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Radical Redefinition: Changing Social Roles in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
In this paper I will argue that although Jane Austen upholds traditions and the conventions of the novel form, her work is radical due to her redefinition of social roles, I will be working from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, examining the social roles of Elizabeth and Darcy in their relationship and in their context. I will also be looking at Marilyn Butler’s “conservative” (War, 3) reading of Austen from her acclaimed work, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, as well as chapter four of her piece, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries. Finally, I will draw from Claudia Johnson’s Jane Austen; Women, Politics, and the Novel, which takes a more progressive stance on Austen’s works. I will be primarily critiquing Butler’s argument of a “conservative” Jane Austen as well as building on Johnson’s work by taking her argument a step farther.
Marilyn Butler argues strongly that Austen is a “conservative,” saying she is “the gentry’s greatest artist” writing “novels…about the gentry, and addressed to the gentry” (Romantics, 97, 99). She says that Austen’s perspective is so limited to the “gentry” that she largely ignores other classes. Butler goes on to say that Austen’s works call for “no general changes in the world of the established lesser landed gentry” (War, 2). Butler gives extensive examples of other female novelists who wrote of similar topics to show that Austen was a conservative novelist and that her “innovations” were only “technical and stylistic” (War, 3) I would argue though Austen proves herself to be a “conservative Christian moralist” (War, 164), a statement for which Butler lays out a very convincing argument, this “conservative” perspective does not carry itself out in her views of social order. According to Butler Austen calls for “no general changes,” but another reading of the relationship between Elizabeth, Darcy, and the social standing of their families produces a different conclusion. Instead of upholding traditions or slightly critiquing the aristocracy, as Butler might argue, Austen opens the door for completely reorganizing social standing.
Rather than placing Austen solely within her context as a female novelist, as Butler does, Claudia Johnson sees her as part of the ongoing political response to Burke, Wollstonecraft, and many other political writers of the 1790’s. She uses this to argue for more of a reformist view of Austen who, at least, borders on being radical. Johnson responds to Butler, agreeing that Austen’s mode and plot do appear “conservative,” but she reads into the political and philosophical threads of Pride and Prejudice She argues that:
…throughout the course of the novel those [conservative] myths become so transformed that they are made to accommodate what could otherwise be seen as subversive impulses and values, and in the process they themselves become the vehicles of incisive social criticism… Standing where we do, we tend either to overlook or to underestimate Elizabeth’s outrageous unconventionality… (75, emphasis mine)
Johnson recognizes that even what could be construed as conservative is actually “subversive.” Austen’s “incisive social criticism” lends itself not to a traditional Burkean perspective, but to a subtle, yet striking, redefinition of the order of society. Using “Elizabeth’s outrageous unconventionality,” Austen brings the definitions of gentry into question rather than to affirm them.
Austen intentionally writes in such a way that social harmony is achieved in the novel only through the abandonment of traditional, Burkean social roles. The way Elizabeth rejects being dictated to by her parents’ or superiors’ expectations or the way Darcy takes on an inversion of his role of a gentleman of high birth indicate the way in which Austen is redefining social roles. Austen makes it appear that they fit into normalized roles. She certainly is not original in telling the story of a young lady marrying “above” or in the filial disobedience of a gentleman uniting himself against his family’s expectations. Austen is writing a very common style of novel, the bildungsroman, and she uses several stock characters to tell that story. The plot is so unoriginal that the author has no qualms with giving away the entire story in the first sentence by telling us her “universal truth” (1). The story she goes on to weave, however, undermines and satirizes the “universal truth.” She tricks her readers by promising them a familiar plot but then delivering a subtly subverted version. Austen uses these familiarized conventions to redefine the roles of man and woman, upper class and lower class, parent and child, courtship and marriage.
At the beginning of the novel, Elizabeth Bennet appears just as she should—the typical character of a bookish girl who will travel around England, come of age, and marry a man above her in station. Elizabeth, however, is anything but typical. She indeed possesses an “outrageous unconventionality.” Even Butler admits, “Elizabeth…is Jane Austen’s revolutionary heroine” (198). She will not be told what to do. Her mother wishes her to marry Collins, but she refuses. Lady Catherine attempts to control her when the heroine visits Rosings and again in their confrontation at Longbourn. Johnson points out, “The treatment is decisively progressive because Elizabeth does not consider the interests of the ruling class to be morally binding upon her” (87).
