Pride and Prejudice: An Inspection of the British Class System

Imagine a life in which your wealth and status defined who you were, the way you were treated by others, and your livelihood.

If you happened to be born into the lower classes of society, you would be treated with disdain and contempt by those above you in class.Would you fight this kind of treatment, or enable it? Surprisingly enough, most people in Georgian England society supported this suppressive ideology, and let it dominate almost every single aspect of their lives.During the 18th and 19th centuries, the social class system in England was incredibly strict, and allowed for little mobility.Those with the highest rank were the nobility, or those who held titles.Under them was the gentry class, primarily made up of landowners.

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The middle class was just below the gentry, and consisted of civil servants, physicians, lawyers, and low-ranking military officers. Finally, the lower classes formed the bottom of the social hierarchy.Those in the lower classes were manufacturers of goods, as well as farmers or domestic servants. Farther below them were paupers and vigilants. (Salisbury and Selig, dailylife. of higher ranking, particularly the nobility and gentry, often viewed the middle and lower classes as inferior and treated them as such. (R. Adkins and L. Adkins, xx).

Jane Austen, born in the small village of Steventon, was a member of the middle class herself. (R. Adkins and L. Adkins, 23). Her father, George Austen, was a reverend for their town, yet also very scholar.Being a clergymen, George Austen was not in possession of a significantly large wealth, but took it upon himself to give his children the best education possible.

(Reef, 13). Throughout her childhood and adulthood, Jane was well experienced in the social happenings of Great Britain. (Reef, 36). In her writing, she utilizes her knowledge of the class system during her time, providing an examination of the social structure while also revealing her own feelings and perceptions about the system. In her novel Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen satirizes the British class system of Georgian England, criticizing the oppression of the middle class and women.

Despite the flaws pointed out by Austen in this social structure, she ultimately exhibits an appreciation for the aspects of the system that encourage morality and honor, while also undermining the power of societal division. Oppression of the Middle Class Jane Austen made her disdain for the oppression of middle and lower classes in society known to readers subtly.Many of the negative aspects of the class system are depicted in the characters of Pride and Prejudice.Two prominent characters that exemplify the snobbery present in higher classes are Caroline Bingley and Lady Catherine De Bourgh.The sister of Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley is a satirical portrayal of a rude and scheming upper-class women, desperate for marriage.

From her initial introduction to the Bennet family, Miss Bingley is increasingly ill-mannered and discourteous.Her desire to attract Mr. Darcy combined with her general contempt for those with less than wealth than herself leads her to gossip about Elizabeth, making snide remarks about her looks and family behind her back. “I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair untidy, so blowsy!” (Austen, 25).In addition to her gossip, Caroline schemes to prevent a marriage between her brother and Jane Bennett.

Her unhappiness with the relationship later proves to be based in the fact that she does not wish for her brother to be associated with someone from a lower class. The pettiness of Miss Bingley’s conniving character is a tool used by Austen to indicate the triviality of many women in the upper-class during her time. Lady Catherine de Bourgh also proves to possess similar characteristics through her behavior and interactions with the Bennets, Elizabeth in particular.Although she may not have the same pettiness that the young Miss Bingley has, she shares the same disdain for those without a title.In her initial appearances in the novel, Lady Catherine is revealed to be quite full herself, an entitled woman who can’t stand for anyone to disagree with her.

When she is informed of her nephew Mr. Darcy’s intentions to marry Elizabeth, she takes it upon herself to prevent the marriage.She is incredibly impolite and ungracious, insulting Elizabeth in her family.When reflecting upon the past of Elizabeth’s sister Lydia’s hasty marriage and the impending connection between the two families, she remarks “Heaven and earth!- of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” (Austen, 259).Lady Catherine’s stubborn determination to keep Mr.

Darcy’s marriage within the nobility serves as another example of her snobbishness. A less than clever or intelligent counter-part to Lady Catherine’s character is Mr. Collins. He is a comical portrayal of an elitist, who believes himself to be superior by association to the upper-class.When arriving at the Bennet household, he makes his intentions to find a “suitable” wife very clear. It does not take him long to decide to propose Elizabeth Bennet.

