar as their mention is used for characterization (Mrs. Bennet) or to forward the plot (Bingley comes by Michaelmas). This oppression, in the text and in Austen's real economic times, alienates servant workers from their own identities and alienates them from others. In addition, the upper classes are alienated from their own humanity by the reification of people who become commodities that perform or not and can be exchanged in the market place after being oppressed, alienated and dehumanized.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss the Marxist approach to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Marxists argue that inequality is part of the structures of both agrarian and capitalist economic systems. Pride and Prejudice takes place, historically, at the juncture of both systems, with Darcy representing the agrarian "landed wealth" economic system, and Bingley representing the "new money" of capitalism (he is the son of a wealthy industrialist father from the "North," the word "North" a short-hand for a mill owner). Both economic systems oppress women and force them into a situation where they must sell themselves to the highest bidder in order to survive. We see this throughout the novel: Mrs. Bennet spends most of her time in desperate matchmaking because she knows her husband's death will throw the family into genteel poverty. Charlotte likewise understands that she must make a match with a man she thinks ridiculous or live at the mercy of her brothers, who may not want to support her. Elizabeth recognizes the Lydia is ruined if she does not marry Wickham, for a non-virginal bride is "damaged goods" in a culture that sees a woman as a commodity to buy on the marriage market. 

Beyond female oppression, we see in the many protestations of the housekeeper at Pemberley, Mrs. Reynolds, that Darcy is a "liberal" (financially generous) master, that this behavior is not necessarily the norm. The agrarian aristocracy can easily oppress the people--farmworkers--on whom its wealth is based. In both worlds, upper-class women are denied the opportunity to work for a living while lower class women are exploited, leaving both groups with few options. 

A Marxist reading would argue that in a post-revolutionary Marxist state, women and workers would not have to live in fear of poverty or humiliation, because all people would be guaranteed respect, the chance to work and sufficient resources to live. Money would no longer corrupt and deform human souls as it threatens to do in Pride and Prejudice

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss the Marxist approach to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

First, I would point you to this excellent answer elsewhere on eNotes:

http://www.enotes.com/homework-help/attempt-reading-jane-austens-pride-prejudice-456065

I would add that any Marxist reading of the book would also necessarily consider Marx's concept of alienation. Marx saw alienation as a basic estrangement of the individual, as a person, from his role in society. In a capitalist society, according to Marx, the worker, who actually through his labor produces wealth, is nevertheless alienated from the thing that he produces, since the capitalist owns the means of production. The worker is only a cog in the capitalist machine.

Characters like Lady Catherine or Mr Darcy might seem at first to have little to do with the production of wealth; in fact, the definition of a "gentleman" is someone who lives off the labor of others. However, in my view Darcy and the rest are as much victims of capitalist alienation, as much "cogs in the machine," as any worker. By this I mean not only the property law that would strip Mr Bennet of his estate on his death, but the rigid social rules that determine rank and subordinate personal values or inclination to status and money. Almost every character in the book is reified in this way, that is, their identity as a person is replaced, or erased, by their position in society, as determined by their wealth.

One possible avenue such a Marxist reading could pursue would be to examine the attitudes of characters to this social hegemony. Charlotte, for example, makes a calculated choice in marrying Mr Collins in order to obtain her own home and some measure of independence. Bingley is another interesting study, a character who is enchanted by Jane, but then is influenced to drop her because of her lower social standing.

In fact, Bingley's story, and Darcy's decision to influence him against Jane, brings to light an important thematic element in Pride and Prejudice, which is that Austen is always cognizant of a counterforce in her characters that is at odds with the bonds of social alienation. Bingley does love Jane after all, and in the end his affection for her overcomes whatever scruples he might have had in marrying her. Darcy is an even better example; his first disastrous proposal to Elizabeth fails precisely because he is conscious of the cost to him personally of breaking with society and proposing to Elizabeth. And her acceptance of him comes only when she perceives that his reasons for acting against Mr Wickham are derived not from his pride but from an honest concern and love for his sister, Georgiana.

It is hard to argue that Austen is somehow trying to overturn social hegemony through the marriage plot. After all, the result of every Austen novel is the marriage of the protagonist, a kind of happy entrance into the very bonds of social custom characters like Elizabeth flout before they are married. But clearly Austen sees that the right basis for any social contract is not the alienation or subjection of wife to husband, or worker to production, but in honest and forthright human feeling. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss the Marxist approach to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

There are a many ways one could attempt a Marxist reading of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. First, one could focus on the general absence of the working class in the novel. Pride and Prejudice exclusively focuses on the world of the upper class, depicting the way wealthy families socialize and form relationships. While Austen certainly satirizes the upper crust of society and all of its foibles, a good Marxist reading should point out that none of the working classes are present, and even the servants, who certainly would be present, are not discussed or talked about. 

Another potential Marxist reading could discuss the role of wealth in determining romantic relationships. While the Bennet family is by no means destitute, they are also less wealthy than most of their neighbors, and are likely to be turned out of their home unless their daughters can make a "good" match. A "good" match would be a marriage to a wealthy man, as this is the only means by which the Bennet family would be able to hold onto its estate if Mr. Bennet passed away. As such, it is clear that even the formation of relationships is governed by financial transactions.

Finally, the gender roles in the novel could be incorporated into a Marxist reading. The Bennet daughters are completely dependent upon men for financial support, and they are essentially controlled by the whims of the males in their lives. As such, we can see women in the novel as the base, whereas men are the superstructure, the force that controls and oppresses the masses. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What Marxist and feminist perspectives can be applied to Pride and Prejudice?

In applying a Marxist critical perspective to Pride and Prejudice, the analyst would address political, social, and economic issues related to inequality, such as class differences among the characters. A feminist analysis would focus on gender issues, especially in regard to women. There are numerous possibilities for a critical analysis that applies both perspectives. One promising way to proceed would be to identify and concentrate on characters who embody class and gender issues that Jane Austen saw as important in her day. This could be done by contrasting Elizabeth Bennet and her friend Charlotte Lucas.

Throughout the novel, Austen focuses on the Bennet family in terms of the gap between their class status and their economic status. While the author provides limited information about their finances, it is clear that the Bennets need to have at least some of their daughters married so that their husbands will assume financial responsibility for them. The fact that the differences in class and wealth between the Benets and both Bingley and Darcy are considered significant blocks to their serious consideration of Jane and Elizabeth as potential wives.

The gendered aspect of Austen’s social world most obviously intersects with the class aspect through the question of marriage. Austen draws a contrast between Lizzie, who could remain single and live at home as an adult, and Charlotte, whose family is unable to continue to support her. This economic difference gives Lizzie the luxury of rejecting Mr. Collins and holding out for a love match, while Charlotte must take a more practical approach to matrimony.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on