How does Jane Austen present the themes of love and marriage in Pride and Prejudice through Elizabeth and Darcy and Mr and Mrs Bennet?
In the 19th century within English society, a woman’s main aim/purpose in life was matrimony. This was even more so for young girls like the Bennet sisters. The entailment of their father’s estate left them in a poor financial state, which is probably why Mrs Bennet’s “business in life” was to get her five daughters married.
We as the reader can tell from the opening sentence of the novel, what Jane Austen’s views on marriage are. She states; “it is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” However this is an irony, almost mocking those who think in such a frame of mind, for example people like Mrs Bennet. Austen believed that marriage should only be for love and affection, not wealth and greed.
Austen’s views on love and marriage are shown through Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of the novel. She is twenty years of age and is the second oldest of her five sisters. Elizabeth is strong minded and a quick judge of character, and also has her own views on marriage that are different from other young women in the novel. She believes love should be the firm foundation of marriage, and that without it, a marriage cannot be successful. This is in contrast to Charlotte’s view that “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance”.
This is why Elizabeth turned down Mr Collins when he impulsively asked for her hand in marriage, after realising her elder sister, Jane, was to be engaged. “Mr Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth – and it was soon done -” This shows Mr Collins’ insincerity and also how selfish he was, as he later told her one of the main reasons he wanted to marry was for his own happiness. Elizabeth, from the first mention of Mr Collins and after reading his letter, thought there was “something very pompous in his style”, and she questioned whether he could be a sensible man at all. In my opinion, Mr Collins tries to be humble but because of his excessive flattery – from furniture to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, we as the reader, and most probably Elizabeth, find him to be totally the opposite – obsequious.
Her response to Mr Collins’ proposal was of course, a rejection. She refused five times, in a very clear and polite manner; “but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline.” His ignorance and pride becomes obvious to Elizabeth and the reader when he laughs and says Elizabeth is just refusing to prolong the suspense.
Elizabeth’s pride is wounded at the Meryton ball, where she and Darcy become first acquainted. He insults her by saying to his close friend, Bingley, “she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me” He is condemned by the society and described as “the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world…”, and from the moment Elizabeth overhears his conversation with Bingley, she is prejudiced towards him. The first impressions she has of Darcy is apparently all she needed to know of him. The same prejudice and pride in her own judgement leads her to accept Wickham’s flattery and the slanderous portrait of Darcy.
Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth is made with very bad timing – she had just found out about Darcy’s involvement in separating her dear sister, Jane from Bingley. In addition to this misfortune, Darcy proposes to her in a critical and clumsy manner. When confessing his love to Elizabeth, he says, “In vain have I struggled.” This shows that Darcy reluctantly falls in love with Elizabeth. His pride and obstinacy restricts him from showing his warmth and love to Elizabeth, which is why she thinks he does not like her. He finds himself in “danger” of loving her, and is not pleased about the fact that he likes her due to her low social status.
This is evident at the beginning of the novel, when he feels that “were it not for the inferiority of her connections,” he could even start to think about marrying her. He talks ill of her neurotic mother and forward sisters, which is another reason why Elizabeth declines. She is also still blinded by what Wickham has falsely told her of Darcy. Although his love for Elizabeth is reluctant, he proposes, which tells the reader that perhaps his attitudes on love and marriage are similar to those of Elizabeth – despite her low connections, he still proposes and confesses his love to her.
However, when Darcy writes a letter justifying his actions and proposal, Elizabeth begins to see Darcy in a different light. The proud, arrogant Darcy that Elizabeth thought she knew, and disliked very much, explains and apologises to her, leaving her in “astonishment, apprehension, and even horror” as she realises she was in the wrong about Jane and Bingley. She also realises that Wickham altered his story to his own liking in order to degrade Darcy even more. Her first impressions of Darcy from the Meryton ball, and Wickham’s gentleman like manner caused her to be “pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other…” Her quick judge of character, though well in certain situations, is thought to be too quick, and perhaps because of this she judges wrongly at times – she did not see Darcy for who he is.