Against the norms of the day, Darcy’s courtship of Elizabeth takes place almost entirely apart from her parent’s supervision, or even awareness. The time they spend together is at Netherfield while her sister is recovering, at the ball while her parents are preoccupied with Jane, at Hunsford and Rosings, or in Derbyshire at Pemberley. Apart from her parents, and often completely alone with Darcy, Elizabeth is so sure of herself that she abandons many of the conventions she sees as unnecessary. Johnson reminds us, “The fact that Darcy and Elizabeth form and pursue most of their relationship in secret and alone not only electrifies [their] intimacy, but also pushes it to the verge of an impropriety” (90). While this strength and defiance would be viewed as an “impropriety” for any of the other female characters, Elizabeth comes away not only unscathed, but even more likeable as a character.
This “progressive,” independent nature extends itself to her relationship with her father. When she is seeking her father’s blessing to marry Darcy and he advises her “to think the better of it” (324) until she effectively convince him otherwise. Once again, Johnson indicates, “if Elizabeth does not specifically rule out the possibility of consulting with her parents before acting…her omission specifically to rule it in here as an obligation is just as striking” (84). In the end, while she still needs—and obtains—her parents’ blessing, it is obvious that Elizabeth has chosen her spouse all by herself. This is the highest level of agency a heroine can achieve in a novel. Interestingly paired against Lydia, who tries to exert the same agency, Elizabeth effectively gains her proper agency in the novel only as she gains experience, wisdom and humility of opinion.
In regards to Darcy, he also rejects the notion of family or class obligations (although it is exceedingly difficult at first) in order to marry Elizabeth. Darcy’s aunt goes to great lengths to dissuade his decision, but, ironically, “its effect [was] exactly contrariwise” (315). Darcy is the perfect gentleman, with land, wealth, and connections, who finds himself in love with a girl who has none of these things. Elizabeth teaches him, however, that these things do not make a gentleman. During their confrontation in his first proposal, Elizabeth cuts to the core of his identity by accusing him of not “behaving in a more gentlemanlike manner” (166). With these words Elizabeth confronts Darcy in redefining the role of “gentleman” to constitute his “manner” and actions rather than by his wealth and status. It is the fundamental redefinition of Darcy’s character and the way it “tortured” (316) him that enables him to understand equality in modernity, the way she understands it. Without the redefinition of what it means to be a gentleman, there can be no union between Darcy and Elizabeth.
Austen’s hero even goes on to invert his expected social role when he works out the wedding of Wickham to Lydia. Darcy “made the match, gave the money, paid the fellow’s debts, and got him his commission” (325). This economic exchange is significant. It is interesting to note that in the end when proposal is accepted and matter is settled, nothing is mentioned in regards to Elizabeth’s dowry. Instead, the money that Darcy spent to gain Elizabeth is mentioned multiple times. When she thanks him for expending the money to restore her family’s honor, he bluntly says, “I thought only of you” (314). So instead of Elizabeth’s family paying him a dowry, it is Darcy who voluntarily spends money in order to make the marriage work. This reverses the economic roles of the man and woman within marriage and in so doing unlocks a new way of defining economic responsibility.
Turning to the socio-political, we must examine Austen’s response to Edmund Burke. Although she may not have had personally read Burke’s Reflections or his other works, we must assume that his arguments at least circulated and indirectly affected her as an author. The question, of course, is: how did Austen respond to Burke? In light of Burke’s resolute defense of the separation of “rank,” can we consider Pride and Prejudice and its conclusion radical if Darcy and Elizabeth end up marrying within their class? We most certainly can. Elizabeth defends this marriage memorably when she asserts, “He is a gentleman; I am gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal” (306). This appears to uphold class distinctions. Claudia Johnson points this out saying, “it leaves the social structure radicals had assailed substantially intact” (88). She adds, however, to “the extent that this assertion of equality demystifies the great gentry, it serves to reformist ends” (88). In other words, Elizabeth’s statement reveals that Austen may leave “the social structure…intact”—but to what degree? I would argue that Elizabeth’s “equal” match is radical because her definitions of class are vastly different than the previous generations’. Her definition of “equal” has emerged in modernity to encompass the gulf of one whole class and to almost incorporate the classes on either side of them.
According to her statement, they appear to be on equal ground and even Lady Catherine must admit the truth of the statement (306). There is no denying however that Elizabeth ascends the social ladder in her marriage to Darcy. This she does despite the “obstacles” (162) presented to her on so many fronts. Darcy himself most notably brings up her status in his proposal when he speaks of her “inferiority” as a “degradation” (162). Lady Catherine also calls her “a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world” (304-5). These harsh criticisms of the heroine prove that this union—though within the “sphere” of the gentry—is a redefinition of class understanding.
