Marriage is the ultimate goal in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The book begins with the quote ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’, and this sets the tone for all the events that are to follow. It manages to present a miniature version of all that happens over the course of the novel, the entire plot of which is basically concerned with the pursuit of advantageous marriage by both male and female characters.
The obsession with socially beneficial marriage in nineteenth-century English society manifests itself here, for although she points out that a single man ‘must be in want of a wife,’ Austen reveals that the reverse might be more accurate, as almost all of the unmarried female characters are virtually desperate for marriage. Married women are represented as foolish, for example Mrs Bennet and Charlotte Lucas/Collins.
Mrs Bennet is very much a one-dimensional character, and this might be because she is already married, and her story is therefore of no real interest to Austen, so she does not spend time developing Mrs Bennet as a fully rounded character. However, she does manage to show Mrs. Bennet as a frustratingly irritating character, as she is both noisy and absurd, and her single-minded obsession with seeing her daughters married to rich and eligible bachelors becomes tiresome early on in the novel.
More irritatingly, her pursuit of her daughters’ well being is usually her undoing, as her attempts tend to fail, due to her lack of social graces, which separate her from the class of men she wishes for her daughters. She shows how utterly preoccupied with marrying her daughters off, regardless of their happiness, in the way that she is pleased with Lydia’s marriage to Wickham. It is painfully obvious that Lydia will soon become disillusioned with her hasty marriage, but Mrs Bennet still sees it as ‘delightful indeed’ 9169).
It is very likely that Austen’s use of Mrs Bennet’s character is only a deliberate device to highlight the necessity of marriage for young women to avoid scandal or scorn and to ensure that they are provided for, and this explains why her character is never developed any more than necessary. Charlotte, however, is still given as much attention after her marriage as she was before, and this is probably because Austen wants to let us as the reader see how her marriage of convenience affects her.
She is not exactly unhappy in Mr Collins presence, but she is, it seems to Elizabeth, markedly happier without him – ‘When Mr Collins could be forgotten, there was really a great air of comfort throughout, and by Charlotte’s evident enjoyment of it, Elizabeth supposed he must often be forgotten. ‘ (91) After Lydia is married, her image changes slightly. She goes from a careless, shallow girl who thinks only of chasing men, to a proud and boastful woman who can only patronise her older sisters – ‘I am sure my sisters must all envy me.
I only hope they have half my good luck I dare say I shall get husbands for them before the winter is over’ (175). She is still presented as stupid, and she is not a character that the reader can identify with. The proposals of marriage are directly linked with the way in which Austen wishes to present the various male characters. For example, Mr Collins does not see marriage as at all romantic, but instead he views it almost like a business venture, or a duty; once he has accomplished ‘a good house and a sufficient income’, he desires to proceed to the next step, which is logically marriage.
He decides to choose ‘one of the daughters, if he found them as handsome and amiable as they were represented by common report’ without even seeing them, and Austen comments that it was his ‘plan of amends – of atonement – for inheriting their father’s estate’. By saying this, Austen backs up the image she has portrayed, and goes on to portray him as; ‘not a sensible man’, with the ‘self-conceit of a weak head’ (44) and ‘the stupidity with which he was favoured by nature’ (73).
Basically, Collins is presented as quite disagreeable, and virtually emotionless – his feelings are not hurt when he is refused by Elizabeth, only his pride – ‘though his pride was hurt, he suffered in no other way’ (67). Similarly, he does not marry Charlotte for love, or even as a rebound action from Elizabeth’s refusal, but because he believes it to be a good idea. His actions are not ruled by his heart, like Elizabeth or Darcy, but by his head.
Darcy’s proposal is also typical of his character – it is to the point and honest, but not overly emotional or passionate, and this is the impression that we receive of him from Austen throughout the novel. Before Darcy asks Elizabeth to marry him, she dislikes him immensely and is disdainfully contemptuous of him, but after she reads the letter he writes her, her view and opinion of him changes dramatically as she realises her mistake in judging him so swiftly and harshly.
Darcy’s pride about his social status sabotages his attempt at professing his love, and instead of detailing to her how he really feels, he spends more time pointing out the fact that she is of a lower rank than he – ‘His sense of her inferiority – of its being a degradation – of the family obstacles which judgement had always opposed to inclination’ (108) and the overall impression we as the reader are given is that he is aware that he is much better than her.
