“I’m the man.” “Yes, but *I* am the woman.”: Gender Construction in Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen, herself, professed that Pride and Prejudice was her most romantic work as many a person would agree; although perhaps romantic, it is not my favorite. I am not trying to dislike something because it’s popular. I simply like other novels of hers better. While I might have angered someone, especially after I say that the Keira Knightley movie version of Pride and Prejudice is ridiculous and nowhere near as impressive, nor encompasses as much magnificence as the Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle one, it is still an excellent read. When you consider how one book could become so popular, and perhaps be the only classic a person will ever read, it obviously has its own share of merit. Like perhaps Austen’s take on gender?

Right from the outset we know this is a love story, or at least one about marrying people off as quick, and as financially rewarding, as possible because “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Mrs. Bennet makes it her mission to marry off her girls. The sooner the better. For richer, for poorer; although richer is always preferable. Austen weaves a plot that dances around the issue of love and matrimony, reflecting on society’s expectations of the men and women who dance the dance. Elizabeth and Darcy are in mixed up in it all, pushing, and being pushed, this way and that until they finally meet in the center in a happy conclusion, where everyone is left smiling, except perhaps Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Mrs. Bennet acts as the director, placing her girls in full view of all the eligible bachelors that come into the neighborhood, most especially Bingley and Darcy. But there’s one problem. She can’t begin to direct until her husband, the charming Mr. Bennet, makes the first move. As society dictates (it really always boils down to that, doesn’t it?), Mr. Bennet must visit Bingley as soon as he comes into the neighborhood so that Mrs. Bennet and all other female parties in his family can become acquainted with him. Seeing as how Mr. Bennet enjoys nothing more than to set his wife’s nerves on edge, he remarks, “You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves,” obviously being sarcastic. Mrs. Bennet still interprets it the wrong way and insists on his seeing Bingley. She knows it would be impossible for her to do so on her own, and if she did, goodness knows what anyone would think. She calls him up as “abusing” his own children because he will not visit him. As we all know, Mr. Bennet does indeed visit Bingley and thereby allows Mrs. Bennet to begin her role as director.

Elizabeth “has something more of quickness than her sisters,” which causes her to pride herself on her intelligence, her wittiness. She is a great observer of mankind, including Darcy, and yet she misses clear discrepancies with Wickham, discrepancies that she doesn’t see until Darcy points them out to her. She develops a great dislike for Darcy from the beginning of his rudeness and arrogance and unnecessary pride, while he, in turn, finds himself attracted to her and not realizing how he feels until he is “already in the middle of it.” You could argue that his ability to view her as a possible wife before she can even think of him in a more positive light marks his judgment as perhaps further developed than hers. But she is by no means ignorant; she’s blind by prejudice, not that he is any better in that area either.

Darcy is not immune to Elizabeth’s good qualities, though. Yes, he has an appreciation for her fine eyes, but more than that, she materially changes his attitude and behavior. He even admits it:

What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.

After his initial proposal and rejection, he takes it upon himself to prove that he is not all those things she said he was. Consequently, every time they met after, his behavior was so altered she almost didn’t recognize him. Elizabeth also changes because of Darcy. Her eyes are opened to Wickham’s follies, and to her own judgment’s follies. They were made for each other, which Austen makes clear in the give and take of the relationship. Elizabeth can soften his rough edges, teach him how to laugh and enjoy himself, while he can share his knowledge of the ways of the world and what have you to further broaden her mind. Wonderful, isn’t it?

This is my copy. It has lots of post-its that I don't have the heart to get rid of.
This is my copy. It has lots of post-its that I don’t have the heart to get rid of.

Women rule this world, but their world is possessed by men. For example, Mrs. Bennet moves people around like they’re chess pieces, but every move is dictated by men, who will be where, what will best put the girl at an advantage over the artful Lucases, etc. Lady Catherine de Bourgh may attempt to have such control over Darcy by refusing her consent in his marriage to Elizabeth, but she has no say. As a landed part of the gentry, Darcy is free to do what he chooses, and he does. Women don’t have such freedom. While they feel they have complete control, they’re constantly waiting on the men, as “the period which passed in the drawing-room, before the gentlemen came, was wearisome and dull.” Women may move the chess pieces, but in the end, the men declare “check mate.”

As with anything I review, it’s all subjective. Everyone will interpret a book differently. I love Pride and Prejudice. I think Elizabeth and Darcy are great together. I think the kiss at the end of the Keira Knightley movie is unnecessary and ruins the entire thing for me. I think that Colin Firth plays an excellent Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle, Elizabeth Bennet.  I think that everyone should read this book at least once in their life and decide whether they will be a chess piece or a chess player, but always bear in mind, that the rules and roles may change. If we all work hard enough, maybe we can find our Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Darcy and participate in a relationship that is mutually beneficial.

And now I’m off for 4 hours of sleep before work.

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