Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, conveys the classic tale of two lovers; after an initial acrimonious encounter, they develop a deep intolerance of each other, and as a result, fail to recognize their inherent compatibility. Elizabeth Bennet, a spirited and sensible woman, is considered inferior by the proud Fitzwilliam Darcy because of her lower social class. Inevitably, this leads to Mr. Darcy’s prejudice towards Elizabeth, which in turn, causes her to take great personal offense due to her own immense pride.
Consequently, the novel provides an intriguing, yet critical view of the emphasis placed on social class, especially in terms of being used as a basis to judge one’s character. In fact, the characters in Pride and Prejudice epitomize this type of superficiality, particularly in the portrayal of the treatment of the Bennet family due to their lower income. Indeed, it is apparent that social class, especially during the 19th century and even today, has a tremendous influence on how people behave, and the way they interact with one another.
Ultimately, Austen’s illustration of the extreme desire to marry for wealth satirizes the intense consideration of one’s economic class, and therefore, depicts the society’s obsession with social class, and its overall effect on motives, marriage and character. Certainly, social class has a direct correlation to buying power and influence, and thus, affects an individual’s motives and actions. This is the case in Pride and Prejudice as many of the characters are primarily driven by money and material possessions. However, social class influences the characters in different ways.
Mrs. Bennet’s actions, for instance, revolves around appeasing those of higher social class, in hopes that her daughters can gain economic status through a beneficial marriage. This is shown when she puts her daughter’s health at risk, all for the sake of furthering her agenda of gaining social class. When Jane requests to travel to Mr. Bingley’s house by carriage, Mrs Bennet responds, “No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night” (Austen, 34). This is a calculated action, where Mrs. Bennet is fully aware that Jane would probably fall ill and have to stay at Mr. Bingley’s house, resulting in them spending more time together.
Furthermore, Mrs. Bennet has willingly subjected herself to ridicule and insult forgoing her own pride and dignity. Overall, Mrs. Bennet pursues higher social class status, and as a result, sacrifices her family’s pride and wellbeing. Unfortunately, the wealthier class tends to view others as inferior, and thus, their treatment of others reflects this perspective. For instance, Lady Catherine and Miss Bingley, who are both from affluent families, are disrespectful towards Elizabeth and Jane due to their lower social class.
In fact, they often make fun of, challenge, and attempt to make a fool out of her. For example, when Elizabeth humbly talks about her piano abilities, and her desire to play better, Lady Catherine interrupts her, saying, “Miss Bennet would not play at all amiss if she practised more… though her taste is not equal to Anne’s. Anne would have been a delightful performer, had her health allowed her to learn” (166) Once again, Lady Catherine blatantly maintains that her daughter is much better than Elizabeth.
In doing this, she is extremely inconsiderate in cutting off Elizabeth, as well as, asserting the superiority of herself and her family. Similarly, Mr. Darcy treats his friends within his own social circle as equals, and in fact, insults Elizabeth because of her lower social class. In consequence, this supremacy stems from high society’s pompous views of themselves, and is further perpetuated by the admiration given to them by the lower class. This illustrates that people often become self-indulgent with their own affluence, which leads them to treat others they perceive as inferior, with disrespect.
Austen offers insightful commentary through her portrayal of these characters, and how their social class, whether high or low, blinds their better judgement. The detrimental effects on marriages due to social class is explicitly illustrated in Pride and Prejudice through multiple perspectives. This is displayed through the extremity of the characters’ intents of marrying for “practicality”, in other words, solidifying a union to gain inheritance or wealth. As a result, there is heavy emphasis placed on one’s social class when considering them as a potential spouse.
For example, Mrs. Bennet wants her daughters to marry wealthy men, even if this means utilizing devious tactics to attract their affections. Furthermore, she focuses on a man’s income so much that she ignores other important aspects, such as personality and compatibility. When Mr. Collins, a gentleman of fair wealth, shows interest in Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennet did not care for her daughter’s attraction to him, or his suitability to Elizabeth. She instead forces Elizabeth to accept his marriage proposal in order to expedite the marriage, which to her great disappointment, fails.
