Elizabeth Bennet’s revolutionary character in Pride and Prejudice
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Elizabeth Bennet, the female protagonist in Pride and Prejudice, is revolutionary in that she actively rejects the conventions of the time in which it is written. Her determination to choose her own husband, using rational Love as her main criteria, deems her as a rebel of her time. This essay will provide evidence for this assertion by refering to the various instances in which she ignores societal standards and restrictions in persuit of true Love. However we must also consider the limits of Elizabeth’s rebellion. It becomes clear that Ms. Bennet still conforms to a certain extent, to the expectations of society in some of her attitudes and the choices she makes.
The novel centralises around the Bennetts, a family of five girls and their parents. Mrs. Bennet’s primary focus in life is seeing her daughters secured in marriage. This becomes somewhat of an obsession, and the daughters react with a similar urgency to find a husband. This is in keeping with the times in which the novel was written, when the value of a woman was rooted almost entirely in that of her husband. This attitude is confirmed throughout pride and prejudice. When Mr. Bingley, who is rumoured to be handsome and in possession of good fortune appears in the plot, he is immediately targeted as a potential husband for one of the Bennet girls (Austen 1966:1). The whole household is up in arms about his arrival in the neighbourhood. Similar uproar is created by the emergence of numerous other men including Mr. Darcy (who is said to earn twice as much as Mr. Bingley) and Mr. Wickham who though he is not wealthy like the others, appears to be particularly agreeable (Austen 1966:123).
A constant fear that not all of her daughters will find husbands, motivates most of Mrs. Bennet’s actions. After Elizabeth rejects her first marriage proposal, she threatens, I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead. I shall not be able to keep you and so I warn you. I have done with you from this very day (Austen 1966:102). Mr. Collins, the man to have made the offer of marriage also expresses great disbelief when Elizabeth turns him down. Even after Elizabeth tries everything in her power to persuade him that she is not interested, he cannot seem to accept that she really means it (Austen 1966:97-9). It was simply not conventional to refuse a marriage offer that would secure one’s well-being.
Within the Lucas family too, there is a fear that the eldest daughter will die an old maid (Austen 1966:110). So it is that the 27 year old Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr. Collins’ proposal of marriage aTabitha Mee 4217 522 4 ENN203J – Assignment 1, p2 of 4day after he is rejected by Elizabeth although it becomes clear that she does not hold him in high regard:Mr Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable: his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object: it was the only honorable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and, however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want (Austen 1966:110).
It seems by these words, that it was commonly believed impossible to be both single and fulfilled.
In conversation with her dear sister Jane, Elizabeth openly opposes this attitude when she states that, if i was as happy as you dot dot dot(pg.?). She communicates having absolutely no interest in marrying for any motivation other than love.
When she is proposed to for a second time, this time by the very well-off and highly respected Mr. Darcy, she again declines the offer without hesitation. A sense of honour that Mr. Darcy should choose her of all people is heavily overshadowed by her feelings of disgust towards his abominable pride and his prejudice towards her family (Austen 1966:172). Prior to the proposal Elizabeth had shown nothing but abhorrence towards Mr. Darcy’s character and therefore he has absolutely no reason to think that she might have been partial towards him.
However, he assumes that she will respond to his offer favourably and is shocked when she in fact turns him down (Austen 1966:168- 9). Elizabeth admits that in view of the conventions of their time this is a fair assumption to make in her reply to Mr Darcy’s offer:In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot (Austen 1966:169).
Another instance where Elizabeth’s ignorance of social restrictions is illustrated is her attitude towards Lady Catherine Du Bourg. Elizabeth is the only one who does not show her irrefutable respect. Due to her high position in society, she is treated with great (and somewhat ridiculous) admiration and reverence by just about all the characters in pride and prejudice, though it becomes clear that there is nothing in her personality to be truly respected. Lady Catherine is greatly shocked and insulted by Elizabeth’s blatant contempt (Austen 1966: 315).
Tabitha Mee 4217 522 4 ENN203J – Assignment 1, p3 of 4A severe change in Elizabeth’s attitude toward Mr. Darcy steadily takes place over time. When Jane asks her when this change began, she replies in saying that, It has been coming on so gradually that I hardly know when it began; but I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley (Austen 1966:332). This serves as a confession that there is after all a certain appeal in the typically desired attributes of wealth and security. It seems society has managed to root this value into her despite her original opposition to it.
Though this alone would not have been enough reason to make Elizabeth re-consider Mr. Darcy’s proposal. It was the revelation of his true character that made her earnestly fall in love with him. Thus when she is asked for her hand in marriage for a second time, she answers favourably. Love is after all the deciding criteria in choosing her own husband. This stands out as a contrast to the marriage between Mr. Collins and Ms. Lucas, which was prompted by the allure of security, and that of Mr. Wikham and Lydia (Elizabeth’s youngest sister) where physical attraction seems to have been the biggest motivator.
Even Jane, though she feels genuine admiration for Mr. Bingley, shows her acceptance of societal restrictions when she makes the resolve to accept that he may have been to good for her when their potential future together is threatened. It is of little surprise that out of all of Jane Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth Bennet is said to have used the word love more than anyone else (Kane 2002:30)It is evident that Elizabeth Bennet’s character deviates quite heavily from the norm in her unswerving commitment to finding a husband with whom she will share mutual love. Both her opinion and action reflect this attitude. Not one of her contemporaries allows their questioning of societal conventions, if they have any, to actively affect their choices. Though there are still accepted attitudes created by society that seem to have an affect on her, they do not provide enough support to change the assertion that Elizabeth Bennet’s character was truly revolutionary in her time.
Austen, J. 1966. Pride and Prejudice. London: Nelson.
Kane, G. 2002. Pride and Prejudice. In Only study guide for ENN203-J. Pretoria: University of South Africa.