However, when his proposal is met with rejection, his conceit leaves him unable to accept it. Instead, he makes a long drawn out speech to Elizabeth, listing all of the reasons why rejecting a marriage to him is unwise, slighting her in the process.”My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications,” (Austen, 78). His desperation for connections to the nobility is only exacerbated when he sees Mr.

Darcy at the ball that he is attending with the Bennet family.Despite warnings from Elizabeth, Mr. Collins introduces himself the man and is clueless to Mr. Darcy’s contempt towards him during the interaction.The obtuse and self-important nature of Mr. Collin’s character is used to reflect upon the pompousness of those in the upper classes.

Finally, Austen employs the character of Mr. Wickham in demonstrating the ruthlessness present in many to elevate themselves in the class system.A military officer from a poor family, Mr. Wickham appears to Elizabeth as a charming gentleman.He spins a web of lies about his past, all in the hopes of obtaining a marriage with one of the Bennet daughters so that he can accrue some wealth as a dowry.However, his history proves to be far more disturbing than the Bennets could have imagined.

Hungry for wealth, Mr. Wickham attempted to elope with Mr. Darcy’s younger sister Georgiana. “Mr. Wickham’s chief object was unquestionable my sister’s fortune, which is thirty-thousand pounds,” (Austen, 148).

His scheme was foiled when Mr. Darcy learned of it, and he disappeared. Further on in the novel, Mr. Wickham’s selfish nature is again shown when he takes advantage of another young girl’s naivety, this time Lydia Bennet’s.Mr. Wickham and Lydia run off without acknowledgement to the consequences of their actions, and are only persuaded to marry after being given a large sum of money by Mr.

Darcy.Mr. Wickham’s willingness to do whatever it takes, no matter who he hurts in the process, is a condemnation of the essence of the social class system in Georgian England.Through his characterization, Austen highlights the negative effects that dividing the society has on people, triggering greed and callousness among many who wish to rise up in the system. Gender Inequality One key feature of the societal structure in England during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in addition to middle and lower class oppression was the subordination of women.

In Georgian England, the majority of women completely relied on men for social and financial security.For women in the upper and middle classes of society, there will little to no job prospects that would allow them any sort of financial independence.(R. Adkins and L. Adkins, 3-4).

Some had the options to become teachers or governesses, but these jobs provided very little pay and low social standing.It was the norm to see a girl move from the family home that she grew up in, straight to the home of her husband. (Cecil, 19).The idea that a woman must marry in order to survive in society, and the limitations that they face because of this is heavily criticized by Jane Austen in her novel Pride and Prejudice, and famously introduced in the very first line of the novel.”It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” (Austen, 1).

In this quote, the suggestion of the strict gender roles that give men the role of fortune holders and label women as only their wives is only the beginning of Austen’s condemnation. The Inheritance Law was a significant limiting factor for females during Jane Austen’s time.The law asserted that the oldest son of a family would receive the entirety of his parents’ possessions, including their land and house.If a family did not have a son, then their possessions would go to the next male relative in line, completely disregarding the daughters of families to be potential inheritors. (Reef, 15).In Pride and Prejudice, the Inheritance Law plays an important part in the Bennet family’s storyline.

Since Mr. and Mrs. Bennet only have 5 daughters, their belongings must go to Mr. Collins, a clergyman who happens to be a cousin of the Bennets. Austen creates a boorish and quite ridiculous heir in her portrayal of Mr.

Collins. “Mr. Collins was not a sensible man…. The subjection in which his father had brought him up had given him originally great humility of manner, but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity,” (Austen, 51).His pompous and self-important attitude is apparent in his lengthy speech for proposal to Elizabeth, in which he rudely speaks of her lack of money and details the reasons of their engagement for business purposes.

Mr. Collins’ character, when contrasted with the more sensible and intelligent character of Elizabeth, is a subtle insult on Austen’s part.In this character contrast, she shows readers the absurdity of the Inheritance Law, where in many circumstances a woman actually makes a better heir than a man. Furthermore, another effect of gender inequality in the British class system was the intense pressure on women to marry.This pressure is depicted by Austen in a number of characters throughout the novel, including Mrs. Bennet.