She is also oblivious to the largely repulsive character of Mr. Collins, as he is dense, ignorant, and rather annoying. Driven to compensate for her lower social class, Mrs. Bennet compromises amicable, harmonious relationships for her daughters for rigid, materialistically-driven ones. Consequently, this obsession with social class in terms of selecting a spouse can potentially create unfitting relationships. Austen further illustrates the negative impact of social class on marriage through Mr. Darcy’s approach on love: his intervention of Mr. Bingley’s prospective marriage to Jane and his initial dismissal of Elizabeth.
Firstly, he hinders Jane and Mr. Bingley’s relationship by asserting that Jane’s lack of affluent connections render her less suitable as a partner. This proves that when social class is highly considered, individuals fail to recognize other valuable traits. In the case of the relationship between Jane and Mr. Bingley, despite the fact that they clearly love each other for each other’s personality, Mr. Bingley overlooks Jane’s qualities, and chooses to refrain from proposing.
The delaying of relationships due to social class is also shown in the incipient stages of Mr. Darcy’s affection towards Elizabeth. He originally dismisses his feelings because of her low economic status, thinking, “that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger. ” (53) As a result, he chooses not to pursue Elizabeth in the beginning, preventing their relationship. Indeed, the superficial merit attached to social class is very harmful, as evident through the fact that potentially good relationships can be hindered and even disregarded.
However, Elizabeth’s foresight and values serve as a contrast to the outward avaricious nature of the other characters. While Charlotte impulsively marries Mr. Collins for his wealth without any knowledge of his personal flaws, Elizabeth transcends these petty and shallow motives. She opposes Charlotte’s views when Charlotte claims, “… it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life” (27) Elizabeth seeks to marry for true affection; loving her partners’s qualities, and being aware of and fully accepting him for his shortcomings.
For this reason, Elizabeth exhibits constructive views on forming relationships, which are possible when affection is given unconditionally, regardless of social class. Unlike Elizabeth, most women in the novel would readily accept someone as “tolerable and acceptable” as Mr. Collins, since he is well-off, able to provide for his wife and family, and has no evident problems. However, Austen’s depiction of Elizabeth exposes the foolishness related to this blind materialism. Social class, when used as a measure for marriage, prevents potentially fruitful relationships, and causes forced partnerships between incompatible people.
The effect of social class on personality and character is yet another effect portrayed in Pride and Prejudice. Inevitably, those who are affluent, often behave more prideful, arrogant, and conceited, as they feel more entitled. Mr. Collins typifies this profile, since he flaunts his future inheritance of the Longbourn Estate. Moreover, his affiliation with Lady Catherine also causes him to feel an elevated status of himself, affecting his demeanor and disposition. In addition, his personality boasts self-importance because of his actual entitlement to certain property.
In many ways, Mr. Collins is also ignorant and self-centred. Because of his wealth, he assumes everyone will be accommodating of him, and thus, completely closes off the idea of people disliking him. As a result, he clearly does not understand Elizabeth’s insults towards him, and entirely misinterprets her rejection of his marriage proposal. Mr. Darcy’s personality is also influenced by his social class. His pride is based primarily on his belongings; as a result, he recognizes he has more than the common person, and acts accordingly.
He justifies his immense pride by declaring, in reference to himself, “where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation,” (58) Of course, this affects both his confidence and conceitedness, as he holds himself above others, and acts callously towards those he considers of a lower class. On the contrary, the characters, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are utilized as counterparts to the types such as Mr. Darcy and Mrs. Bennet. In spite of being in a lower social class than the Bennet family, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner still conduct themselves with a high degree of propriety and respect.
In doing so, they attract even the attention of the proud Mr. Darcy. This profoundly demonstrates that grounded values and self respect still warrant recognition and regard from others. Their contrast to the other characters shows that virtuous characteristic traits can supercede class distinction. Social class has a pervasive effect on society, as this is skillfully presented by Austen. Through her colourful array of characters and their individual nuances, Austen creates a satirical commentary of society, focusing on the hierarchy within the social class system.
Its effects are depicted through its superficial impact on behavior and interpersonal relationships. While the majority of the characters display this shallow nature, Elizabeth Bennet is a refreshing contrast as her character reflects substance and backbone. Ahead of her time, her rejection of Mr. Collins, who outwardly is suitable, but is not right for her personally, shows her discernment to look into looking beyond the appearance of an individual. Pride and Prejudice provides an interesting and insightful perspective into today’s world, as society continues to place great significance on materialism, outward image, and social class.