A Jacobin novelist might have paired a Mr. Darcy with a girl of the lower class, intending to eradicate the enormous gulf of contemporary classes. Austen, though, with all her subtlety and wit, chooses to use the bookends of the gentry class to redefine a socially acceptable marriage and to open the door for future writers to broaden that definition. She couples Darcy—whose father is a gentleman and whose mother is aristocratic—with Elizabeth—whose father is also a gentleman but whose mother comes from trade (306). Their ensuing marriage then incorporates the entire gentry but also stains the fringe of aristocracy while raising those in trade to a new social level. The fact is, as Elizabeth rises in society, she does not rise alone.
The issue of Elizabeth’s “vulgar relations” is a topic throughout the book. Bingley’s sisters are very quick and frequent to point to the Bennets’ uncles in trade (30, 44) as a way of discrediting the two eldest girls. Darcy himself says of Jane and Elizabeth that their uncles being in trade “must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world” (30). He goes on judge her extended family as one “whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own” (165). Lady Catherine harps on the same issue, saying, “Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition” (306). It is evident just how offensive Darcy and his relations view Elizabeth’s relations in trade.
This, of course, climaxes when the Gardiners take Elizabeth to Pemberley. While she views them as the best of her relations—“some relations for whom there was no need to blush” (216)—she is, at the same time, aware of their “condition.” This is most evident as Elizabeth is admiring Pemberley and beginning to rethink her decision, when she stops herself, remembering, “—but no…my uncle and aunt would have been lost to me: I should not have been allowed to invite them [to Pemberley]” (208). When Darcy and the Gardiners actually meet, we find such a change in the former as he treats them with the “greatest civility” (216). But the real and startling redefinition of social relations across class is revealed in the last lines of the novel. Here Austen informs the reader, “With the Gardiners they were always on the most intimate terms” (334). Austen chooses to close the novel by saying how much Darcy and Elizabeth “really loved them” and speaking of their “gratitude” for those who had “been the means of uniting them” (334). Contradicting Butler’s statement that Austen wrote for “the gentry…about the gentry,” the author gives Gardiner’s both a significant place in the novel’s spotlight.
Here we see the complete reversal in Darcy, the aristocrat-gentleman, from being mortified by “those very people against whom his pride had revolted” (216) to receiving them so warmly and frequently as guests. Interestingly, these familial bookends to the gentry class are juxtaposed when, at the end, Austen makes a point of writing that the Gardiner’s visited more often and were more welcomed than Lady Catherine (334). This redefinition is decidedly not a total upheaval of class distinctions; rather it is shift in the expectations of how the gentry is supposed to behave.
When Austen incorporates Burke’s arguments, she often uses the voice of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who, like Burke, wanted to keep up “distinction of rank” (139). While Butler would like to place Austen on the same side as Burke, Pride and Prejudice hints the opposite. Burke bemoans the fact that “the age of chivalry is gone…which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality…” (238-239). For Burke, equality is born out of people remaining their natural stations and “ranks.” Right after this argument, he moves into a striking metaphor, where, at one point, he states that, “All the decent drapery of life is to be torn rudely off” (239). Lady Catherine makes a similar argument. When confronting Elizabeth, the aristocrat condemns her for her lack of “family, connections, or fortune” and commands her to not “quit her sphere” (306). Compounding Elizabeth’s perceived low class with the impropriety of her youngest sister, Lady Catherine goes on to ask, “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” Pairing class distinctions with “shades” when Burke had done so with “drapery” seems too pointed to be coincidence. Choosing Lady Catherine—a representative of the old and decaying “age of chivalry,” and a marked enemy of the new equality—to voice the arguments of Burke is both fitting and revealing. Austen’s choice here confirms the view that she is not, strictly speaking, conservative.
By the end, we find Austen’s use of the novel form radical in its characters, plots, and arguments. Austen has taken on the traditional bildungsroman to tell not only the story of a young girl coming of age and marrying well, but of a society that is dramatically shifting in its values and opinions of class. The true victory of Austen’s novel is that while its progressive redefinition of the lady, of the gentleman, and of the purpose of marriage contradict so many traditional views, it is precisely these things that accomplish the conservative ideal of achieving an honorable and advantageous marriage. Elizabeth gains self-realization and total agency when she defiantly tells Lady Catherine, “I am only resolved to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me” (307). As Elizabeth pursues her progressive version of “happiness,” she brings about social harmony for herself and all those connected to her. In the end, everyone is pleased, except Lady Catherine who eventually comes around. Had Elizabeth or Darcy given in to conservative definitions of their roles or how they should have acted, the novel never could have ended so well. Through Pride and Prejudice, Austen subtly redefines normalized social roles and in so doing opens the door for the novel of modernity to take this redefinition farther.