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

Published: 2021-08-02 15:40:08
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Category: Feminism, Heroes

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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 ... hould 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'. She demonstrates this with the manner in which she turns down Mr. Collins' proposal, explaining her refusal of his hand in marriage, 'You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so'. Mr. Collins is so shocked by her rationality he believes it can only be due to her modesty; and hopes 'when I do myself the honour of speaking to you next I shall hope to receive a much more favourable answer'. Her action contradicts entirely the principles set out in the conduct books, and the reaction she receives reinforces the unusualness of our heroine's honesty. Charlotte, however, seems to conform with society's expectations of a young lady, and accepts as though she is presented with no happy alternative, 'convinced that my chances of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state'.

Austen paints a bleak picture of this marriage for the reader, deeming it 'impossible' for Charlotte 'to be tolerably happy', and her position reveals the difficulties facing young women, and the pressure on them to marry. Elizabeth's refusal to submit to this is certainly what sets her apart, with more modern ideas of how women ought to be. When she is around Darcy Elizabeth behaves very differently from the more traditional Bingly sisters, not allowing her herself to be put down.
In their discussion over how accomplished young women are, Elizabeth is not afraid to put her own argument forward, and demonstrates her intelligence and rationality by deducing '[Darcy] must comprehend a great deal in your idea as an accomplished woman'. Miss Bingly on the other hand simply reiterates what Darcy says, and for this Austen reduces her to 'his faithful assistant'. Miss Bingly tries to creep towards Darcy, with her flattering tone, whereas Elizabeth is far more straightforward, and spirited.
The Bingly sisters had disapproved of Elizabeth since her early entrance to Pemberly, exaggerating her state after walking of having a mucky petticoat and messy hair to call her 'wild'. Interestingly it seems she is not only referring to how she looked, but also condemning her out of the ordinary behaviour, determined to look down on the people of Meryton. Having been polite to Elizabeth's face Austen reveals the sisters to be false, and unkind.
Although Elizabeth does appeal to the reader as a modern heroine, one might argue that Lydia is the sister with the most modern attitude, eloping to a man she lusts after, declaring in her letter that her and Wickham's marriage shall take pace 'some time or other ... it does not much signify when'. However it is clear Austen disapproves of her attitude, and means for the reader to disapprove of her, through the objective narrator; a voice condemning her as 'always unguarded and often uncivil'.
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. Elizabeth's attitudes here puts into perspective that although she challenges the assumed role of women in society, Elizabeth is still sensible to the significance of keeping reputation's up, and remains dignified in Austen's 'world'. Once more exercising her only 'power', Elizabeth also refuses Darcy's first proposal, despite his having 'had no doubt of a favourable answer'.
This attitude is much like Mr. Collins' expecting, as most men would at the time, an acceptance from girl with notably few prospects (as picked up on by the Binglys), despite his attitude towards the affair communicating his beliefs that it would be 'a degradation'. She appears to rebel against society's expectations, and her contradiction to Darcy's assumption that a young woman must accept his hand in marriage is almost humorous, lending emphasis to the significance of Elizabeth's choices.
When turning him down she tells him in no uncertain terms for why, with a forceful, truthful and compromising response, which uses very plain words like 'unwillingly' which take her straight to point, and point out a rather painful truth. This demonstrates both her independence and the way she challenges the accepted conduct of a young woman of the time, to be perhaps more considerate of a man's feelings. Elizabeth demonstrates her strength not only by refusing to submit to men, but also through holding her own with Lady Catherine at both Rosings and Longbourn.
She declares herself 'a gentleman's daughter', and as such Darcy's equal, and refutes Lady Catherine's accusation that she has 'upstart pretentions', refusing to conform to her society's expectation of her not to challenge her class superior. Her forwardness is picked up on by Lady Catherine, who is perhaps actually delivering a compliment, rather than a criticism, when noting 'you give your opinion decidedly so for so young a person'. Elizabeth also refuses to be humbled just because Darcy earns 'ten thousand a year', and is intended to marry Lady Catherine's daughters 'of the same noble line'.
In these scenes, Elizabeth appeals very much to the less class-conscious modern reader, and it is here that Vivien Jones sees Elizabeth as an agent for change, arguing 'the old and new are synthesised in the union of the mercantile Gardiners and the landed gentry'. This suggests her marriage brings about a healthy change in the novel, as Darcy conquers his pride and welcomes the Gardiners to Pemberly. In this way we might regard Elizabeth as a modern heroine - a woman who makes a difference to her society.
However, we can not ignore the fact Darcy is as fluent about her 'inferiority', admitting to having 'struggled' to suppress his feelings, as he is about his love for her in his initial proposal. Therefore, it seems their marriage shall be still quite traditional; with the woman subservient to her husband. Of course, in Jane Austin's society women were still swearing in their marital vows to 'love, honour and obey', and so some critics argue that by the end, in choosing to marry Mr. 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.

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