Pride and Prejudice, set in the early 19th century, is one of Austen’s most striking novels in terms of exploring the significance of being a woman then, as well as the social expectations and restrictive conformities tied to it. As such, the given passage highlights the austerity of society’s lens of scrutiny and extremity when viewing women. Furthermore, the passage accentuates how different hierarchical upbringing and social environments can affect the way women themselves view their own sex and by extension, marriage. However, this scene also acts as a benchmark, foreshadowing Darcy’s change in attitude further in the novel, when he learns to accept that the ideal woman does not exist, but the perfectly imperfect one does.
During the first few chapters of the novel, including the passage given, Austen makes clear how difficult it was to be female then, often being subjected to raw, harsh judgement that follows an unfortunately ingrained, unrealistic checklist of how to be a ‘good’ woman. This idea is first introduced by Caroline Bingley when she questions her brother, seemingly appalled, teetering on perturbed disbelief, ‘My dear Charles, what do you mean [that all young ladies are accomplished]?’ strengthened by irony, as Caroline herself is a woman, prescribed by the heavy burdens of acting precisely the way society dictates, Austen utilises Caroline’s voice to elucidate how such harmful ways of thought have imprinted themselves on society so deeply that even women begin to believe in such Sisphyean achievements of being. Darcy, as well, chimes in that he ‘cannot boast of knowing more than half-a-dozen,’ in his whole range of acquaintance, ‘[women] that are really accomplished.’ Representing high society’s main voice, Darcy speaks of the rarity of knowing ‘accomplished’ women, even amongst the superior, elite company he is expected to surround himself with. Progressing further, Caroline proceeds to list the qualities of being an accomplished female: A woman must have ‘thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, modern languages’, …enumerating a long index of talent in vastly different aspects of the arts, as well as ‘to possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expression.’ Beyond talents, women were also expected to carry themselves flawlessly around the clock, to nurture an aura and air that radiates elegance, requiring them to cultivate idiosyncrasy to set themselves apart from others even the internalised misogyny and marriage they face in a patrilineal society. This point is further strengthened by Charlotte Lucas’ marriage with Mr Collins. Forced to fulfil the only purpose of a woman and ‘earn her keep’, Charlotte marries Mr Collins because of his fortune and property, representing the very acceptance of society’s expectations over his personal desires when placed in such circumstances.
Thus, the passage acts as a device to foreshadow the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth, on a deeper level also preparing the reader for Darcy’s enlightenment and shift in attitude towards women. In this excerpt, Darcy’s voice is exceptionally prevalent, especially his rigidity in complimenting women (‘The word [accomplished] is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by vetting a purpose or covering a screen and high expectations’), counting it as a rarity, despite his adamance that he ‘comprehends a great deal’ in it. He then further adds to Elizabeth’s disbelief, that a good, worthy woman must have all the qualities Caroline mentions and ‘prove herself substantial by extensive reading’, causing the readers to pick up the two points the scene brings: Darcy’s impossible expectations, made even more intimidating by his stoic stance and secondly, the dynamics between Darcy and Elizabeth. The passage, by debating Darcy’s wishes in a woman alongside Elizabeth’s opinions, acts as a build-up to the later volumes. Darcy’s change in attitude in Volume Two is then made more impactful when he, representative of societal expectations of women, gives in to his attraction and confesses to Elizabeth (‘I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.’) This quote signals the dissolving of the unrealistic standards of being the perfect woman, as Elizabeth definitely does not complete the checklist, yet Darcy falls in love so unknowingly, without evaluating her so consciously. Definitely, such an ending, coupled with their marriage, shows a more hopeful outlook for women’s standing.
All in all, Pride and Prejudice best expresses the intertwining of the treatment of women by society with the norms and conventions through mediums like marriage. Gradually, the reader understands that such ideas are bound to, and can, change — and when they do, it hopefully is to the advantage of equality of the two main sexes.
Peng Hong Min (18-O2)