Monday, October 3, 2011

What does Pride and Prejudice reveal about Austen’s attitudes to issues of class, wealth and social status?

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Through the wide range of characters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice her views on class, wealth and social status are revealed. Jane Austen grew up in Hampshire, from the age of sixteen she would have often been present at dances and visits to other families of the same social class � gentry and minor aristocracy. These sorts of gatherings formed a large part of the Hampshire’s social scene in a similar way as in Pride and prejudice. Austen’s attitudes of class, wealth and social status originate from her own background and experience and this is portrayed in the novel through characters and key events. The first line of the novel clearly reflects Austen’s upbringing and beliefs, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” The language used here, ‘universally acknowledged’ and ‘must’ show that Austen feels that it is a commonly known fact that men with money are always looking for potential wives. This line is mocked throughout the novel as ironically Merryton is a village full of daughters searching for husbands.

Mr. Darcy is proud, and he is prejudiced, and like Elizabeth in first half of the novel we dislike him for this. However Darcy’s character develops and we see a more gentle and hospitable side to him. Austen makes it clear from the first time Mr. Darcy appears at the Merryton Assembly that he is of a high class and has a great deal of wealth, as she writes, “The report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.” This quotation shows Austen’s view of society’s obsession with wealth and how a judgment could be made on a person according to their income.

Mr. Darcy’s proposal to Elizabeth reveals to us Austen’s awareness of the problems involving the marriage of people from different classes. After Darcy’s declaration of his love for Elizabeth Austen goes on to tell us, “His sense of her inferiority �of its being degradation-of family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination.” This quotation shows that even though Darcy tells Elizabeth he loves her, he also describes the problems that arise from his feelings in terms of her lack of money and social status. We see that Darcy is not good with words, or describing his feelings in a positive way.

Austen’s views on upper class society are revealed through Lady Catherine De Bough. She represents snobbish upper class society in Pride and Prejudice. She is rude and interfering but gets away with it because of her social status, she is obsessed by her own position in society. When Lady Catherine visits Elizabeth in order to find out if she intends to marry Darcy, we she her character at its worst as she makes it obvious she thinks Elizabeth is inferior in birth and wealth as she says, “What is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections or fortune. Is this to be endured? It must not, shall not be.” This quotation shows Lady Catherine’s snobbery to its full potential as she openly talks down to Elizabeth and insults her.

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Mr. Darcy is embarrassed by his Aunt Catherine’s rude and insulting manner when she suggests Elizabeth can practice the piano in the servant’s room. Austen tells us, “Mr. Darcy looked a little ashamed of his Aunt’s ill breeding, and made no attempt to answer.” Lady Catherine obviously does not think well enough of Elizabeth to let her play on her piano and this is why she suggests the servant’s room. This shows that even though Mr. Darcy and Lady Catherine are from the same family and of the same class, they are very different in their mannerisms. This reveals to us Austen’s awareness of the differences in upper class society. Lady Catherine cannot imagine the mix of middle and upper class, as we see when she visits Elizabeth in an attempt to make her promise not to accept Darcy’s marriage proposal. Whereas Mr. Darcy’s views are obviously quite different as he proposed to Elizabeth even though he was perfectly aware of her lack of wealth, class and social status.

In a similar way that Mr. Darcy is embarrassed by Lady Catherine’s behavior, Elizabeth is embarrassed by Mrs. Bennett’s behavior. An example of this is when Mrs. Bennett visits Jane and Elizabeth at Netherfield and contradicts Mr. Darcy over the positive and negatives of town and country life revealing her unsophisticated and simple attitude. Elizabeth says, “He only meant there were not such a variety of people to be met with in the country as in town, which you must acknowledge to be true.” In this quotation Elizabeth is clearly embarrassed and tries to defend Mr. Darcy and make her mother agree with him in order to cover up her foolishness. Where Mr. Darcy ‘made no attempt to answer’ Lady Catherine, Elizabeth tries to change the subject and hide her mother’s folly. Austen reveals to us that upper and middle class society can be very similar in their manners, Lady Catherine and Mrs. Bennett both behave dreadfully in many parts of Pride and Prejudice. Lady Catherine feels she has the right of freedom of speech because of her position in society. Mrs. Bennett however is vulgar and her obsession with marrying off her daughters is the cause for much embarrassment, she speaks freely because she wants to and doesn’t care what the consequences of it may be.

The Netherfield Ball is a key event in which Austen shows her attitudes towards the divisions incurred from people of different classes, fortunes and social statuses. Most of the events which occur at the Netherfield Ball are cause for much embarrassment for Elizabeth. The first being Mr. Collins decision to introduce himself to Mr. Darcy. When Elizabeth says, “You are not going to introduce yourself to Mr. Darcy?” Mr. Collins replies quite confidently, “Indeed I am. I shall intreat his pardon for not having done it earlier.” This shows Mr. Collins’ complete lack of propriety, he embarrasses the Bennett family by his introduction which at the time was considered rude and offensive. Next Mrs. Bennett embarrasses Elizabeth yet again when she speaks openly at the dinner table, Austen tells us Elizabeth was, “deeply vexed to find her mother was talking to that one person (Lady Lucas) freely, openly, and of nothing else but of her expectation that Jane would be soon married to Mr. Bingley.” Mrs. Bennett shows no self restrain during her conversation, she knows other people are listening but she caries on talking in her usual assumptive manner. After supper Mary then begins to play the piano and sing in her unfeeling fashion and carries on far to long, only stopping when Mr. Bennett intervenes saying, “That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough.” This sarcastic mocking comment is not unusual coming from Mr. Bennett. Elizabeth is extremely aware that Mr. Darcy has observed all of her family in their shameful behavior. It is clear that it is not Elizabeth’s position in society that delays Mr. Darcy’s falling in love with her, it is the terrible behavior of her family.

In conclusion Jane Austen’s views on class, wealth and social status are brought out through the behavior of her key characters. The main characters in Pride and Prejudice do not work, they are members of a leisured class, with an exception of Mr. Gardiner. Work is not an option for the young women in the novel, even though they are surrounded by female servants who have no choice but to work. Austen seems to accept this social situation as normal and completely justified. It is clear that Austen has little experience of lower class society as they are never represented in the novel, the lowest social rank we are introduced to, are the housekeepers, but their part in the plot is minor. She shows awareness that mixing of classes in marriage was not highly thought of at the time. However, it is obviously not something she condemns as the heroine of her novel, Elizabeth marries Mr. Darcy. The financial and social differences and therefore problems of their match are clearly highlighted throughout the novel.


Austen, J (181) Pride and Prejudice, Penguin Classics.

Cavenish, M (186-187) The Great Writers, their lives, works and inspiration, issue 6, Marshall ltd.

Butler, M (185) Jane Austen and the War of ideas.

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