The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (not to mention the years prior), were times of patriarchal dominance on all fronts, whether it be economic, social, or political. The lives of women were dictated by high social expectations and deeply rooted traditions regarding her role within the family, and how she was to conduct herself around others, particularly when it came to men. Not only did these societal norms hinder women’s independence, but they were also oppressive, limiting speech, economic opportunity, and even so far as to whom she chose to mary. During this period, rising feminist ideas and movements could be observed. Arguably the most notable of these movements and expressions of feminist ideals was the writing of Jane Austins Pride and prejudice. At first glance, the novel portrays a relatively standard protagonist characterization, a stubborn, headstrong individual with a slightly different perception of the world, who usually faces difficult circumstances or obstacles. However, when taking the social setting into account, Austin’s Pride and Prejudice introduces some truly radical and progressive ideals through the characterization and series of events surrounding the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, which unmistakenly parallel feminist movements during that period, as well as long after Austin’s time.
Austen’s Pride and Prejudice primarily focus on aristocracy during the age of the Napoleonic wars and the start of the industrial revolution. Heavily rooted in the notion of pragmatism, or the necessity of securing a marriage, and coupled with Elizabeth’s romanticism and individualism, Austen dramatizes her heroine’s struggle to find a place within the conservative and social construct of marriage. As stated by The Republic of Pemberley, “Jane Austen makes an implicit statement by simply disregarding certain strictures of her era that may not be obvious to modern readers… Such moral autonomy on the part of young women would by no means have been universally approved of in Jane Austen’s day…” (Pemberly). This Mindset can be viewed throughout Elizabeth’s struggle with navigating a patriarchal society and finding a husband, the character emerges as an individual with strong feminist qualities. One of the most standout instances of this feminist characterization is Elizabeth’s outburst at Lady Catherine de Bourgh. When Lizzy meets with Lady Catherine during her visit at Elizabeth’s home, she confronts Lizzy about her relationship with Mr. Darcy, to which Elizabeth replies, “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal” (Chapter 56, Page 306). Despite being subtly hinted at in during previous chapters, this is the first time throughout the novel that the protagonist truly portrays a feminist character. Feminism is a doctrine that declares women and men equal, and by ruling out all other variables aside from her sex, Elizabeth declares herself equal to Mr. Darcy. From the beginning of the book, Elizabeth was characterized as merely an outspoken girl with numerous opinions to express and unafraid of being suppressed by those around her. However, she never truly equated herself with men or her oppressors. When put into context, during the time this was revolutionary.
By contrast, her best friend, Charlotte Lucas, marries a man named Mr. Collins, who had proposed previously to Elizabeth only to be rejected, with the sole intention of living a comfortable life under the domain and “jurisdiction” of her new husband. Charlotte states “I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.” (Chapter 22, Page 109). In statting this, Charlotte draws a clear opposition between the two perceptions of life, the idea of living safely under the supervision of a man despite not feeling genuine emotions towards him as opposed to deciding her fate and whom she chooses to spend the rest of her life with.
At the time, the highest level of social hierarchy were men, specifically those of high stature and immense wealth, with women of less social recognition at the bottom. Women were treated as commodities and were unfortunately unable to retaliate against their true oppressors, resulting in hostility towards those of comparable status, whether it be slander, taunting, belittling or backstabbing each other. However, throughout the novel, Austin attributes certain masculine and individualistic characteristics to Lizzy, evoking a sense of equality and power for the female protagonist. According to Christine Marshall in her critical essay ‘Dull Elves’ and Feminists: A Summary of Feminist Criticism of Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice as decoupling economics from power, and Elizabeth, ‘an unmarried middle-class woman without a fortune’ as ‘the most authentically powerful figure in the novel’ (qtd. In Newton). Elizabeth’s intelligence and self-empowerment mitigates her economic and social deficiencies, evidence that Austen supported individualism that had ties to the Industrial Revolutions of the period. Elizabeth goes through numerous instances where she may have felt tempted to show horizontal enmity against other women. However, she refrains from doing so and instead attacks conflict head-on, in this case, men. For example, Miss Bingley seems to have a keen interest in Mr. Darcy however when she notices his apparent curiosity of Elizabeth, she begins to dislike Elizabeth bent on proving her flaws to him. Through this hate shown towards Elizabeth, she can easily pin her anger on another woman or back on Ms. Bingley. However, she chooses not to and instead hits her oppressors directly. Not once does Lizzy explicitly snap or lash out at Ms. Bingley, and instead take up any issues she has with Darcy, recognizing that he is the root of the conflict.
Another instance in the book when Elizabeth genuinely emerges as a feminist is when she is described as having a sporty and masculine demeanor by her future husband Fitzwilliam Darcy’s sister, Georgiana. “Georgiana had the highest opinion in the world of Elizabeth; though at first she often listened with astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive manner of talking to her brother.” (Chapter 61, Page 333). Unlike Charlotte Lucas who took on the conventional role of a woman after marrying Mr. Collins, Elizabeth retains her livelihood and freedom even after marriage. As seen through the perspective of Georgiana, it is to be noted that women would undergo character changes after being married, taking up the role of the homely caregiver submissive to her husband’s will. By describing Elizabeth as sporty, she is given masculine qualities, seeing as at the time men were the primary participants in sports and other physical outdoor activities such as hunting, shooting, and riding. By describing Elizabeth as masculine, she automatically portrayed as, once again, an equal to Mr. Darcy.
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett has had a constant headstrong personality, portrayed through her ability to speak and stand her ground with a range of people from bourgeois to the aristocratic comfortably with a sense of wittiness. Coupled with her belief that women are at least as intelligent and capable as men, and considers their inferior status in society to be unjust, Austin goes against social constructs by keeping Elizabeth, the role model and protagonist figure single (for much of the book), advocating that women should only marry for love and not in meer hopes of security. Through her courage and ease at refusing to submit to the temptation of economic safety and societal approval in a husband, and taking a stance against the socially “superior” characters like Lady Catherine de Bourgh and empowerment for her individuality and independence through her characterization by others in the novel like Georgiana, Elizabeth unmistakably emerges as a feminist, in which Austen is able to reflect her courage and feminine beliefs through, deeming both the fictional character and historic literary figure true pioneers in the feminist movement.