Another character used to provide comic-relief, Mrs. Bennet is a gossip, who lacks the self-awareness necessary to carry herself properly in public occasions.She represents the very ideal that suggests marriage is the most important part of a woman’s life, as her obsession with marrying off each of her daughters forces her to go to incredible lengths. From the moment that she hears about the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr.

Darcy, she sees it as an opportunity for her daughters to obtain rich husbands to move them up in the social hierarchy.The ludicrousness of her extreme ideas is seen when she insists that Jane rides on horseback instead of in a carriage to visit the Bingleys in Netherfield. “”No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night,”” (Austen, 21). Her plot to force Jane into spending more time with the Bingleys backfires, as Jane gets caught in the rain and falls seriously ill for several days.Later on in the novel, when Lydia runs away with Mr.

Wickham, Mrs. Bennet becomes hysterical, worried that her youngest daughter’s actions will ruin the reputations of the entire family and prevent the rest of her daughters from marrying.When the young couple is finally persuaded to marry, Mrs. Bennet’s capricious behavior is revealed as she suddenly becomes incredibly happy. Her instant contentment with the marriage, despite the stress and misery endured by so many preceding it, is a satirical nod to the nonsensical idolization of marriage in Georgian English society. Ms.

Charlotte Lucas is also a character employed by Jane Austen in her novel to condemn the oppression of women.Charlotte Lucas is a practical woman, whose approach to marriage is logical and unemotional, as a result of the realities of a woman’s dependence on men.Her willingness to follow through on this ideology is apparent when she agrees to marry Mr. Collins despite the fact that she does not love him.Prior to their engagement, Mr.

Collins had just recently proposed to Elizabeth and had been rejected, and Charlotte, being well aware that she is his second choice, actively pursues the marriage.The nature of the marriage, in which Ms. Lucas “accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment,” (Austen, 91), highlights the limited options that many women faced during the time period.It was only through marriage that Charlotte could have become the mistress of a house, and gained certain monetary and social safeties.Unfortunately for Charlotte, and many other women in Georgian England, the marriage isn’t exactly a happy one.

In order to tolerate Mr. Collins’ pretentious personality, she “wisely did not hear,” (Austen, 118), whenever he said anything particularly shameful. Ultimately, Charlotte Lucas’s character sheds light on the harsh truth of marriage, where it could often become something of a business transaction instead of a bond of love. Respect for the Class System’s Noble Aspects and Undermining Its Power While the majority of Pride and Prejudice seems to denounce the nature of the class system in Georgian England, Jane Austen does ultimately show respect for the facets that promote morality and honor from its members.”The nobility and gentry took pride in their manners, which had been drilled into them almost from birth,” (Reef, 15).Certain classes, particularly the nobility and gentry, possessed codes of etiquette that controlled every aspect of social interaction, from how a person must walk into the room, to who spoke first during an introduction.

The upper classes off the class system relied on their polite demeanors to display their respectability and good upbringing. Mr. Darcy is a chief example of a high class gentleman who greatly values his manners.As his character develops throughout the course of the novel, his integrity and compassion become the driving force of good behavior.For example, Mr.

Darcy displays a substantial amount of generosity when he steps in to help the Bennet family deal with the crisis of Lydia running away. Without hesitation, he goes after the irresponsible couple and uses his own money to secure a marriage between the two, without expecting anything in return. This kindness is also seen through his interactions with Elizabeth and the Gardiners during their visit at the Pemberley estate. Mr. Darcy is remarkably polite and welcoming, even inviting the group to dine with him.Mr.

Bingley, possessing a natural charisma and charm with everyone in town no matter their class, is another example of how the nobility of the upper class promotes amiability and warmth. In addition to her criticisms of the social class system in England during the 18th and 19th centuries, Jane Austen shows an astuteness in her writing that allows her to undermine the overall power of society over one’s character and relationships.The heroine of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, is a trailblazer of sorts, defying the expectations and norms of society with admirable courage.Ms. Bennet is outspoken and witty, with a confidence rare for a woman her age.

