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Is it possible to see Elizabeth Bennet as a feminist heroine?

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Introduction

Is it possible to see Elizabeth Bennet as a feminist heroine? Elizabeth Bennet is perhaps the least conventional of Austen's characters, and certainly does not conform to what her society expected of her in the way of being submissive. Austen herself admitted that 'pictures of perfection ... make me sick and wicked', and so our lovable protagonist Elizabeth is set apart from the traditional heroine with her independence of mind, and courage to challenge accepted role of women. To the modern day reader her refusal to be the demure, submissive ideal woman of the conduct books written by such a Hannah Moore, insisting 'girls ... should early acquire a submissive temper and a forbearing spirit' allows her to appear a feminist heroine. By refusing two offers of marriage Elizabeth exercises her only available method of choice, as Henry Tilney of Austen's Northanger Abbey points out 'Man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal'. This demonstration of control earns our respect for Elizabeth as a heroine, and it certainly challenges the society's insistence on the significance of class distinction, appealing to the modern reader. Feminist critics Gilbert and Gubar assert that 'Elizabeth stands out as a young woman who has no intention of following the prescription of restraint and submission for the achievement of happiness'. ...read more.

Middle

Perhaps it is as punishment that Lydia's marital life shall be unfulfilled, as when Austen exiles Maria Betram in 'Mansfield Park', for running away with Henry Crawford despite her marriage to Mr. Rushworth - sent to 'another country, remote and private'. It seems she is also in search of attention, and Gilbert and Gubar's observation that 'marriage ... is the only accessible form of self-definition for girls in her [Jane Austen's] society' helps us to speculate that this may have been her ulterior motive for this relationship. In her letter to Harriett she confirms that she will find their surprise amusing, 'oh what a great joke it will be!', and her frivolous attitude towards her situation demonstrates her selfishness and compulsive mind, which Elizabeth view kindly. When rationally attempting to deter her father from permitting Lydia to accompany Mrs. Forster to Brighton, her sensible attitude is prominent as she analyses the danger she poses to the Bennets, explaining 'our importance, our respectability in the world, must be affected by the wild volatility ... which marks Lydia's character'. Her key phrase 'in the world' reminds the reader of the very different world inhabited by the girls, one in which it would not be possible for Lydia's conduct to be deemed acceptable. ...read more.

Conclusion

Darcy, 'Elizabeth conforms in the end to the feminine ideal of the helpmeet'. She is absorbed into Darcy's world, in which she will have little influence at all. But, we must not ignore the fact that it was, in the end her choice for marriage, and although she could not propose when she wanted it, she made sure it did not take place when it didn't suit her. Uniquely, our heroine stands out as a woman who feels she 'may take liberties with her husband', and to feel this way in such a time must not be overlooked by the modern reader as what is expected. Although Jane Austen herself would never have used the term 'feminist heroine', there is certainly debate about how she appears to the modern reader. Elizabeth Bennet is certainly appealing as our twenty first century heroine through the intelligence and courage to be independent, and Vivien Jones argues that she has the power to change the social order. However, as Marian Cox observes, 'though she mocks patriarchal structures, Austen must inhabit them', pointing out that despite Elizabeth's independace, she still must marry, for due to the laws of primogeniture she had no other option of maintaining wealth. This does mean Elizabeth can not be seen as a heroine however, as she still challenges her society, and marries a man she loves which is better than most women of the time. 7th December 2010 ...read more.

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Here's what a teacher thought of this essay

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The writer raises several interesting and persuasive points about Elizabeth from a feminist perspective. The essay could be improved by more clarity and consistency about what is meant by 'heroine', more careful attention to spelling, expression and accurate quotation, and the addition of a bibliography to reference the critics quoted.
***

Marked by teacher Val Shore 17/06/2012

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