During the 18th century, when women were considered to be weak and without options, Jane Austen wrote “Pride and Prejudice” as a critique of the social, patriarchal and marriage structures of her time. While focusing on Austen’s portrayal of strong female characters, we will argue how “Pride and Prejudice erodes exist stereotypes of women.
Sarah R. Morrison, the author of “Of Woman Borne: Male Experience and Feminine Truth in Jane Austen’s Novels”, writes, “Men are of secondary importance in the novels, however useful they may be to the plot, and male experience becomes relevant only in so far as it confirms “feminine” truth. And by this I mean not a truth for women alone but what for Austen is a universal truth reflected more clearly in women’s experience” (Morrison 341). If we take for example, the first line of the book, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Austen, 3), our first thought is of a man looking for a wife, but as we read on, we quickly learn that this story is not about a man’s experience, but of the women. Yes, there is a lot of engagement and marriage, and yes, some of the women are marrying for economic reasons, but they have all made their own choices, which is something empowering, especially during this time of oppression.
If we consider one of the core principles of feminist thought, which is that all people have value, and that value is not a property only or primarily of, and that women have value which should be articulated and rewarded, we need only look at the women in the Bennet family.
Many may argue that Austen’s novel reinforces sexist stereotypes of women, rather than erode them, such as when Mrs. Bennet says, “Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennett got rid of her two most deserving daughters” (Austen 263). Many times throughout the novel, we hear Mrs. Bennett express her want, and almost need, for her four daughters to be married. She even goes as far as to say that it is her only wish to see them married. Mrs. Bennet is a distinctly counter-feminist indulgence, but she is a strong woman. Does Mrs. Bennet’s character reinforce sexist stereotypes of women, or is she just a product of her time? I argue that she is but a woman who wants to see her daughters’ futures secured. Although not terribly bright, she is a driving force to be reckoned with. Mr. Bennet, her husband, clearly loves her and understands who she is. She acknowledges her own value vicariously, by recognizing herself in Lydia. Mrs. Bennet may seem like a character that reinforces sexist stereotypes of women, but that is only because of her time.
The common stereotypical portrayal of a heroine is that she is beautiful. Austen erodes this sexist stereotyped by creating a character who is recognized for her mind, not her beauty. Elizabeth Bennet, a strong-willed, intelligent, self-confident, witty, and described to have dancing eyes, is portrayed realistically as having areas of weakness. Her insolence and initial misjudgement of a male character, Darcy, leads him to understand and respect her as his equal by the end of the novel. Although said to have not a quite beautiful face, the reader is led to consider, “that the major concern of the book is with the possibilities and responsibility of free and lively thought” (Morgan 340). Elizabeth was a woman who remained her authentic self and did not need male acknowledgement to know her value or worth. Marriage was considered to be the best option for women economically during Austen’s time. It was a uncommon to see a woman turning down a proposal, but Elizabeth loved and received love on her own terms.
Jane Austen’s admiration of Elizabeth is also an admiration of herself. Austen was a woman who felt pride in resisting and questioning patriarchal prejudices during her time (Khei 58). She used “Pride and Prejudice” as a tool to challenge the assumptions of her time. In doing so, she upholds pride for women while eroding stereotypes. We find ourselves more completely, as women, after contemplating her novel, and our assumptions about status and gender, and our right or responsibility to challenge the assumptions of others (Nachumi 119).
In a time with strict cultural restrictions, emerged a novel by Jane Austen, which celebrated the uniqueness of women, and encouraged women to be true to themselves. “Pride and Prejudice” offers us a look into the lives of many different women, and how their independence were suppressed because of the time, and how despite these restrictions, some women thrived and refused to be have their value determined by whether or not a man found them worthy of marrying. With the use of critiques and writings from other writers, we are able to see how the novel erodes sexist stereotypes of women.
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