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

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

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What social classes do characters in Pride and Prejudice represent, and do any rise?

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Charlotte, daughter of Sir Lucas, represents the upper class of knights, who have the lowest rank of nobility as the title is not hereditary: it does not pass on to a son. Sir Lucas demonstrates upward class mobility since he was beknighted by the Queen and thus entered the the knighthood. Mr. Collins, whom Charlotte marries, represents the working class comprised of lesser clergymen, doctors, teachers, merchants, and such. Charlotte is in a higher class than Collins due to her father's knighthood. When Collins marries Charlotte, he rises in social class by virtue of his connection to her family.

Wickham represents the same class as Collins’ because his father was employed as an estate steward. While he is in the regiment, he is in the army and navy officer class of men (restricted to men then). Members of his lower class, who had neither social position nor income to buy themselves a commission but who had a benefactor who would buy a commission for them (as Darcy bought Wickham's commission), could rise in social class because of the connections he would make with the sons of nobility and independently wealthy gentlemen; these almost exclusively made up the membership of the army and navy officer class. Wickham thus rose in social class while in the regiment. He rose further, after being forced to marry Lydia, through the connection of marriage to her father, because Mr. Bennet is an independently wealthy (though running out of money) country gentleman. Wickham’s character illustrates two ways to rise in social class. Had he accepted Darcy Sr.'s provision for the clergy, he would have illustrated a third way the lower class might rise through a financial benefactor.

The Bingley's represent another way to rise in social class. Their father is a manufacturer. He started out as a tradesman in the same class as Collins and Wickham. He made a great success in his trade. He accumulated wealth and through wealth alone rose to the level of independently wealthy gentleman. However, he was not a country gentleman as Mr. Bennet was. He, Bingley's and Caroline's father, was a gentleman tradesman. The Bingley's rose in social class through success and the acquisition of great sums of money. The family rose so high through money, in fact, that Bingley was seen as a fit companion for the independently wealthy and aristocratic Mr. Darcy.

Jane and Bingley didn't really change their classes when they married because they were both of the high class of independently wealthy individuals. However, Jane did secure her position in their class through Bingley's wealth, and Bingley did enhance his stature in their class because of his connection to the country gentleman, a connection which overshadowed and improved the tradesman root of his wealth.

Though Elizabeth and Darcy are in the same class--Bennet and Darcy are both independently wealthy country gentlemen. Darcy however has connections to the highest class through his connections to Lady Catherine de Bourgh and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam, the son of an earl. Elizabeth, like Jane, secures her position through Darcy’s wealth but also rises to the highest class because of her connections through marriage to Darcy’s hereditary nobility. (This class distinction indicates why Colonel Fitzwilliam chooses to be highly selective about whom he marries: if he wants to retain his status in the highest class of nobility, he must marry a woman in that class.)

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How does social class affect the characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the rise of the Industrial Revolution created new wealth, making many working-class members of society as wealthy as the landed gentry. As the working class rose in wealth, many of the working class began marrying members of the landed gentry and of the nobility. Such rises in wealth and unions increased the prejudices felt among all classes. One of Jane Austen's main points in Pride and Prejudice is to show that social class structure affects individuals by feeding prejudices and to satirize the foolishness of such prejudices.

One example of Austen portraying the affects of prejudices created through social class structures can be seen in the Bingley sisters treatment of the Bennets. Mr. Bingley's sisters, Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Louisa Hurst, behave as snobbishly as if they were members of the landed gentry. Yet, Austen points out in Chapter 4, that the Bingleys were actually tradesmen who gained wealth through the Industrial Revolution; they now have enough wealth that Mr. Bingley is able to afford to purchase an estate. Despite being tradesmen, the Bingleys earned a respectable reputation for their family, a reputation that makes the Bingley sisters feel superior to those around them, even those who are actually in a higher class. Austen points out the excessive pride of the Bingley family in the following passage:

They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that there brother's fortune and their own had been acquired by trade. (Ch. 4)

Since Mr. Bennet is a member of the landed gentry, the Bennet family is actually in a higher social class than the Bingleys. Yet, the Bingley sisters insult the Bennets, and one reason is because they are aware that Mr. Bennet married a woman from the working class, ironically, the same class the Bingleys originated from.

One example of the Bingley sisters insulting the Bennets can be seen when, talking behind Elizabeth's back, Miss Bingley and Louisa Hurst insult Elizabeth's appearance after having walked through mud just to get to her ill sister. They also sneer at the fact that the Bennet sisters have an uncle on their mother's side who "is an attorney in Meryton" and a second uncle on the same side who is a tradesman living "somewhere near Cheapside" in London, historically a major business district. In addition, Miss Bingley is very guilty of showing a false friendship towards Jane Bennet as she first shows affection for Jane but, in London, behaves as if she can't get away from Jane and her uncle's house near Cheapside fast enough.

Through the Bingley sisters, Austen is showing us the affects of class structures as well as of mixing classes. Since the Bingley sisters have risen in economic status, they feel false justification in looking down their noses at others, even those in the same class or higher. Austen is also using the Bennets to show that mixing classes can create the appearance of tainting the classes, which feeds prejudices. Since the Bennet sisters are of a mixed class, even though class is inherited from the father, not the mother, others in society, like the Bingleys, prejudicially feel they have the right to judge them harshly. Hence, all in all, Austen is showing us that social class structures affect individuals through the fact that social classes breed prejudices.

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