It is against human nature to be indifferent to public opinion, especially when those judgements evaluate one’s stature in society. Reputation is a tremendously significant theme for the female characters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The novel describes the intertwined lives of several middle and upper class families living in England during the late 1800s. In this time period, women had zero means of providing for themselves, so it was absolutely vital that they maintain a respectable peer opinion. Not only did a good reputation reflect a higher social ranking, but it also allowed a woman’s desirability for marriage to increase which was their sole resource for financial stability. In her novel, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen portrays women such as Charlotte Lucas, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Lydia in a negative light in order to criticize the immense social pressures that force them to either obsess over or damage their reputations. By illustrating the importance of reputation as a means of survival for these women, Austen criticizes the intensity of the social environment which evokes their negative behavior and highlights the prevalence of upholding one’s status in today’s society.
Jane Austen characterizes Charlotte Lucas through displaying her shallow obsession with wealth and status at the expense of her own happiness. When Charlotte ultimately decides to accept Mr. Collins’ proposal to her, she breaks the news to Lizzy by stating, “I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’ character, connection, 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’ (Austen 120). Despite Mr. Collins’ recent proposal to her best friend, Charlotte nonetheless accepts his hand in marriage in order to uphold her reputation in society. When she tells Lizzy she is “not a romantic,” Charlotte expresses her belief that love is not a necessity in a marriage and that happiness is a matter of chance. Her main priority is to find someone with a secure financial state with a good “connection” and decent “character” which Mr. Collins fulfills. Charlotte’s shallow values reflect badly on the morality of character. However, Charlotte sees advantages in maintaining a respectable reputation as a middle-class wife rather than being a homeless beggar. She is very well aware of a woman’s stance in society, and to her, reputation is everything because it will ensure her chances of survival. So while Charlotte may be portrayed in a negative light, she is actually conforming to the social norms that provide her aid to persevere in such a superficially demanding atmosphere.
Austen ultimately displays Lady Catherine de Bourgh in a negative manner through her demeaning interactions with people of a lower class throughout the novel. Upon hearing rumors that her nephew, Mr. Darcy, desires to be married to Miss Bennet, Lady Catherine attempts to convince Lizzy that this idea would be disastrous. Lady Catherine states, “While in their cradles, we planned the union… to be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family?” (Austen 338). Lady Catherine is one of the few women in the novel who is at the top of the social hierarchy. Societal expectations essentially affect Lady Catherine’s perception of Lizzie which explains the supercilious and degrading attitude that she exhibits to her. The pressure to uphold a superior reputation is what basically drives Lady Catherine to tell Lizzy that she is not one of “importance in the world”. To Lady Catherine, Lizzy is not worthy to be engaged to Mr. Darcy since she is of such an inferior social class. Due to the intense and judgmental environment that Lady Catherine is engulfed in, she concludes that these circumstances would ruin the purity of the upper class elite . Thus, Austen’s negative portrayal of Lady Catherine as an entitled snob who feels the need to establish her own dominance to those of a lower status, emphasizes the utmost importance of reputation in this society.
Austen utilizes Lydia Bennet as an example to display the consequences for those who disregard the significance of reputation. Rumors about Lydia having premarital sex with Wickham put her reputation at great risk. In a pontifical letter to Mr. Bennet about the scandal, Mr. Collins writes, “The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this. And it is the more to be limited because there is reason to suppose, as my dear Charlotte informed me, that is licentiousness of behavior and your daughter has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence” (Austen 282). Mr. Collins’ opinions of the situation represents society’s judgements of Lydia as a whole. Women during this time period were required to be disciplined and conservative in their actions. Thus, Lydia’s promiscuous and impulsive behavior defies these expectations and greatly damage her reputation since no potential suitors will be inclined to marry her. The severity of the scandal is reflected when Mr. Collins states that Lydia’s death would be “a blessing in comparison” to her reckless conduct. Without s marriage to Wickham, society deems Lydia as an undesirable whore which is equivalent to, if not worse, than being dead. Austen displays these harsh circumstances Lydia receives in order to show readers that women were forced to comply to societal expectations in fear of this type of backlash. Additionally, Austen writes, “Poor Lydia’s situation must, at best, be bad enough; but that it was no worse, she needed to be thankful. She felt it so; and though and looking forward neither rational happiness nor worldly prosperity could be just expected for her sister, and looking back to what they had feared only two hours ago, she felt all the advantages of what they had gained” (292). If Wickham had not been convinced to marry Lydia in the end, she would have become a poor, rejected waif to the rest of society. This quote portrays Lizzie’s relief that the unfortunate circumstances which were almost Lydia’s reality, are no longer a possibility. Although she doubts that Lydia will ever feel fulfilled in such a superficial and financially unstable relationship, Lizzie is “thankful” that at least Lydia’s reputation is not completely destroyed. Ultimately through Lydia’s reckless actions, Austen conveys to readers that upholding a good reputation is an absolute necessity to a woman’s social standing.
While some may argue that overall, Austen wrote the novel to criticize those who obsess over reputation, the evidence shows that in reality, her criticism lies within the intense social pressure to uphold a good stature. Austen displays the damaging effects these expectations have on women in the novel such as Charlotte Lucas, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Lydia through her portrayal of them in a negative manner. It is important to note that the author is not reprimanding these women for their shallow, pretentious, or impetuous behavior, but rather the societal norms that force them to act in such a way. In today’s society, it is not uncommon for people to obsess over reputation as well. The way one dresses, speaks, or acts affects the public’s perception of a person which determines whether or not they are idolized or neglected by their peers. Thus, Austen highlights the connection between modern day people attempting to be accepted by those around them, and the women living during the time of Pride and Prejudice.
- Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Signet, 2008.