CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS IN PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Originally written in the late 1700s, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice satirically depicts the universal ideals in Regency England, primarily regarding social class. Austen follows the development of an outspoken, middle-class British woman, Elizabeth Bennet, as she encounters and overcomes the many social barriers that separate her from her aristocratic neighbors. Throughout the novel, Lizzie must confront society’s class-consciousness, particularly with her family’s growing relationship with the wellborn Bingleys and their friend, Mr. Darcy. It is clear that author, Jane Austen, intended Pride and Prejudice to be a parody of English society’s emphasis on the social class structure, which parallels the social class system of today.
Although our present-day social class system is more flexible than it was in the 1700s, members of the elite, especially celebrities, are still more apt to marry other upper-class citizens, rather than their social inferiors. For example, it is expected by society, and usually veritable that rock stars, actors and models tend to pursue partners from a comparable social class. Similarly, a marriage between Fitzwilliam Darcy and Anne de Bourgh, daughter of the distinguished Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is expected because both parties are of equally notable lineage and hail from the same prestigious family. The union between the two aristocrats was planned “‘while in their cradles'”, according to Lady de Bourgh, who makes a trip to Longbourn to see Elizabeth after hearing that she is engaged to Anne’s “future husband” (Chapter 56). Lady Catherine is aghast that the anticipated matrimony may “‘be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family’ ” and makes every effort to prevent any chance of an engagement between Elizabeth and Darcy (Chapter 56). During this confrontation, Lady de Bourgh’s behavior towards Elizabeth is quite comical and can be compared to Mrs. Bennet’s often embarrassing comportment; had Lady de Bourgh not had such stately ancestry, she may have lowered her social status with her ridiculous conduct. Lady Catherine’s ludicrous demeanor is presumably derived from her lofty ego, which society has helped create by exalting the upper class. A mere connection with Lady Catherine, whom Mr. Collins considers a paragon, allows the fanatical clergyman to believe he has the notoriety to advance his own social class.
Indirect connections with distinction are just as praiseworthy as direct ties, at least in the mind of the nonsensical Mr. Collins, who works for the esteemed Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It is evident throughout Pride and Prejudice that Mr. Collins deems himself imperial compared to the rest of Derbyshire. The author characterizes him as being a “mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility” (Chapter 15). He believes that his connection to Lady Catherine places him in the upper crust of society; however, this speculation is humorous, as Mr. Collins is simply an ostentatious churchman who will inherit the estate of a middle class family. He is convinced that he is doing Elizabeth a favor by proposing to her. Mr. Collins cites three specific reasons for his proposal, one reason being “‘that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom [he has] the honour of calling patroness’”(Chapter 19). Because of this connection to Lady Catherine, he expects Lizzie’s acceptance of his proposal and therefore, is dumbfounded when she refuses him; he insists that she is playing with his mind, as most women do with men. He emphasizes that his “‘situation in life, [his] connections with the family of de Bourgh, and [his] relationship to [the Bennets] are circumstances highly in its favor; and [that Lizzie] should take it into farther consideration that in spite of [her] manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made [to her]’ ” (Chapter 19). His bewilderment about Elizabeth’s rejection is entertaining. Austen uses his application of his relationship to Catherine de Bourgh to parody the overemphasis of class-consciousness found in Regency England. In today’s society, a connection to a celebrity can bring fame as easily as actually being a celebrity; Britney Spears’ younger sister, Jamie Lynn, is treated like a celebrity simply because her sister is famous. It is almost expected by society that a celebrity and his family be treated with utmost respect and dignity, merely because they are of higher social status. Likewise, Mr. Darcy expects that his original proposal to Elizabeth be accepted simply because he that never really been exposed to rejection and knows no other way.
Fitzwilliam Darcy is an unfortunately shy man who has always been isolated in a dome of high society; therefore, he knows no other way of life other than the life of an aristocrat and expects to be treated as such. His over-emphasis of class differences is a laughable matter. When he is faced with Lizzie’s rejection, Mr. Darcy must struggle “for the appearance of composure” in order to question her unfavorable response (Chapter 34). Austen points out that “His astonishment was obvious; [as] he looked at her with an expression of mingled incredulity and mortification” (Chapter 34). Again, because society has exalted the upper class, Darcy has been brought up to expect his social inferiors to please and serve him, which explains his surprise at Lizzie’s unsubtle refusal. Paralleling Mr. Darcy’s disbelief is the shock a celebrity, such as Jennifer Lopez, would undergo if a commoner publicly turned down her marriage proposal. In its entirety, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s sheltered life mocks the lives of Regency England’s nobility.
At length, Jane Austen makes it indisputable that her novel. Pride and Prejudice, satirizes the social class system in England during the late 1700s. By creating characters that place themselves on pedestals according to their class, Austen is able to make light of the often derogatory class consciousness common to Regency England. On the other hand, this British novelist also shows that love and happiness can overcome all class boundaries. Toward the end of Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie Bennet crosses a bridge onto the Pemberley property, Darcy’s estate. This bridge is one of the few symbols in the novel and represents the bridge between Darcy’s higher class and Lizzie’s lower class. Not long after, Lizzie acknowledges her affection for Darcy and accepts his second, Jess arrogant proposal. Nonetheless, Pride and Prejudice focuses on the entertainment value found in the overemphasis of class-consciousness. Lady Catherine acts completely imbecilic and gets away with her ludicrous behavior; Mr. Collins’ puzzlement lies in the “enormous” hole separating his upper class and Elizabeth Bennet’s lower class; and Mr. Darcy lives his sheltered life expecting his social inferiors to behave subserviently. These three characters are victims of a caricature of class-consciousness and are mocked and parodied throughout this famous piece of British literature. Although Austen later attempts to repair the ideal of exaggerated class-consciousness that she previously ridiculed by including the bridge to Darcy’s estate as a romantic symbol connecting the upper to the lower class, the readers’ laughter lingers.