Mores and Matrimony
By Sarah Jore
The comedy of Austen's novels had higher stakes than we always appreciate today.
The beauty of a love story is generally enhanced the greater the divide between the two individuals: the wider and deeper the divide, the more there is to overcome and the sweeter the union becomes. In her novel Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen beautifully demonstrates this idea through the story of her main character, Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth is a young woman with little credit to her name, no worthy connections, and few assets. However, a young man of extraordinary wealth and honor by the name of Mr. Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth and, following a rough journey, the two bridge the divide between them and are joined forever by their bond of love.
In reading this novel, it can be easy to get caught up in the dreaminess of the story and the masterful intrigue of the characters. However, there are many underlying themes and ideas intertwined throughout that may not be immediately obvious, but which deeply affect the novel. This essay will focus on one in particular, that of social standings and marriage customs in the book’s setting. This idea in particular offers a unique educational and historical perspective on the novel that serves to enhance the beauty of the union between Darcy and Elizabeth.
It is essential to begin by grasping a basic understanding of the setting in which this book is placed. The characters reside in England around the early 1800s, and the book describes their everyday life experiences, shaped by the customs of marriage and social standings that existed at the time. To explain this briefly, social status involved the amount of wealth, connections, and reputation that an individual or family possessed. In order to maintain that status, marriage to an individual of a lower status was avoided. In this way, it was uncommon for marriage to occur on the sole basis of love, as it often is today. Moreover, there were few ways for a woman at the time to make a secure future for herself outside of marriage. Women often pursued marriage for financial security, or because it was a more honorable fate than remaining single.
The characters in the story provide a window into this culture in a few different ways. First, because Elizabeth’s family is a household comprised solely of daughters, their estate will pass on to a family cousin when Mr. Bennet, the father, passes away, as women had few legal rights at the time. Fearing for their future if her husband dies before she does, Mrs. Bennet is desperate that Elizabeth accept the marriage proposal of the heir, Mr. Collins. This demonstrates one example of marriage at the time. Austen, however, creates a depth of intrigue to her novel by setting up Elizabeth as a countercultural character, who desires more than an alliance: she wants to love the man she plans to spend the rest of her life with, and she turns down the proposal.
A contrasting example of the idea of marriage can be seen in the woman that Mr. Collins marries instead: Charlotte Lucas. Though still comparatively young, Charlotte is growing older with no prospects of marriage. So, when Mr. Collins comes along, she chooses to marry this man, despite his prideful and slightly dimwitted nature. This demonstrates how important many women at the time viewed an appropriately matched marriage as a means of security and honor.
Mr. Darcy comes into the picture when he makes a proposal to Elizabeth. In this proposal, he makes it abundantly clear how demeaning and detrimental to his social status this alliance would be, but, because he is unable to silence his feelings towards her, he feels he must ask for her hand. Many young women would probably have jumped at the prospect of such a beneficial alliance; however, she does not share this man’s feelings, and indeed displays anger towards him instead for his pride and unfeeling actions. Again, she refuses to marry a man she does not love.
Considering these ideals of marriage at the time, the love story between Darcy and Elizabeth is made much more powerful and sweet when they are finally united. On the side of Mr. Darcy, he is willing to transcend all the social boundaries that such an inferior marriage would involve in order to give his love to this woman for the rest of his life. The marriage is for a deep and genuine love, not for the benefits of the alliance; on Elizabeth’s part, she is not marrying him for the wealth and prosperity that he will bring to her, but because of the love that has grown between them since his disastrous first proposal. The beauty of this story comes when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy choose to act opposite the demands of the culture to marry based on a mutual love that was willing to forgo personal gain in order to value each other instead.
Sarah Jore is a high school senior living in Orlando, FL. She is considering the University of Central Florida or Palm Beach Atlantic University for college; possible majors include education, literature, and psychology. In her free time, she loves reading, eating ice cream, and hiking in the mountains.
We invite the forty highest-scoring students from every CLT across the country to contribute an essay to the Journal. Congratulations to Miss Jore on her achievement! To see more of our top students, try this essay on the nature of friendship or this poem on World War One; you might also enjoy this author profile of Antoine Lavoisier or this “Great Conversation” piece on the philosophy of memory. And be sure to take a listen to our weekly podcast, Anchored.