‘Pride and Prejudice’, written by Jane Austen and published in 1813, is a love story where, for Elizabeth and Darcy, love can be seen to triumph. However, it is also a love story in which passion is tempered by sensible, pragmatic considerations about economic security. It may well be that Austen’s purpose is to tell us that too much emphasis is placed on romantic love and that its fulfillment is subject to conditions that are almost impossible to satisfy.
There are two types of love in ‘Pride and Prejudice’; familial love and romantic love.
All of the characters operate within networks of family connections that shape their decisions and perspectives and, for the female characters in particular, the behaviour and influence of their family members is a significant factor in their lives. Familial love is mainly expressed through the love of the sisters for each other, especially the love between Jane and Elizabeth, and is also expressed in Elizabeth’s relationship with her father. However, a more prominent kind of love featured in the novel is romantic love, which is expressed in a number of relationships and is the focus of this essay.
Victorian England was not a kind place for women whose primary means of securing economic security, social status and position within society was through their husbands. Marriage, therefore, was one of the most important decisions in a woman’s life and, as they had limited choices in life, they generally had to make practical decisions about their futures and often had to prioritise materialistic security (through marriage) over romantic love. Indeed, Darcy notes that marriage appears to be an obsession for female characters, ‘A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment’.
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Through Elizabeth and Darcy’s realisation of a mutual love, Austen seems to imply that she views love as something independent of the prevailing social forces, as something that can be captured if an individual can rise above the negative effects of hierarchical society. We also note that Jane confesses that she is ‘the happiest creature in the world’ after Bingley proposed. Through the marriages of Elizabeth and Jane, Austen demonstrates that the power of love and happiness can overcome class boundaries and prejudices, thereby implying that such prejudices are empty and hard-hearted.
Another interpretation is that the search for love by many of the characters in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ takes place in an atmosphere of economic coercion; the shape that love takes in these women’s lives is influenced by their different social conditions. The most significant economic circumstance of the novel is that of ‘entailment’, a restriction on inheritance across generations which causes the Bennett family to retain possession of their estate only for the duration of Mr Bennet’s life. According to the principle of primogeniture, since they have no sons, the estate passes to their intolerable cousin, Mr Collins, and the daughters would be left with a meagre annual income. Mrs Bennett, despite her comic portrayal, is not obsessed with marriage for its own sake; rather, she is concerned with the future security of her daughters, against which their desires for love seem like selfish, juvenile trivialities.
Indeed, the love story of the protagonist and antagonist can be seen to contain anomalies with respect to the reality of love and materialism. In the early scenes, Elizabeth’s relationship with Darcy is defined by their false first impressions of each other and is marked by her social inferiority, that is felt by both of them. However, her visit to Pemberley signals a change in the relationship, when she learns from his servant that he is a benevolent and kind master and she reflects, ‘And of this place, I might have been mistress’. Later, she tells Jane flippantly, with a ring of truth perhaps, that she dates her love for him ‘from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley’. While this does not necessarily imply that Elizabeth married Darcy for his fortune, or that her love was insincere, it could demonstrate that the concept of love is bound with being economically secure. Elizabeth has earlier chastised Charlotte Lucas for sacrificing ‘every better feeling to world advantage’ by marrying Mr Collins, however she also acknowledges that she, too, has gained ‘wordly advantages’ in marrying Darcy. In this way, Elizabeth’s love could be viewed as capitulating to the dominant social order.
‘Pride and Prejudice’ also contains examples of the differing facets of ‘love’. Austen informs us that Mr Bennet married because he was ‘captivated by youth and beauty’, and later discovered Mrs Bennett’s true nature. ‘Respect, esteem and confidence had vanished forever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown’. The distaste surrounding Wickham and Lydia’s elopement is captured by Austen’s comment that ‘How little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue’. Charlotte Lucas, however, offers the most unsentimental view that marriage is based on practicality, rather than love, counselling Jane to secure her rich husband first and think about love only after they are married, ‘Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’. Austen appears to tell us that romantic love is seen as necessary for marriage (in theory, if not in practice) and to marry without it, as Mrs Bennett urges her daughters to do, and as Charlotte does, has an air of vulgar materialism, perhaps because it lays bare the transactional nature of marriage.
In conclusion, while ‘Pride and Prejudice’ may resonate as a triumph of love, culminating in a happing ending (marriage), it is difficult to separate love from the enduring economic and social necessity of marriage, or the subordinated role of women of this period. Austen may be suggesting that, as long as women remain economically disenfranchised, romantic love will be haunted by the spectre of economic security and that true love bears little resemblance to the prevailing cultural reality.