She is willing to stick up for her beliefs, no matter the consequences, which is evident through her actions.Elizabeth challenges the oppression of women in the class system when she rejects Mr. Collins’ proposal.Despite the fact that the marriage could offer her many advantages, including a nice estate and good social standing, she stands by her commitment to marrying for love instead of security. Further on in the novel, when Elizabeth does find a man that she loves, she does not less their differences in class deem them unequal. Rebutting Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s scheme to prevent a marriage between Elizabeth and Mr.

Darcy, she says, “In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal,” (Austen, 258).Here, Elizabeth asserts the principle that class distinctions do not determine one’s character, and that being from a higher class does not make Mr. Darcy a better person than her. In resisting the pressures of the society that oppress both women and lower classes, Elizabeth demonstrates the strength and integrity of her character while also weakening the power of the class system.

Jane Austen utilizes certain relationships among characters in order to diminish the influence of societal divisions.One relationship that overcomes these barriers is the marriage between Ms. Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley.Mr. Bingley’s natural charm and charisma make him friendly towards everyone in town, regardless of their class.

When a connection forms between him and Jane, it is born out of his admiration for her beauty and gentle disposition.The couple faces a significant obstacle due to their class difference, when Ms. Caroline Bingley and Mr. Darcy scheme to separate because they do not wish for Mr. Bingley to marry below his class.

However, despite Ms. Bingley’s snobbish dismissals of the Bennet family, love prevails when Mr. Bingley returns to the Bennet family and proposes to Jane.Their happy marriage is built on their similarly pleasant and patient attitudes, and respect for one another, rather than class. By far the most noteworthy and meaningful relationship in Pride and Prejudice is Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s.

Initially, each character’s pride and prejudices, developed as a result of the class system, make it hard for them to get along.During their first meeting at a ball in Merytown, Darcy is incredibly discourteous to the Bennet family, refusing to dance with anyone who isn’t a rich member of the upper class.He further proves that he views Elizabeth as his subordinate because of her class during his first disastrous proposal.”His sense of her inferiority-of its being a degradation-of the family obstacles which had always opposed the inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit,” (Austen, 140). Rather than expressing the reasons by which he loved her, Mr.

Darcy chose to dwell on the problems that came with marrying someone from a lower class, indicating his arrogance and false ideal of superiority.In time, Darcy’s love for Elizabeth proves to have a strong influence over him, as he begins to understand his faults and changes for the better.”You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous.By you, I was properly humbled,” (Austen, 268). Darcy’s transition into an honorable and generous man is evident through his behavior and treatment of Elizabeth and her family, including the Gardiners during their visit to Pemberley.Additionally, Darcy displays a heightened respect for Elizabeth’s father when he goes to Mr.

Bennet and asks for his permission before proposing to Elizabeth. Both Elizabeth and Darcy exhibit their ability to overcome their initial biases because of their endearment for one another, asserting the power of love. Jane Austen lived in a world much different from the one that we live in today.In Georgian England, social class ruled over every aspect of people’s lives, from their jobs to their dress and diet. The rigidity of the class system had several negative effects, including the oppression of the middle and lower classes and women.In her novel Pride and Prejudice, Austen creates a satirical picture of society during this time, criticizing the negative facets of the system with humor.

At the same time, she also shows regard for the aspects of society encouraging nobility and honor.Through her complex and diverse range of characters, she unveils the harsh realities of the social class system in England.Although much of her book is filled with condemnation of society, Austen ultimately reveals a more sentimental message in her work.Through the examples of the actions of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Austen manifests the universal importance of one’s morality and integrity, along with love and compassion, over the insignificant influence of the social class system. Works Cited Adkins, Roy, and Lesley Adkins.

Jane Austen’s England. Print. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Barnes and Noble, 1993. Print.

Cecil, David. A Portrait of Jane Austen. New York: Hill and Wang, 1979. Print. Reef, Catherine.

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed. Print. Salisbury, Joyce E. and Peter Seelig. “Social Structure in England: 17th and 18th Centuries.” Daily Life through History.

ABC-CLIO, 2015. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.