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Marriage As A Social Contract In Jane Austen's 'Pride And Prejudice'.

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Introduction

Marriage As A Social Contract In Jane Austen's 'Pride And Prejudice' "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife". With these famous words, Jane Austen launched into what has come to be regarded by many as the greatest romance novel of all time. Written in late 1790's England, in a time of radical social upheaval and political change, 'Pride and Prejudice' presents a mixed bag of social ideas relating to marriage, the meaning of femininity, love and the fluidity of class structure. The time of writing put 'Pride and Prejudice' in the middle of a fictional war of ideas between female writers of the time, arriving as it does at a sort of middle ground between the feminist views of Mary Wollstonecraft and the more rural traditionalist views of Hannah More (Jones, V., 'Introduction to "Pride and Prejudice"', (1996) London: Penguin). This lead to much confusion among critics as to exactly what Austen's views regarding marriage and feminism were, and in many cases continues to do so today. In this essay I will attempt to clear up some of this ambiguity, while closely examining the idea of marriage itself, the nature of the 'social contract', and the social and historical background to the idea of marriage as a social contract. In 'The Sadeian Woman', Angela Carter states that "The marriage bed is a particularly delusive refuge from the world, because all wives of necessity fuck by contract" (Carter, Angela, 'The Sadeian Woman', pg. ...read more.

Middle

Both women marry above themselves and secure financial and social stability for both themselves and their families, thus falling in line with what would have been expected of well-brought up young rural ladies. Austen's achievement in writing 'Pride and Prejudice' was, therefore, to show that Wollstonecraftian femininity could exist alongside and within the rural traditionalist ideals of Edmund Burke. Marriage in the time of Jane Austen was neither a religious sacrament (as the predominant English religion of the time, and Austen's religion, Anglicanism, did not view marriage as a sacrament) nor a symbol of romantic love. In Enlightenment England, marriage was rather a necessity, the ultimate aim of all self-respecting young women. Women were, from birth, trained for their inevitable final position as a mother, wife, chef, and household head. Education was not about schooling in the ways and knowledge of the world, but rather the acquisition of a rich store of 'accomplishments' - painting, musical talent, singing, embroidery - essentially the marketable skills of a desirable, and socially respectable, wife. Not only was marriage expected by men to be the desire of all women, but it was also, in fact, a means to an end. Women married to secure their status in society and often to improve their social standing, or 'move up a rung' in the all-pervading class hierarchy of the era. 'Pride And Prejudice' was no exception to this rule. ...read more.

Conclusion

Her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, does finally settle down with a man who would have been viewed in anybody's eyes as being a most suitable and socially acceptable match for her. Darcy provides wealth, respect, security, and an elevated position in society - all of which were the most desirable attributes for a prospective husband of the era. However, the novel is not entirely traditionalist, praising as it does the actions of a heroine who defies her mother in order to please herself long-term, who engages in plenty of outdoor activity usually viewed as unbecoming to a young lady of status, and who openly speaks her mind regarding the behaviour of Mr. Darcy. As I stated earlier, Austen seems to come to a happy compromise between Wollstonecraftian feminism and the staunch traditionalism of such writers as Hannah More. Similarly, Austen appears to compromise between two marital viewpoints - that which would view marriage purely as a social contract, a means to an end, and that which would promote a more romantic version of marital unity. Marriage as a social contract is, then, rampant in 'Pride And Prejudice' - we can see it clearly in the marriage of Charlotte Lucas to Mr. Collins - and could be seen as being something of a necessity to young women, to preserve their social standing. However, it is clear that Austen does not neglect a romantic viewpoint, presenting as she does two beautiful young women who are both madly in love with their chosen husbands. ...read more.

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