“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”.
This opening sentence of the novel Pride and Prejudice could be taken as the theme of each of her six novels. It is a comically ironic statement implying that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be the target of all the unmarried women who are looking for husbands. The statement also introduces the subject- the theme of a romantic novel, which is courtship and marriage. The events in Pride and Prejudice follow from this dictum.
The arrival of Charles Bingley a young man with a fortune at Netherfield Park sends the neighboring Bennet household into a flurry of excitement. Mrs. Bennet with five marriageable daughters has fond hopes of arranging a match between the eligible suitor Charles Bingley and any one of her daughters. After the customary introductory visits, there is the occasion of the ball from which proceeds the Jane-Bingley love story as well as the story of Elizabeth’s prejudice and Darcy’s pride which keeps them apart initially until they come closer gradually and eventually marry at the end.
By the time we have reached the end of the novel, not only the hero and heroine, Darcy and Elizabeth, but most of the young people have succeeded in pairing off in marriage. However, it is from the courtship of the hero and heroine that the story derives much of their tension. Though marriage is the end of her novel yet it involves more than the conclusion of a simple love story. There are depth, variety, and seriousness in Jane Austen’s treatment of these topics.
Marriage – an Important Social and Economic concern:
Marriage was an important social concern in Jane Austen’s time and she was fully aware of the disadvantages of remaining single. In a letter to Fanny Knight, she wrote: “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor—–which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony.” Charlotte Lucas when she is giving Elizabeth reasons for accepting Mr. Collins echoes the same view:
“I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home and considering Mr. Couins’ character, connections and situation in life, I am convicted that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”
Jane Austen, tells us bluntly, that Charlotte ‘without thinking highly of either men or of matrimony’ had always had marriage as her object because it was the only honorable provision for well-educated, young women of small fortune, and while it may not have provided happiness, it would at least have protected them from want. The only option for unmarried women in Jane Austen’s time was to care for someone else’s children as Jane Austen herself did; as there were no outlets for women in the industry, commerce, business or education. The novels of Jane Austen -especially Pride and Prejudice – dramatize the economic inequality of women, showing how women had to marry undesirable mates in order to gain some financial security.
The Importance of Correct Judgement:
There are seven marriages in Pride and Prejudice, all of them undoubtedly intended to reveal the requirements of a “good” and “bad” marriage. Three marriages that of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Charlotte and Collins and Lydia and Wickham reveals the ‘bad’ marriage and the importance of good judgment and proper feeling in determining a couple’s future happiness. Mutual respect, the basis of a sound marriage is lacking in Bennet’s marriage. Prudence alone should not dictate, as it does in Charlotte’s case, nor should it be disregarded, which is what Lydia does. Thoughtless passion leads only to disgrace and misery for the families concerned. Esteem, good sense, and mutual affections are the right ingredients for a successful marriage as the Darcy-Elizabeth marriage indicates. Jane Austen firmly believed that to form the right judgment, one must have the right principals and right perception of the nature of other people. One must be able to see through affectation, deception, and hypocrisy; one must not be a victim of flattery; one must not be carried away by the opinions of other people. The ability to judge correctly is particularly important to her heroines, for it is upon this ability that their choice of a suitable husband depends. Thus, Elizabeth Bennet who is so certain of her judgment at all times is blinded by prejudice to judge Darcy wrongly, almost losing the man she comes to love. But once the true facts are known she realizes her mistake. Correct judgment is therefore important in Jane Austen’s world, for if the marriage of true minds is the ultimate good in her world, the coming together of the true minds depends upon their knowledge of themselves and each other.
Good and Bad Marriages:
Obviously, even though she recognized the necessity for it, one example of a bad marriage in Jane Austen’s view is marriage based on economics, such as that contracted by Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas. As a result of Charlotte’s need for financial security, she is willing to destroy her own life by linking herself to a pompous ass. Like Elizabeth, we condemn such a marriage based on mere calculation, without love and without compatibility of mind and temperament.
The second kind of “bad” marriage is a marriage based on such superficial qualities as sex, appearance, good looks and youthful vivacity- the runaway marriage of Lydia and Wickham. The passion between the unprincipled rake Wickham and the flighty Lydia is bound to cool and in their unhappy married life, mutual toleration is the nearest approach to the affection that can be expected.
A less obvious example of this kind of marriage is that between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Undoubtedly they were once attracted to each other very much as Lydia and Wickham were. Even at this late stage, Mrs. Bennet is similar to Lydia in her silliness and shallowness. The Bennet marriage ends in mutual forbearance. Mr. Bennet is in general retreat and isolation, and Mrs. Bennett is a completely disorganized woman. When Mr. Bennet tells Elizabeth: “My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life ” —– he is, in fact, referring to what is lacking in his marriage. The two examples of “good” marriages ate, of course, those of Jane and Elizabeth based as it is on mutual love, respect, and knowledge of one another.
Thus, the theme of marriage is exemplified in Pride and Prejudice. Beginning with the arrival of Bingley and Darcy both single men “in possession of a good fortune” the novel traces the courtship of Jane and Bingley and Elizabeth and Darcy through the various misunderstandings and obstacles, both external and internal before they are happily married in the end. Along the way, the novel also traces the unhappy marriages of Charlotte and Collins based on prudence and economic necessity, and Lydia and Wickham based only on passion, and the marriage of the Bennet’s devoid of mutual respect. Thus, it is true that the chief preoccupation of Jane Austen’s heroines is getting married and life is a matrimonial game as women in her times had no other option of business or profession open to them. However, marriage is not treated merely as a romantic end. Rather it is dealt with depth, variety, and seriousness to highlight ‘good’ marriages based on mutual understanding, love, good sense and respect.