Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice introduces the modern reader into a world where marriage is a mere business transaction and true love is a matter of luck. The novel takes place during the Regency Era, a time plagued with political upheaval and economic uncertainty; particularly among upper class English families. Marriage is presented as the simplest way to preserve a family’s estate and inheritance, which could potentially allow these families to climb the arduous social ladder. For women in particular, this is seemingly the only way to achieve any success or satisfaction. As a result of this societal pressure, the main female characters within the novel are preoccupied with marriage because it is their only way to seal not only financial security, but social satisfaction. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas have very different perspectives on marriage: one being romantic and the other being practical. In no way does the author make it clear that she writes with the purpose of acting as a revolutionary. Instead, Austen satirically presents two outlooks on marriage, emphasizing that women of this time had limited opportunities. Specifically, the author juxtaposes the pragmatist, Charlotte, with the romantic, Elizabeth, to criticize the Regency Era’s limiting social standards of which women were expected to adhere.
Charlotte Lucas believes marriage is a social exchange of status and wealth rather than of true companionate love. From one of Charlotte’s first interactions with Elizabeth in the novel, Austen makes a clear distinction between Charlotte and Elizabeth through their attitudes about marriage. Charlotte, the pragmatist, is focused on procuring a marriage that can satisfy her financial and social needs. She has a calculated and deliberate approach on the subject, describing happiness in marriage as something that is due to chance alone: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance… It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life’ (Austen 24). The author points out that Charlotte is willing to sacrifice her own happiness in order to conform to society’s standards and secure a stable life. Furthermore, Charlotte agrees to marry Mr. Collins, despite his exasperating disposition, because she greatly values the social approval that the match will bring over romantic aspirations of any future relationship. Further underscoring her intentional approach, Charlotte freely shares with Elizabeth her knowing calculations about securing a good match regarding Jane Bennet’s new interactions with Mr. Bingley: “Jane should therefore make the most of every half hour in which she can command his attention” (23). Following a failed and embarrassing proposal, Elizabeth is taken aback by hearing the news of Charlotte and Mr. Collins’ courtship:
You must be surprised, very much surprised — so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. 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. (123)
Charlotte reminds her dear friend Elizabeth of her own practicality, and continues to acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation by saying that “Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you” (123). The marriage with Mr. Collins appears to be out of mere convenience because of the reference to “[having] time to think it over” (123). Charlotte outright declares that she is “not a romantic,” clearly highlighting Austen’s purposeful contrast between Elizabeth and her perceptions of marriage (123). The author writes this interaction between these two characters to underscore their opposite intentions: Elizabeth, who is frankly repulsed by Collins refuses his proposal because she rejects any connection that is not love with an intellectual equal, whereas Charlotte accepts it in order to procure the stable life she imagines as the ideal.
On the contrary, Elizabeth’s desire for marriage is less than practical; in fact, as the firstborn daughter during this era, she should not be searching for love, and instead should be focused on the implications of her potential marriage and impact that the failure to marry will have on her family just as Charlotte has done. Mrs. Bennet’s erratic reaction to Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins’ proposal is Austen commenting on the futility of the social expectations placed upon women: “Oh! Mr. Bennet, you are wanted immediately; we are all in an uproar. You must come and make Lizzy marry Mr. Collins, for she vows she will not have him, and if you do not make haste he will change his mind and not have her” (109). Mrs. Bennet claims that this is an urgent matter and that Mr. Collins will “not have her [Elizabeth],” as if Elizabeth should have no say in this matter (109). This telling reaction from her mother exemplifies why Elizabeth refuses to marry out of necessity. A marriage without love would never have the threat of forcing someone to do something they didn’t want to do or have one party “change his [their] mind” (109). Austen portrays Mrs. Bennet in a panic to add tension to Elizabeth’s refusal of the proposed marriage plans because by turning down this offer and practically alienating herself socially, her family potentially loses the security they possess in both the Bennet family’s residence and social status. Furthermore, Austen explores Elizabeth’s romantic intentions further by clarifying what love truly means to Elizabeth. As Elizabeth realizes that indeed Darcy is the man she wants to marry, Austen highlights that Elizabeth too will obtain something personally beneficial from this relationship:
She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was a union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgement, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance. (295)
The author uses Elizabeth’s realization to show that the sought-after companionate love she desires is actually a mutual respect and understanding of each other. The author’s usage of the phrase “would have answered all her wishes” reveals that Elizabeth has been fantasizing about fulfilling her romantic destiny for a long time (295). Additionally, Austen writes “a union that must have been to the advantage of both” to emphasize Elizabeth’s romantic intentions are mutualistic (295). Interestingly, Elizabeth points out Darcy’s flaws describing them as “unlike her own,” highlighting the growth she has undergone as a character throughout the novel (295). The usage of the word “judgement” affirms their love, as Elizabeth symbolizes prejudice and she views their relationship as positively accepting of “judgement” (295). Following Elizabeth’s realization that Darcy is the man she wants to marry, in true romantic fashion, she also realizes her happiness and love for him.
On several accounts throughout the novel, Austen makes it clear there are stark differences between Charlotte and Elizabeth’s approaches to marriage; however, these two characters are ultimately after the same thing— marrying to have financial security and strong social status. Both women would leave themselves and their families destitute if they do not marry equally or better. The opening line of the novel poses a unique comment on their society’s rules and how Charlotte and Elizabeth follow them accordingly: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (5). Austen writes this line with a sarcastic tone, referencing the later marriages between Charlotte and Mr. Collins and Elizabeth and Darcy. Austen’s statement reiterates the limited options for women like Charlotte and Elizabeth who have no choice but to marry in order to save their families. On the same note of reinforcing a toxic double standard upon these women, Mrs. Bennet reminds Elizabeth that refusing a marriage is also damaging to the entire family. Mrs. Bennet’s anguish begins to place guilt on Elizabeth for choosing love and equal intellect over the annoying and obsequious Mr. Collins. She implores Mr. Bennet to convince Elizabeth that she’s making a grave mistake. To her shock, Elizabeth’s equally romantic father instead exclaims, “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do” (109-110). Elizabeth’s refusal of marriage is a risk of her family’s prosperity and inheritance, which results in alienation from her family as she is described as a future “stranger” (110). Mr. Bennet also claims that the alternative to marriage is unhappiness, as if Elizabeth, and therefore all women in this era, are unsatisfied unless they are married. This appears to be a threat to Elizabeth as she risks isolation from her family if she doesn’t agree with the proposal from Mr. Collins as well as social alienation for marrying a laughingstock.
Both Charlotte and Elizabeth are held to a high standard when it comes to marriage as it essential to their personal and familial well-being. Austen uses the intricate interchanges and banter between the characters to underscore the societal pressures of the time. Marriage, for Regency era women, is the key to opportunity, financial security, and social approval. While the pair may have different interpretations on what the justification behind marriage is, they share the same motives: protecting and defending their family’s good name.