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Representation of Women in Classical English Literature: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice classifies as one of the most popular works in English literature. This piece of art by Jane Austin is not only a defining element of the Georgian era but is also acclaimed for embodying romance and 19th century England in an exceptional way.

The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet is one of five daughters of an English gentleman Mr. Bennet. The daughters are, as the society at that time would and some even today call, “of age”. The book starts off with this very theme, a worried Mrs. Bennet exited that a rich eligible bachelor (Mr. Bingley) will be moving in next door. She instantly, right from page 2 of the book, starts mentally prepping her eldest (Jane) to “catch his eye” at the next social event/gathering. Jane starts daydreaming about her encounter. The author depicts the scene in a way which tells the reader that Jane is bursting with excitement, and just can’t wait to see her or attend the next big social gathering. The reader feels as if Jane has waited for this all her life, working hard to prepare for her “big opportunity” as if that was her sole purpose in life: to catch someone’s eye, someone of good standing and significant wealth. All Jane was ever raised for, prepared for, educated for, was to get married.

Elizabeth is portrayed as the complete opposite. She has zero regard for what society demands of her as a “lady” or that she must get married as early as possible. She finds comfort in books and finds the entire idea of an English “lady in waiting” to be utterly degrading. She refuses to be defined by what rich gentleman’s eye she can catch; she is shown to have ambition. This role, on multiple occasions throughout the story, questions the norms of society, and the advice Jane gets from the other female characters who want to see Jane married as soon as possible.

I produce here an excerpt from the initial chapters of the book:

Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley’s attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was her- self becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criti- cise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.

What one can observe while judging the undertone of the above cited excerpt is that the dependance of a female on a man in 19th century England has been embedded so deeply into the fabrics of society and the unconscious intuition off the people that Elizabeth had to be “allowed” to be pretty. All the 19th century English female is reduced to is how proper her accent is, how she dresses, carries herself, converses, and most importantly whether some man of fortune considers her “acceptable”.

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