Although he never says it out loud, one feels that he seems to think that she should be grateful of the opportunity he is offering her, as he later admits that he fully expected her to agree to his proposal – ‘What will you think of my vanity? I believed you to be wishing, expecting my addresses’ (204). Until Darcy puts his love for Elizabeth above his superiority he cannot hope to win Elizabeth.
He is quick to anger when she rudely rebuffs him, which is partly because of his sense of being socially above her and obviously partly due to being rejected so unfeelingly, but he does not seem to bear her any ill – ‘accept my best wishes for your health and happiness’ (110), ‘I will only add, God bless you’ (115), and he later even goes so far as to inform the jealous Miss Bingley that he considers Elizabeth ‘as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance’ (150) unlike Collins, who instead maintains a ‘resentful silence’ towards her and ‘scarcely ever spoke to her’ (69).
Because of this the reader can see past Darcy’s superiority, and we become endeared to Darcy and this allows us to sympathise with him, but distances us from Collins and we do not feel any sympathy towards him as he is presented as too much of a buffoon. Not only are proposals a good indication of character, but so too are the way in which they are received and answered. Elizabeth is a very idealistic character, as she believes that marriage has to be for love, and she wants her husband to be her soulmate, someone she will be completely happy with.
She wants the kind of love that will last throughout the rest of her life, unlike Charlotte, who surprisingly sees marriage quite differently. She is older than Elizabeth is and like Elizabeth she may have once been idealistic, but for fear of becoming an old spinster, she takes the first suitor to make an offer: Collins. When Collins asks for Elizabeth’s hand, she declines because she knows they will not make each other happy – ‘you could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so’ (65).
This reply is characteristic of Elizabeth, as is Charlotte’s response to his proposal, as she is determined to make the best of whatever life gives her. She does not share Elizabeth’s determination and confidence to hold out for something that will make her truly happy. She tells Elizabeth that it’s best not to have a long courtship, because then the marriage goes ahead regardless of any irritations or doubts the two parties have regarding each other, and this demonstrates how desperate she is; so desperate that she is willing to close her eyes to the various faults and failings of Collins, in order to gain materially.
As Mrs Bennet comments to Mrs Gardiner about the Lucases ‘They are all for what they can get’ (81), Charlotte tells Elizabeth that she ‘asks only a comfortable home; and considering Mr Collin’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is fair’ (74). Charlotte’s character is somewhat similar to Wickham in this respect, as both are entirely materialistic.
Both think only about marrying for money and possessions, which is why Wickham left Elizabeth for a generally unattractive, uninteresting, but especially rich heir during the course of the novel, and why he attempted to elope with Darcy’s extremely young sister. Darcy’s second proposal to Elizabeth and the way in which she reacts to it constitutes an episode that defines both characters to a greater extent than previously and gives both their personalities an even more rounded quality.
Elizabeth, usually calm, collected and never lost for words, is reduced to having to force herself to speak ‘though not very fluently’ because of the depth of her emotions and the force of her feelings for Darcy. The proposal throws both characters into a situation that neither knows how to handle very well, and their lack of confidence is endearing.
Darcy improves his proposal greatly by expressing himself ‘as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do’ (203). Austen’s opinion of all married women and women who desperately seek wedlock seems to be one of disdain, although she does seem to be sympathising with them, and disagreeing with a society that demands marriage and makes the need for it more pressing than that of happiness.
However, it would appear that nearly all the female characters in the novel are to some degree either stupid, materialistic, unpleasant, or all three, with the exception of Elizabeth, Jane and Mrs Gardiner. Neither Jane nor Elizabeth seeks marriage, but both desire happiness over materialistic values or their standing in community. The rest of the women are nearly all jealous and grasping, which is a direct result of the way in which they are all forced to find husbands for themselves and their loved ones.
Lady Catherine’s rude treatment of Elizabeth is only due to her desire to see her own daughter safely married to a good man, so she can, to a point, be forgiven for her dislike of Elizabeth who from Lady Catherine’s point of view has taken her own daughter’s future away from her. Miss Bingley also is unfriendly towards Elizabeth simply because she wants to provide for her own future. It is not just unwarranted malice, but is almost a survival trait that has evolved in this particular time in society.