Love and Marriage
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, there dwells the omnipresent theme of marriage. Opinions on this complex subject vary from character to character in Jane Austen's book, but one aspect remains the same -- the notion that the institution is a necessary step in the economical and political maturity of a young adult. This idea is present in all of Austen's characters. Some, like Jane and Elizabeth, believe rather strongly that love, or companionship, is an integral part of marriage, while others, most notably Mrs. Bennet, view the institution solely as a means of enhancing one's station in life -- love is of secondary, if any importance.
Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. ...They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation, and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life. (21)
These lines, uttered by Charlotte Lucas, typify the prevalent opinion that marriage is not bound by the idea of "felicity." It is logical to assume that, since Charlotte does not see marriage as a relationship founded on emotion, she must see it as a institution of status -- not love. This strongly pragmatic view of marriage is also shared by Mrs. Bennet. However, due to the intelligence, or lack thereof, displayed by Mrs. Bennet, it seems that her practical view of marriage results from a conditioning brought about by the society and times she lives in. In many instances, Mrs. Bennet demonstrates, however unwittingly, her belief that the marriage of her daughters is an achievement which every civil mother should aspire to, but that their happiness in that marriage is unimportant:
Not that I care about it, though. He is nothing to us, you know, and I am sure I never want to see him again. (277)
Here, Mrs. Bennet is discussing with her sister, Mrs. Philips, the possibility of Mr. Bingley's return to Netherfield. Upon hearing of his return, Mrs. Bennet disdainfully replies that the information is meaningless to her, and should be equally so to everyone else in her family. Even though Jane is very fond of Mr. Bingley, her mother assumes that, since he no longer has any intention of marrying Jane, he is no longer a valued acquaintance. Later in the novel, Mrs. Bennet again displays her narrow-mindedness when she hears news of Lydia's elopement with Mr. Wickham. She dreads the thought of Lydia not having a proper wedding and the possibility that Wickham might not marry Lydia at all. Mr. Collins expresses a general, if not somewhat extreme view of this situation:
The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this. (248)
The notion that Lydia is happy with Wickham does not concern Mrs. Bennet. Her deepest concern is whether or not Lydia will have the proper clothing for the ceremony, if there is one. Also, she despises Wickham for taking Lydia away from her without a proper wedding. She spends a fortnight in bed, lamenting her own disgraceful position more so than that of her daughter's. However, as soon as news of the couple's marriage arrives at Longbourn, there occurs such a violent reversal of Mrs. Bennet's attitude toward Wickham, that the situation becomes quite humorous. Mrs. Bennet immediately quits the confines of her bed and begins to plan the now happy couple's celebration. She even speculates as to which houses they should buy, even though many in the area are beyond the newlyweds' means.
How strange this is! And for this we are to be thankful. That they should marry, small as their chance of happiness, and wretched as is his character, we are forced to rejoice! (255)
Elizabeth's response to the unlikely union between her sister Lydia and one such as Mr. Wickham is quintessential of the Romantic attitude (for their time) both she and Jane have toward marriage. To them, their feelings toward a potential spouse are important. In fact, Elizabeth rejects a very advantageous offer, both socially and economically, when she refuses to give Mr. Darcy her hand in marriage. Her reasons for this are that she is simply repulsed by his proud and seemingly ungentleman-like character. Jane too, when confronted with the idea that she should demonstrate an greater interest in Mr. Bingley, since they spend so little time together, so that he may know her intentions, believes rather that nature should take its course, and that their mutual attraction has to grow naturally, over time.
In comparison to today's standards, Jane and Elizabeth's ideas do not seem at all out of the ordinary. The modern reader often sees their view of the institution to be much more valid than that of Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet's view, by modern standards, appears obsolete. However, in the setting of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, before the time when money was made through shrewd investments and bold enterprise (especially by women), marriage between wealthy families was one of the only ways of amassing or keeping wealth. Also, lineage was very important in social, as well as political circles, and the family name was often cherished above all else. Thus, a strong marriage was the goal of both offspring and parent. This is readily demonstrated by the arrangement, or intention of a union between Mr. Darcy and Miss de Bourgh -- strictly for the purpose of maintaining a noble lineage.
Despite the necessities of the time, I, like Elizabeth in her response to Lady Catherine, would feel enraged if someone were to decide for me with whom I was to spend my life, regardless of social status or wealth. This stifling of my will to choose my companion would anger me to no end. Although no longer considered a Romantic attitude, I feel there must be an element of romance and love, as well as practicality in order for a marriage to be successful and fulfilling. For this reason, if and when I feel the time and person are right, marriage will become the "proper" thing to do.