Jane Austen and Social Judgement

Published: 2021-08-02 15:50:07
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Category: Irony, Fiction, Jane Austen

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In 'Pride and Prejudice there certainly is a great deal of comedy, and will appeal to many readers for what Claire Tomalin calls 'its good-humoured comedy, its sunny heroine, its dream denouement'. The two main characters appear to be part of what Vivien Jones calls a typical 'rags-to-riches love story', maintaining happiness after a series of vicissitudes, which might incline readers to think it rather superficial.
The critic talks about the surface trivia of Austen's society, which seems to comprise only of balls, scarlet coats and Muslin gowns, but she probes beneath the surface of her society, and concerns herself with the real confinement of the lives of women in her period. Jane Austen explores how women were victims of a patriarchal society, by presenting the unfairness of the entail. She presents Mr. Collins as a fool, by bluntly stating through the critical objective narrative that he 'was not a sensible man'.
By this we see that it is ridiculous that such an imbecile should be able to turn out the two rational sisters Jane and Elizabeth from their own home, since should they not be married they could be facing the same options as Jane Fairfax in Austen's 'Emma', left to 'the governess trade', with it's sinister echo of 'the slave trade'. Also, and perhaps more importantly, she explores not only how women were victims in society, but through Wickham how they were powerless, direct victims of men.

The unsettling story of him and Georgiana Darcy shows women as quite powerless, as he exploited her innocence and memory, because 'her affectionate heart retained a strong impression of his kindness to her as a child'. Her guardians would have been her only protection at Ramsgate, and even they could not be trusted, as the scheme was 'undoubtably by design' of Mrs. Younge, its evil epitomized by the calculation of the scheme to force Georgiana into the lifelong trap of marriage. Georgiana was only fifteen, and the story line of the serial philanderer Mr. Wickham exposes a very dark and therefore much deeper side to the novel, as he moves next onto Miss King with her i??10,000 fortune, then finally onto 16 year old Lydia whom he also sets out to ruin. Much unlike the typical villain of a 'surface' comedy Wickham learns no lesson, after Georgiana's distress seeming not have developed any moral scruple as he continues to prey on young girls leaving A. G. Sulloway to conclude 'Wickham is not capable of moral learning'. As he sets out to ruin Lydia, much echoing Austen's Frederick Tilney of 'Northanger Abbey' with his treatment of Isabella Thorpe, he puts her whole family's reputation in danger.
Had he succeeded their fates would certainly have looked bleak, which relates 'Pride and Prejudice' to David Diaches' observation that Austen's 'novel's are usually described as social comedies, but the fact is that some come close to tragedy... ', and in fact, though it did end with the best case scenario for Lydia, she was left to spend her life trapped in a loveless marriage, as 'his affection for her soon sunk into indifference'. Mr Collins proves there are much more to even the comic characters than their surface politeness.
His language in his letter revealed him to be pompous, clearly vein and a snob as he boasts of his connection to Lady Catherine, proudly declaring 'it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her ladyship', and his platitudes of wishing 'to heal the breach', offer 'an olive branch' and establish the blessing of peace in all families' reveal his vanity. His roe as a comical figure come through as Austen treats him with scathing irony, especially when exposing his sycophancy as the first thing he is reported of saying in the novel is that 'he had heard much of their [the Bennet sisters'] beauty, but ... ame had fallen short of the truth'. Austen tells us 'this gallantry was not much to the taste of some of his readers', highlighting his obsequiency with the objective narrative. However, his proposal to Elizabeth reveals something much crueler and darker beneath this facade. He knows of the importance of money 'in a narrow, desperate, feminine world of financial constraint' (Robert Polhemous), he and plays on this by explaining that he would not ask for any money from Mr Bennet, reminding her 'I am well aware that it could not be complied with'.
In the same way Charlotte finds herself in a position of little choice, and because of her little fortune she finds herself forced to marry the fool, as 'it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune'. Jane Austen points out the cruelty of this situation with a scathing tone of criticism of her society, using abstract evaluative language to emphasise her point that 'however uncertain of giving happiness, [marriage] must be their pleasantest preservative from want'.
Once more Collins ceases an opportunity to exploit financial dependency, and Robert Polhemus states that 'Charlotte's cast must concern anyone who thinks seriously about the history of women', summarising her situation as 'a kind of socially respectable prostitution'. Mr Bennet's jokes against his wife highlight him also as a comic figure, as from the beginning of the novel we learn that he frequently teases her with amused contempt, as he asks 'What can be the meaning of that emphatic exclamation? of her distress, knowing perfectly well what is troubling her. There is a dry whit in his characteristically sarcastic tone, and his weapon against her is irony, which on the surface amuses the reader, but there seems something more to him. Later Elizabeth reflects on this, and imbedded within the objective narrative, in the free indirect style offers a careful analysis of Mr Bennet's faults, using abstract nouns to emphasise the rationality of her disapproval of his 'continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum'.
The narrator suggests that where he exposes his wife to ridicule, he should have at least 'preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife'. Here Austen points to the importance of education, and her serious tone points to the importance of morals in her novel, demonstrated by parents who set no example for their children, leading A. G. Sulloway to go so far as to call them 'parents who are morally irresponsible towards daughters'. Mrs. Bennet can also make us laugh with her illogical, trivial mind, which Austen reveals to us with her characteristically ironic coloured narrative, as 'she was more alive to the disgrace, which the want of new clothes must reflect on her daughter's nuptials, than to any sense of shame at her eloping and living with Wickham, a fortnight before they took place'.
This also misleads her daughters, as there can be no surprise Lydia ends up, as Robert Polhemus observed 'a shallow materialist', but her character is worth more to the novel than just a silly woman or bad parent, in fact she also illustrates more serious aspects of the novel, as the situation with the entail leave her struggling to get five daughters married as soon as possible.
We almost feel pathos for her with this stress, as immediately we are told 'the business of her life was to get her daughters married', with the use of the word 'business' underlining it's necessity. Jane Austen does not only concern herself with marriages which entrap poor or plain girls, but also explores how an individual can receive personal fulfillment. As our protagonist, Vivien Jones sees that Elizabeth 'believes ... n individual happiness as a legitimate goal' in marriage, and this leads her to refuse two proposals before obtaining enough evidence that it is right for her to settle with one man. Henry Tilney of Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' said 'Man has the advantage of choice, women only the power of refusal', and exerting this power came completely unexpectedly to Mr. Collins, whom believed she did 'secretly mean to accept', Mr Darcy, who we are told 'had no doubt of a favourable answer'.
Elizabeth insists in both cases this because of a lack of 'desire', proving her search for a husband also one for rational happiness, an idea which Austen presents as the only way for Claire Tomalin's 'dream denouement'. To gain happiness he also demonstrated a eveloement throughout the novel, as he was educated from pride and prejudice to his own rational happiness. This is demonstrated as he goes from seeing her family connections as a 'degradation' to allowing Mr Gardiner, the Uncle in trade, to become 'always on the most intimate terms' come the end of the novel.
So, through development of morals and search that delves below surface trivialities our protagonists are allowed their happy ending, which is much in contrast to those characters with little choice of few morals. We see that through the use of her comic characters Austen actually demonstrates a much more sinister side to her society, and the constraint felt by women of the time is evidence that she is reporting on much more than just a 'polite society'.

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