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Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: The Marriage Game

on May 25, 2021
Photo from the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice.

Throughout Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet schemes to marry off her five daughters. Driven by anxiety over an uncertain economic future, she struggles to overcome the entailment of her husband’s property, his indolence, and her own feelings of powerlessness, in order to secure their futures.

Marriage, in Austen’s time, was a social and economic necessity, particularly for women. Any single man of means who appeared on the scene became an instant target for cultivation and courtship. Mrs. Bennet expresses this clearly in Chapter One: “A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls.”

Mrs. Bennet is focused solely on the economic advantages of such a marriage. She wastes no time considering the disadvantages. She hopes that Mr. Bingley, the new gentleman in the neighborhood, will fall in love with one of her daughters. regardless of how her daughters feel about it. And she pushes her daughters into competition with all of the other available daughters in the neighborhood. This is her duty as a wife and mother. Even Mr. Bennet, despite his cynicism, recognizes this: “But if we do not venture, somebody else will . . .” He does his duty and makes the necessary introductions to open up opportunities for his daughters to marry well.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were subject to the same social and economic pressures when they were young. The question is — did they both marry well? Austen makes it clear throughout the novel that the marriage is not a happy one. Each partner seems disillusioned by the other. Mrs. Bennet accuses her husband of taking pleasure in “vexing” her. Mr. Bennet is aware that twenty-three years of marriage have not helped his wife to “understand his character.” Each partner finds comfort in his or her own interests. Mrs. Bennet distracts herself with matchmaking, local gossip and news, and social duties. Mr. Bennet escapes into his library. They keep up appearances, for the sake of their standing in the neighborhood, but find no pleasure in each other.

Before his death, Mrs. Bennet’s father was an attorney. Her sister married her father’s office clerk, and he eventually took over the practice. Her brother moved to London and became a successful tradesman. Mrs. Bennet improved her economic and social standing by marrying her husband.

As a member of the lower landed gentry, Mr. Bennet has a small estate and an income of two thousand pounds a year. His assets would have been considered modest for that time. But his social status makes him one of the leaders of the local community. And that brings upward mobility to Mrs. Bennet and her family. She seeks to do the same thing for her daughters.

The dark side of Mrs. Bennet’s improved status is the entailment of her husband’s estate. Once her husband dies, the entire estate will be inherited by a distant male cousin, Mr. Collins. This puts Mrs. Bennet and her daughters in a precarious situation. Mrs. Bennet inherited four thousand pounds from her father. But this is not enough money to sustain a family and help her daughters’ marriage prospects. She bitterly points this out to Mr. Collins himself: “It is a grievous affair to my poor girls . . . they will be destitute enough.” Since he is more than willing to marry one of the daughters to make things right, Mrs. Bennet is more than willing to accommodate him.

Mr. Collins improved his economic and social status by gaining the patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. He wants a wife who will meet with Lady de Bourgh’s approval. He is steered toward Elizabeth by Mrs. Bennet since Jane is expected to marry Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth refuses him, however, and Mrs. Bennet is distraught when her husband sides with his daughter. She continues to hound Lizzy, considering her selfish and foolish: “But I tell you what, Miss Lizzy, if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all — and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead — I shall not be able to keep you — and so I warn you.”

To add salt to the wound, Lizzy’s friend, Charlotte Lucas, “accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment.” Right away, Mrs. Bennet blames Lizzy and refuses to forgive her for many months. She has been publicly humiliated by her daughter. The Lucas family will ultimately benefit from her husband’s estate.

Mrs. Bennet bitterly resents her husband for the entailment of his estate, and she does not hesitate to remind him. “I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children; and I am sure that if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.”

Mr. Bennet, for his part, had expected to have a son, who would nullify the entailment of his estate and provide for his wife and daughters after his death. Although his wife and children will eventually divide five thousand pounds among themselves, he regrets that he was not more proactive about their futures. His five daughters have no property or income to entice possible marriage partners. He convinces himself that his two eldest daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, “must be respected and valued” wherever they go, so their natural qualities will secure for them appropriate husbands. He, therefore, leaves his daughters to the whims of Fate. And by the end of the book — when Darcy has arranged the Fate and fortune of the Bennet family — he is relieved and grateful, saying to Lizzy, “So much the better. It will save me a world of trouble and economy. Had it been your uncle’s doing, I must and would have paid him; but these violent young lovers carry every thing their own way. I shall offer to pay him to-morrow; he will rant and storm about his love for you, and there will be an end of the matter.”

Lizzy’s father is, therefore, vindicated in his belief that his two eldest daughters will secure worthy husbands for themselves based on their own natural qualities. He, himself, was not so wise. “Captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give,” he marries a woman whose natural charms, poor manners, and intellectual ignorance quickly lose his interest. He turns his affection and attention to his daughter, Lizzy, who “has something more of quickness than her sisters,” whom he regards as “silly and ignorant” — just like their mother. His disappointment in his wife and three youngest daughters becomes evident through his sarcastic comments, cynical view of life, and lack of motivation to do more for his family.

Mrs. Bennet’s powerlessness and frustration come through loud and clear. She may have achieved her goal, while young, of marrying well, but once married, her charms can no longer keep Mr. Bennet under her control. Throughout the novel, Mrs. Bennet is characterized as “intolerable.” When her schemes do not come to fruition, she feels herself “barbarously used.” She suddenly becomes ill, retires to her room, cries, curses the world, feels sorry for herself, and imagines the worst catastrophes. She takes no responsibility when Lydia disgraces herself and the family. She takes to her bed, expecting the rest of the family to wait on her hand and foot. Mr. Bennet is so disgusted by her self-absorption and self-pity, he threatens to “do the same; I will sit in my library, in my night cap and powdering gown, and give as much trouble as I can — or, perhaps, I may defer it, till Kitty runs away.” Mrs. Bennet is more of a burden than a help to her husband.

In the end, Mrs. Bennet improves her position in life through marriage, while Mr. Bennet suffers from marrying a woman who is clearly beneath him. Mrs. Bennet takes pride in the marriages of her two eldest daughters, even though her vulgar behavior drives the Bingleys away. Mary remains at home to attend to her mother’s needs. And Mr. Bennet, missing his favorite daughter, Elizabeth, escapes frequently to Pemberley to visit her.

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

Dawn Pisturino

November 7, 2017

Thomas Edison State University

Copyright 2017-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.


3 responses to “Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: The Marriage Game

  1. […] Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: The Marriage Game […]

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  2. Iowa Life says:

    Fascinating. Not in a million years would I have understood it.

    Liked by 1 person

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