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

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

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Discussion Topic

The treatment and oppression of women within the patriarchal system in British society as reflected in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Summary:

Pride and Prejudice reflects the treatment and oppression of women within the patriarchal system in British society through its depiction of marriage and social expectations. Women are expected to marry for financial stability rather than love, and their social status is largely determined by their relationships with men. Characters like Elizabeth Bennet challenge these norms, highlighting the limitations and injustices faced by women.

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How does Pride and Prejudice reflect women's treatment in British society?

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen's classic novel of young women looking for love in Regency England, reflects and sometimes satirizes the role of women, whose activities were strictly governed by reputation and social class.  Elizabeth Bennet's family was what we might refer to as upper-middle class, and although they socialized frequently with the upper class, the distinction never blurred and the Bennets were always treated, albeit sometimes subtly, as inferiors.  Mrs. Bennet's primary occupation in life was to make sure each of her daughters married into as high a station as could be arranged, an especially challenging task, hovering as the family did on the edge of upper class England.  One could not overestimate the importance of a young lady's reputation in the marriage-arranging endeavor, and mothers like Elizabeth's spent much time governing their daughters' behavior and reminding their daughters of this important fact.  One "problem" with Elizabeth, in her mother's opinion, was that she was a bit too spirited, too outspoken, too willing to voice her opinion; it was this characteristic that contributed to the tension between Elizabeth and Darcy that eventually gave way to mutual respect and love. 

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How does the patriarchal system control and treat women in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

Jane Austen was actually quite the feminist of her time. While the women in her novel are limited by their stations in life, just as the women in Austen's society were, some of the women in her novel were actually quite rebellious, especially Elizabeth. In fact, Elizabeth even blames the impropriety of her family's behavior on her father's lack of control as patriarch of their family. However, while Mr. Bennet has his faults, in general the men are very respectful towards the women. While Darcy may have a problem with feeling he is above his company in the beginning of the novel, by the end even he is very respectful and even acts as a patriarch towards the Bennet family by rescuing Lydia from her disgrace.

The women in the time period were of course forbidden to work, and the women of the novel, as genteel women, of course did not work at all. However, what is very interesting about Austen's characters is that, as genteel women, they were expected to be "accomplished," meaning capable of speaking foreign languages, sewing, drawing, playing music, and singing. Elizabeth, while talking with Lady Catherine at Rosings Park, actually points out that the Bennet daughters have very few accomplishments at all. Elizabeth says she plays the piano and sings a little and that Mary is the only other sister who plays. Mary can play the piano well enough but sings horribly. When Lady Catherine asks if the Bennet sisters draw, Elizabeth replies, "No, not at all" (Ch. 29). Elizabeth happily relays her sisters lack of accomplishments and education in a spirit of rebellion. Elizabeth is quite happy to rebel against society's requirements. However, the Bennet girls' lack of education further shows just how much the Bennet household lacked strong patriarchal control.

Elizabeth blames her father's lack of control on his poor choice of marriage. As Elizabeth explains, "Her father, captivated by youth and beauty ... had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had, very early in their marriage, put an end to all real affection for her" (Ch. 42). Due to her ill breading, Mrs. Bennet lets her youngest daughters run wild. Hence, as a result of his poor marriage choice, in order to escape all of the improper and foolish behavior he must witness around his house, Mr. Bennet escapes into his library rather than takes any corrective measures. As he once explained to Elizabeth, "though prepared ... to meet with folly and conceit in every other room of the house, he was used to be free from them" in his library (Ch. 15). Elizabeth refers to her father's refusal to take corrective measures as so "ill-judged a direction of talents" (Ch. 42). Hence we see that the Bennet family actually lacks any control from their family patriarch.

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How is oppression presented in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

The theme of oppression is mainly seen in Pride and Prejudice through class snobbery. During this time period, England was experiencing a rise in the merchant class in which many members of the class were becoming as wealthy as the established landed gentry and able to buy estates of their own. The result was that members of both the established landed gentry and the merchant class began mingling and intermarrying, which of course led to snobbery from those who still thought of themselves as higher than the merchant class.

One example of oppression in terms of class snobbery can be seen in Lady Catherine de Bourgh's treatment of Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth and Darcy are actually members of the exact same class. Elizabeth's father is an untitled, landowning gentleman and so is Mr. Darcy. However, Lady Catherine judges Elizabeth to be beneath Darcy for a couple of reasons:

  1. Elizabeth's father married beneath him in marrying Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet is  a member of the merchant class and has both a sister and brother who are still members of the merchant class, though they do pretty well financially. Mrs. Bennet's sister is married to Mr. Philips who is an attorney in Meryton. In addition, Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Bennet's brother, is a merchant in Cheapside, London.
  2. While Mr. Darcy is untitled himself, he has titled relations, Lady Catherine being his aunt, for example.

Therefore, since Elizabeth has merchant class relations while Darcy has titled relations, Lady Catherine warns Elizabeth that if she should marry Darcy, Elizabeth would be "quitting" her social "sphere" and upbringing and would "disgrace him in the eyes of everybody" (Vol. 3, Ch. 56). Hence, in snubbing Elizabeth as one who is inferior to Darcy, even though she is a gentleman's daughter, Lady Catherine can be said to be guilty of oppressing Elizabeth.

Other examples of oppression in terms of class snobbery can be seen with respect to the Bingley sisters' treatment of the Bennets. Ironically, Mr. Bingley is an example a member of the merchant class who has risen enough in wealth to match the landed gentry, even though he does not yet own his own estate. Therefore, the Bingley sisters come from a class that is technically speaking lower than Elizabeth and Jane's own class as their father is a gentleman. Yet the Bingley sisters snub the Bennet sisters and treat them as if they are lower, giving us another example of oppression.

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