Women in Pride and Prejudice
In Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, we see an examination of the lives of women living in the late 18th and early 19th century. During this period in time, women had a very specific role in society and were expected to be both subservient and innocent. Their primary role was to get married, have children and maintain a household for their husband. Rarely were women acknowledged for their intelligence or for having an opinion. In the novel, the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, is in contrast to this definition of the ideal woman. She is clever and opinionated, but, in the end, chooses the life of a 19th century wife. However, there does seem to be a message portrayed by Austen in this story. Elizabeth steps outside the mold of most women in her society and is portrayed as a strong and sympathetic character. Women during this period often deferred to decisions made by men, regardless of their own feelings. However, Elizabeth did not choose to marry for money, but rather, chose love. Although women were often treated as inferior to their male counterparts, the women in this story represent different characteristics to demonstrate how the ideal was not necessarily the most desirable.
At this time in history, it was bold for a woman to have her own opinion and for Jane Austen to suggest, through this novel, that these characteristics were desirable, did create some controversy. If we think of feminism as the ideal defined by women’s contributions being valued, then we can suggest that Austen was trying to encourage women to believe that their own opinions were valid. In addition, contrary to the common practice that women should marry for status and wealth, we see this idea being frowned upon. Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s friend, chose to marry for money rather than love and Austen portrays her as petty and weak. In contrast, Elizabeth chooses love and we see that she finds happiness without compromising her personality. Thus, the two friends had different definitions and expectations of what would make them happy. Despite this contrast, Elizabeth’s older sister, Jane, is portrayed to be an ideal woman who is very beautiful and optimistic. She also marries for love, but does so without the pride or prejudice of her sister. Thus, while Austen wishes us to believe that the choice of love over money is the smarter one, she also demonstrates that achieving this does not require only one specific set of characteristics, but different ones for different individuals.