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Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth vs. Lydia

on May 24, 2021
Photo from the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.

The novel Pride and Prejudice is a remarkable portrait of Regency England and society’s obsession with marriage. If a woman did not marry — whether for love or financial security — she was doomed to spinsterhood and poverty. Through the use of contrasting characters, expectations, and situations, author Jane Austen highlights Elizabeth’s desire to marry a man who will make her happy, regardless of wealth, which sharply contrasts the goals and desires of her sister Lydia, and her mother, Mrs. Bennet.

Mrs. Bennet’s chief concern is the entailment of her husband’s estate. Once her husband dies, the whole family “will be destitute enough.” Marrying her daughters off is crucial to the family’s future — and she is not too particular about whom they marry. When Lydia disgraces the family, Mrs. Bennet never scolds her daughter but waxes triumphant that one of her daughters will finally be married.

In spite of her ignorance, silliness, and embarrassing behavior, Mrs. Bennet is fulfilling her perceived duty by desperately pushing to get her daughters married.

Lydia, the youngest daughter, is spoiled, indulged, and never held accountable for her questionable behavior. She is almost the mirror image of her mother in every respect because “she has never been taught to think on serious subjects . . . she has been given up on nothing but amusement and vanity. She has been allowed to dispose of her time in the most idle and frivolous manner, and to adopt any opinions that [come] in her way.”

Even the elopement with Wickham appears frivolous, as she brags to her sister, Kitty: “What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing . . .”

Lydia sees no shame in running off with Wickham. She only cares about her own self-indulgence. Although her family believes that marriage “with such an husband, her misery [is] considered certain,” Lydia cannot envision the consequences of her actions. When she returns to Longbourn after her wedding, the whole family sees that “Lydia [is] Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless.” She immediately demands to replace Jane in the family hierarchy, insisting, “Ah! Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman.” Lydia does not care what kind of man she has married; only that she is married.

Instead of symbolizing the fallen woman, Lydia reflects her mother’s desperation to marry off her daughters at any cost. She is proud of being the first daughter to marry, regardless of the circumstances, saying, “I am sure my sisters must all envy me” — and offers to become the matchmaker for the rest of them. “You may leave one or two of my sisters behind you; and I dare say I shall get husbands for them before the winter is over.” She is oblivious when Elizabeth remarks, “I do not particularly like your way of getting husbands.”

Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth rejects the dishonesty and superficiality of the “marriage game,” while examining “the unhappy defects of her family.” She loses respect for her parents, despite her father’s affection. Their character flaws will make it difficult for Elizabeth and her sisters to marry well. She does not want to marry for the sake of marriage alone. She wants to marry a man who will complement her and make her happy, even if he has little money or social position.

Although intelligent, judgmental, and keenly observant of others, Elizabeth is blind to her own faults. It is not until she rejects Darcy and reads his letter that Elizabeth honestly examines her own behavior and emotions. “I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike of him, without any reason.” She realizes that he is the only man that can make her happy.

But it is Elizabeth’s honesty and sincerity that attracts Darcy to her and makes him fall in love. He is willing to change his own attitudes and behavior to win her over. He is even willing to overlook the flaws in her family, and the objections of his own family, in order to marry her. They both have a chance at happiness because they are honest and willing to change.

In this respect, she is uniquely different from Lydia and her mother, who willingly overlook the dishonesty in their relationships and the flaws in themselves in order to conform to society’s expectations about marriage.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Donald Gray. New York: Norton, 2001.

Dawn Pisturino

October 18, 2017

Thomas Edison State University

Copyright 2017-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Right Reserved.


One response to “Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth vs. Lydia

  1. […] Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth vs. Lydia […]

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