Jane Austen, the author of Pride and Prejudice, holds feminist views and uses the novel to show her opinions about womens issues. Pride and Prejudice is a personal essay, a statement of Jane Austens feelings about the perfect lady, marriage, and the relationship between the sexes. Jane Austens characters, plot, and dialogue are biased to reflect her beliefs.
The biased process and importance of marriage are introduced with the first line of the book. Jane Austen writes: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering the neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. (5) This implies that the man wants a wife and the woman is not in a place to turn him down. The man becomes her claim, and for him she fights with other women. It seems as if women are plentiful and men are rare. The man has freedom and the option to choose any girl that he wants, while the women are desperate and fight for whichever man they can get. Jane Austen points this out and shows how dependent the woman is on a man in her English society. This dependence is viewed as a necessary part of upper class England by most and was not criticized. If Jane Austen had written a book simply about English society, these sentiments would not have showed up. The fact that they are introduced and expressed again and again in Pride and Prejudice means that Jane Austen held feminist ideals and expressed them in this piece of writing. A woman must be a certain type of person and act a certain way in order to be respected, accepted, and deemed accomplished. The woman that achieves all of this is the perfect lady.
The perfect lady is representative of the times, and Jane Austen exploits this so called perfection to show that her society was quite the opposite when it came to the lives of women. The perfect lady was a categorization. It made the women have to be a certain person. They had to conform. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner or walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved (35). A woman herself, Miss Bingley, made this statement. Not only did women have no free will, they were the ones that supported conformity. This did not apply to all women, but to the perfect ladies, one of which Miss Bingley is implied to be. Jane Austen juxtaposes the perfect lady and Miss Bingley in order to show that the perfect lady is really a shallow-minded conformist. With characters like Miss Bingley, Austen creates resentment for the accomplished lady generalization in the readers head. This makes the reader dislike the highlight of English society, realize its sexism in restricting womens free will, and favor characters that are vessels for feminist notions, such as Elizabeth.Jane Austens Elizabeth is an intelligent, stubborn, and free spirited character that the reader likes. She is a breath of fresh air as opposed to the backstabbing, materialistic, and overdramatic perfect lady that has the reader fed up. The perfect ladies dont like Elizabeth very much. It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum (32). Elizabeths most admirable characteristic, her independence, is abominable because it questions decorum. Jane Austen is showing here that one of the best characteristics that a woman can have, a free will that is unconventional, gives her the reputation of a conceited and ill-mannered country girl. This occurs because of the sick expectations and restrictions placed upon women in her society. Not a single character that is liked by the reader agrees with these criticisms of Elizabeth, and that is not because of coincidence. This very feminist view of the injustices done to Elizabeth is affirmed by Jane Austens haughty portrayals of all of the characters that were responsible for the wrongs done to her, especially the way she depicts Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Men are the dominant ones in England. They have choice and freedom, and depend on nobody but himself or herself. The expectations that men have when proposing a marriage and the differences between the man and woman make this fact obvious. When a man such as Mr. Collins has no doubt that his proposal will be accepted, and he is turned down by Elizabeth, he thinks that she is playing hard to get. Men are not used to hearing the word no because women are treated as their subordinates, not equals. That is why a man can pick and choose who he marries while women take their first suitor. That is also why Jane Austen has Elizabeth turn down Mr. Collins proposal, and Mr. Darcys as well. The independent Elizabeth does what she thinks is best for her and does not abide by societys standards in making both of those decisions. She is heavily criticized for them, but it is plain to see that the criticisms have no substantial reasoning behind them; solidifying Elizabeths decisions even more and making the reader think that Elizabeth is what a woman in the world should be more like. The way Elizabeth brings out feminist values of equality and sovereignty and the way that the perfect ladies indirectly support them with their criticisms are methods of character manipulation employed by Austen to express her opinions.
The sexism of the time also affects standards of men and women and Jane Austen shows that. Agreeable men are described as handsome, polite, rich, and well connected. Not once is it said that a man needs to paint well or speak seven languages, a clear contrast to the scrutinization of every aspect of a woman. Austen is not mocking the accomplishments, she is ridiculing that the accomplishments are forced ones. A woman does not practice her piano fingering for hours each day because she think its fun; she does it because that is what a woman is supposed to do. The author is disagreeing with the detailed examination of every woman to see if she fits with societys guidelines, as opposed to the vague ideas of a perfect man and the lack of scrutiny that men face. The evidence presented can create no doubt that many aspects of this book express or favor main tenets of the feminist cause. However, the question is if the opinions expressed were intentionally put there by Jane Austen in order to put across her own feelings. The answer is definitely yes, but two positions can be taken against this argument. The first is that the feminist opinions in the book are coincidences, and the second that Jane Austen took various opinions of her time period and put them into the book in order to make it interesting. The feminist opinions in the book cannot be coincidences because they are made up of too many different factors. Sure, Jane Austen could have disliked the perfect ladies, but odds are that she wouldnt have shown the unjustness of the social standards between men and women as well or any of the other previously stated points as well. There are too many continuously supported feminist views on different parts of the lives of women in order for them to be flukes. They had to be motivated by the authors feelings towards the subject.
The second position taken against the argument is also incorrect. The feminist aspects of the novel did not come direct quotes by characters or statements, but came indirectly through attitudes and actions. They are too one-sided against the weak and biased counterarguments found in the novel. Sure, Jane Austen included conflicting opinions with feminism in her book, but the opinions came from characters that she cleverly manipulated to be greatly disliked by the reader. By doing that, she strengthened the favor that the reader has for her feelings. If Jane Austen had wanted to add another dimension to Pride and Prejudice by putting different opinions of her time into the story, the feminist factors of the book would not have been supported as well nor would they be as numerous. Opinions against feminism would have been much stronger, and feminist feelings may even have been weak because they were not even that common in Jane Austens time. With the evidence provided, the only justified conclusion can be that Jane Austen holds feminist opinions and uses Pride and Prejudice to show them. In her society, upper class ladies are almost always treated as fragile goddesses, and marriage is an elegant courting ritual, one of the most important parts of society. Jane Austen exposes the perfect ladies as fakes, gossips, liars, snobs, and idiots, and marriage as a one-sided process that women are forced into by the sexism of early 19th century England. She shows that the standards for woman in her society take away their free will and encourage conformity, and her main good character is independent and rebels against those ideas, showing the characters independence and creating Jane Austens ideal woman. This cannot be a coincidence because in this time these views are often disagreed with and are not very frequent. If Jane Austen were writing without the influences of her ideas, she would not make that choice. Harsh criticisms of English 19th century society that are very controversial at the time are not in the book to make it interesting, they have to be based upon some kind of feelings. These feelings are very deliberately placed into Pride and Prejudice in order to use the book as an indirect thesis for Jane Austens feminist beliefs.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice; Penguin Popular Classics 1994