By chapter 43 a very different picture has been painted of Darcy – that of the “sweetest tempered, most generous hearted, boy in the world.” Such praise in his favour is told by his housekeeper, who knows him very well, showing Elizabeth’s misjudgement of character. Darcy makes an effort to converse with Elizabeth and Mr and Mrs Gardiner and wishes for “her to be acquainted with his sister.” His love for Elizabeth is being shown here as he is trying to improve himself for her, and is accepting her criticisms.
She realises Darcy is genuine and natural and her feelings for him consist of respect; “The respect created by the conviction of his valuable qualities.” She had heard about him from his housekeeper in “so amiable a light” that she starts to respect Darcy for himself. Esteem was another reason her feelings towards Darcy changed, as she found him to be much more gentle and kind, and most importantly of all three, gratitude. “Gratitude, not merely for having once loved her, but for loving her still well enough.” Darcy and Elizabeth’s love is gradual, and goes through many obstacles. Therefore it was worth having and reflects Austen’s views on marrying for true love.
It seems to me that Austen is keen on pointing out the danger of marriages not based on mutual love and respect. This is quite clear if Mr and Mrs Bennet’s relationship is carefully looked at. Their marriage does not form “a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort”. Their daughters, in particular Elizabeth, sees how her parents are, and perhaps this is the reason she wants to marry purely for love. She does not want to make the same mistake as her parents, who married under first impressions and for wealth.
Austen portrays Mrs Bennet as an uptight, excessive gossip artist, who just wants to get her daughters married into a rich family. “The business of her life was to get her daughters married, its solace was visiting and news.” On the other hand, Mr Bennet is quite laid back; he does not get worried over little things, unlike his dramatic wife, who is always complaining about her nerves – “You have no compassion on my poor nerves.” Mr Bennet is often “fatigued with the raptures of his wife”, which shows how little respect is kept within their marriage. They are clearly incompatible. The only pleasure Mr Bennet receives from his unhappy marriage is that of teasing his foolish wife and concealing matters that interest her to keep her in suspense – “the astonishment of the ladies was just what he wished.” Initially, he had been “captivated by the youth and beauty” of Mrs Bennet, but once those had faded, her “weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end of all real affection for her.”
Mr Bennet has realised his marriage was a mistake, and cares very much about his daughters’ happiness. He says to Elizabeth, “My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.” Mrs Bennet’s main concern is just to get them married rich, regardless of who the groom is. An example of this is when Mrs Bennet’s opinion of Mr Collins changes when he asks for her daughters hand in marriage. Mrs Bennet is very is fickle-minded especially if there is a chance of material gain for her. She wants Elizabeth to marry Mr Collins, and when she seeks her husband’s support in her decision, he says to Elizabeth, “Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
The way he contradicts his wife in a humorous way to his daughter in front of her, shows the disrespect towards her and how he does not really see the need to support his neurotic wife. Mrs Bennet’s fickle-mindedness and rudeness is once again shown when she is first acquainted to Mr Darcy. She is very rude to him and does not like his manner. She even says, “So high and so conceited that there was no enduring him! I quite detest the man.” However when she finds out Elizabeth and Darcy are to be married, she has no problem with him – “Oh! My sweetest Lizzy! How rich and how great you will be!” Her attitudes totally change to Mr Darcy and she is ecstatic about the marriage, simply as he is wealthy. he unsatisfactory relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet is a good example of how not to marry and proves Austen’s point on the importance of love and mutual respect needed for a successful marriage.
Elizabeth was used as a vehicle for Austen’s thoughts and views on love and marriage, and it is clear how she wants to show how Elizabeth is happier with a man who she truly loves than she would have been if she married for financial purposes, or for beauty, like the other unsuccessful marriages like Mr and Mrs Bennet and Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas. Austen ends the eventful novel with a successful marriage based on growing admiration and affection, in which Elizabeth and Darcy have overcome their “First Impressions”, which happened to be the first title of the novel, and their earlier feelings of pride and prejudice. Although Jane Austen never married herself, we see her through Elizabeth in an idealistic way.