Launchpad: Pride & Prejudice

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen's treatment of social class in the early nineteenth century

One of the central themes in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is the role of class in early nineteenth-century England. Austen is interested in how social class shapes individual experience as well as the interactions among people of different classes.

Class is a concept that is alien to most Americans, even though the term is used in a general way to refer to social distinctions relating to social, educational, and economic status and the opportunities (or lack thereof) resulting from that status. What distinguishes the United States from countries having a true class system is the relative fluidity of American society. From the earliest years, Americans enjoyed far greater social mobility than their European counterparts—though that has changed in recent years. As a result, the rigid lines separating one class from another never really formed on this side of the Atlantic.

Before you begin to explore and analyze Austen's treatment of class, you might wish to review the following definitions:

Class: David Cody supplies a basic definition of class on The Victorian Web, an EDSITEment-reviewed website. He explains:

  • Class is a complex term, in use since the late eighteenth century, and employed in many different ways. In our context classes are the more or less distinct social groupings which at any given historical period, taken as a whole, constituted British Society. Different social classes can be (and were by the classes themselves) distinguished by inequalities in such areas as power, authority, wealth, working and living conditions, life-styles, life-span, education, religion, and culture.

Gentleman: David Cody provides a helpful description on The Victorian Web. He states:

  • Members of the British aristocracy were gentlemen by right of birth (although it was also emphasized, paradoxically enough, that birth alone could not make a man a gentleman), while the new industrial and mercantile elites, in the face of opposition from the aristocracy, inevitably attempted to have themselves designated as gentlemen as a natural consequence of their growing wealth and influence. Other Victorians [as well as those who lived earlier in the nineteenth century] — clergy belonging to the Church of England, army officers, members of Parliament — were recognized as gentlemen by virtue of their occupations, while members of numerous other eminently respectable professions — engineers, for example — were not.



The following passage, which appears at the beginning of Chapter 5, provides a good example of Austen's interest in the class system. Read the paragraph carefully, then answer the questions that follow:

WITHIN a short walk of Longbourn lived a family with whom the Bennets were particularly intimate. Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the King during his mayoralty. The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly. It had given him a disgust to his business and to his residence in a small market town; and quitting them both, he had removed with his family to a house about a mile from Meryton, denominated from that period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance, and, unshackled by business, occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world. For though elated by his rank, it did not render him supercilious; on the contrary, he was all attention to every body. By nature inoffensive, friendly and obliging, his presentation at St. James's had made him courteous.
  • Why was it possible for the Bennets (a family in which no one had a title) to be "particularly intimate" with the family of Sir William Lucas?
  • Why is it important that the reader know how Sir William came by his title?
  • How did Sir William react to becoming a knight?
  • What does the reference to "St. James's" imply?
  • What does this description of Sir William and his elevation of social status tell us about Austen's own attitude toward the class system?

When you have completed reading the entire novel, think back over the story and characters as you prepare to discuss Austen's own attitudes toward class, as revealed in Pride and Prejudice. Begin by focusing on these questions:

  • What does the novel tell us about Austen's attitudes toward the English class system?
  • What literary device does she use to convey her thinking on this subject?
  • Does the popularity of her novel say something about the attitudes of her readers toward this subject?

 

The status of women in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

Construct a chart in which you compare and contrast the attitudes of the female (and male) characters toward marriage.
Column 1 — list the names of characters
Column 2 — briefly describe each character: age, class, education, personality, values, etc.
Column 3 — briefly describe her (or his) thoughts regarding marriage

When the chart is complete, you will be expected to discuss the results. The following questions may be helpful:

  • What factors were most significant in shaping a character's attitude toward marriage?
  • Why were women expected to marry?
  • What factors influenced a woman's decision to accept or reject a marriage proposal?
  • What were the consequences of a woman's remaining single?
  • What do we learn about woman's status in English society from Austen's treatment of marriage in this novel?

In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In the introduction to this treatise, Wollstonecraft raises several issues that Austen focuses on in Pride and Prejudice. Read the following excerpts from the introduction to the Vindication and be prepared to discuss the questions that follow:

AFTER considering the historic page, and viewing the living world with anxious solicitude, the most melancholy emotions of sorrowful indignation have depressed my spirits, and I have sighed when obliged to confess, that either nature has made a great difference between man and man, or that the civilization which has hitherto taken place in the world has been very partial. I have turned over various books written on the subject of education, and patiently observed the conduct of parents and the management of schools; but what has been the result?—a profound conviction that the neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore; and that women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from one hasty conclusion. The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived at maturity.—One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than wives; and the understanding of the sex has been so bubbled by this specious homage, that the civilized women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.    ....

My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists—I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonimous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.    ....

The education of women has, of late, been more attended to than formerly; yet they are still reckoned a frivolous sex, and ridiculed or pitied by the writers who endeavor by satire or instruction to improve them. It is acknowledged that they spend many of the first years of their lives in acquiring a smattering of accomplishments: meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves,—the only way women can rise in the world,—by marriage. And this desire making mere animals of them, when they marry they act as such children may be expected to act:—they dress; they paint, and nickname God's creatures.—Surely these weak beings are only fit for a seraglio!—Can they govern a family, or take care of the poor babes whom they bring into the world?    ....

It seems scarcely necessary to say, that I now speak of the sex in general. Many individuals have more sense than their male relatives; and, as nothing preponderates where there is a constant struggle for an equilibrium, without it has naturally more gravity, some women govern their husbands without degrading themselves, because intellect will always govern.

 


  • What is a treatise?
  • Who was Wollstonecraft's intended audience?
  • What was her purpose in writing this treatise?
  • What is her main argument?
  • What are the key components of her argument?

(Keep in mind that these excerpts are taken from the introduction and, therefore, "introduce" but do not develop or defend those ideas. The main argument appears in the body of the book, the complete text of which is available online.)

Based on the excerpts from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and your reading of Pride and Prejudice, be prepared to discuss the following questions in class:

  • To what extent did Austen and Wollstonecraft agree/disagree in their thinking about the status of women?
  • To what extent did Austen and Wollstonecraft agree/disagree on the subject of marriage and the expectations of women/for women in English society?
  • Are Wollstonecraft's assertions reinforced by Austen in Pride and Prejudice?
  • Does the Vindication supply evidence that Austen's depiction of women is realistic? Why or why not?
  • How reliable a source is the Vindication for understanding the status of women at the turn of the nineteenth century? Explain.
  • What other kinds of sources could the historian use to judge the realism of Austen's novels?