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September 14, 2007

Love and Marriage in ’Pride and Prejudice’

In my British Literature class this term, I'm having my students read a number of plays, poems, short stories, and novels about love and marriage. Most of them portray marriage very negatively simply because (as I tell my students) people who are happily married rarely write about it; it's those who find marriage a dismal experience who most often write stories to vent their anger and bitterness. I sometimes use stories of miserable marriages (such as Doris Lessing's "To Room 19") to teach from antithesis: in other words, if students want to guarantee a failed marriage, they only need to follow the terrible example of Susan and Matthew Rawlings. If they want to succeed, however, they can learn from the Rawlings' mistakes! However, I also like to include stories that offer a more positive view. 

One such work is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, a novel which -- in its own delightful way -- celebrates the triumph of true love over the pressures of money and class, despite multiple misunderstandings between the two main couples (Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy; Jane and Mr. Bingley). Elizabeth and Darcy, in particular, must honestly face their own faults in order to overcome the obstacles to their match. More importantly, their honesty, humility, and willingness to change are qualities which serve them well throughout their happily married life.

If you haven't read Austen's novel, head down to your local Barnes and-Noble, Borders, or Books-A-Million, or just use the Amazon link above, and pick up a copy. Or, pick up the recent theatrical version starring Keira Knightley. It's not as good as the BBC version with Colin Firth, but it's still worth watching -- especially if you only have a couple of hours to spare. 

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While I agree that Darcy and Elizabeth have character qualities that will help them in their marriage, they will also be fighting the natural tendencies--pride and prejudice--that kept them at odds to begin with.

Austen also said in Persuasion, written many years later and published after her death: "When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverence to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other's happiness."

So, did Miss Austen think beneath it all we are really alone? Or, that the marriage relationship, over time, calcifies and is no longer vibrant for the participants? I hate to think of Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot overcoming all they did to just become furniture in one another's lives!

Sy Hoekstra

Ok serious question about Elizabeth. Did she really overcome her prejudice, or did she just sell out? I always thought it was the latter. The first time she really considers Darcey as a possible husband is when she goes and visits his huge house with all his land and sees his portrait that makes him look like something important. I always thought she just gave into the idea that you should marry a rich guy to be happy. I realize that's totally sacreligious to say on this blog, or probably to most women, but that's what I thought happened. I just thought Austin was more of a satirist than a feel-good romance writer.

Gina Dalfonzo

It's a fair question, Sy. Elizabeth herself examines her own motives pretty strictly and tries to hold herself accountable on this very point. She even pokes a little fun at herself over it when talking to Jane. So one difference between her and money-hungry romance novel heroines is her own growing self-knowledge and desire to be honest with herself (okay, that's two differences). But also, if you reread that passage again carefully, notice that what REALLY starts her thinking differently about Darcy is his housekeeper's glowing report of him. When she hears someone who's known him since childhood talk about his kindness, unselfishness, patience, and generosity, it forces a whole new perspective on her and makes want to know more about this side of him. And don't forget that no amount of pressure or prospects of comfortable living would make her sell out to marry Mr. Collins. So she would never have married Darcy if she hadn't honestly changed her opinon of him.

Also, it doesn't escape her notice (though this doesn't come until later) that moving to Pemberley means putting a healthy distance between herself and certain obnoxious and otherwise inescapable relatives. Which may not be the highest of motives either, but at least it's better than being greedy!

Sy Hoekstra

Her character could have changed after she told Mr. Collins she couldn't married him, but I think the rest of what you said is fair enough. I've only read it once, and maybe it wasn't that close of a reading.

Lori Smith

Oh, I have so much to say on this topic (explored in much greater depth in my book, of course).

Elizabeth's motives are I think mixed. She learns about Darcy's character and sees Pemberley (and thus truly understands his great wealth) on the same day. No doubt they both affected her (and I love that Austen leaves this a bit mixed), but I think without knowledge of his character, he would have remained to her simply a horrible man with a lovely house. I hope you read it again, Sy!

I agree Gina -- I love that Elizabeth jokes about these mixed motives, so she's aware of the possibility.

Susan--I think your conclusion based on that line if Persuasion is not correct. Jane was joking about the tendency of young people to rush into marriage, but she believed that marrying with love -- and as Diane points out, character and humility -- was a wonderful thing.

Her parents married for love, not money, as did all of her brothers. Her sister Cassandra would have, but her fiance died. And Jane, well -- she had opportunities, but did not accept anyone. (Actually, she did once, but changed her mind the next morning, because he was rich but they didn't love each other, and for her that would never do.) I think her stories and characters bear this out.

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