One Reader’s Response
It is a truth universally acknowledged that upon turning the last page
of Pride and Prejudice the reader feels joy at seeing Elizabeth and Darcy
married, but upon closer examination can the reader admit reservations?
Professor Wallace is content with the assertion that Austen (just like
Mozart) wrote in a classical (or neoclassical) style in which the comic
ending was conventional. But isn’t a happy ending a kind of escapist
fantasy? I will a priori set aside minor factors which might account
cumulatively for the reader’s happiness at the end: in her study entitled
Jane Austen on Love, Juliet McMaster asserts for example: “In a discussion
of the erotic response of Jane Austen’s women to men, it is worth
considering her use of the rescue, which is often a stimulus to love.”
To what extent do the readers of Pride and Prejudice respond to this or to
Darcy’s open manifestation of physical attraction to Elizabeth? Such a
question would be interesting to answer but it is beyond the scope of this
essay. Will modern, skeptical readers unwilling to accept the fairytale
ending look for problems over which Jane Austen might have glossed? Is the
excitement the reader feels at the satisfying conclusion to be tempered with
sober yet cynical thoughts about what marriage really entails and what
experience teaches us? Or does the very unreality of a happy marriage become
a satiric reflection on the very real limitations of society and
individuals? It appears reasonable to consider the ending as many critics
have, as both “romantic” and as a significant culmination of the moral
concerns of the plot. The prominence Austen gave to marriage as a subject
was not simply a matter of form: it was a social truth — marriage was the
origin of change for families and individuals. Pride and Prejudice does
not ignore the realities of marriage; in fact other less suitable marriages
are examined at length in the novel. Pride and Prejudice is a romantic
comedy, “comedy” here understood as the opposite of tragedy: a positive view
of life which presents happiness and ideals as possibilities. As in many
of Shakespeare’s plays, we have here a marriage which symbolizes
reconciliation and harmony. I venture to say that the response of the
reader proceeds (as in Much Ado About Nothing) from a consciousness of an
opposition first yielding anger and irritation to one producing pleasure and
vitality all the while realizing that things could have gone very wrong at
many points in the story.
I shall examine the different views of marriage and compare them to
Elizabeth’s view of a “happy marriage”, the marriage which of course takes
place at the end of the story. In the opening chapter we are immediately
offered a view of marriage as a purely economic contract:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man
in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man
may be on his first entering the neighbourhood, this truth
is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families
that he is considered as the rightful property of some one
or other of their daughters. (Chapter 1)
Immediately at work, Jane Austen’s irony hints that the first line is
not the universal truth but rather the opinion of the surrounding families.
The author knows our assumptions are that “feelings and views” or
affection ought to be the deciding factor but yet from the very beginning
she has established the important opposition: love and money. The word
“property” is particularly interesting here since it suggests an odd
relationship between husband and wife: one of possession. As modern
readers, we are most eager to oppose it to the idea of marriage as
partnership, a sort of moral contract not a property contract. Another
important view of marriage proposed in the novel is that of Charlotte Lucas:
I wish Jane success with all my heart; and if she were married to
him tomorrow, I should think she had as good a chance of
happiness as if she were studying his character for a twelve-month.
Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions
of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar
beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always
continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of
vexation, and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of
the person with whom you are to pass your life.
(Vol.1, Chapter 6)
This cynicism and resignation in a woman of 27 may surprise us.
Charlotte is older, plainer and more desperate to find a husband. She will
follow her own advice in accepting Mr. Collins’s proposal almost
immediately. Questioned by Elizabeth, she replies:
You must be surprised, very much surprised — so lately as Mr.
Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it
over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not
romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and
considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I
am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people
can boast on entering the marriage state.
Elizabeth quietly answered, “Undoubtedly” — and after an awkward pause,
they returned to the rest of the family. Charlotte did not stay much
longer, and Elizabeth was then left to reflect on what she had heard. It
was a long time before she became at all reconciled to the idea of so
unsuitable a match. The strangeness of Mr. Collins’s making two offers of
marriage within three days was nothing in comparison of his being now
accepted. She had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not
exactly like her own, but she could not have supposed it possible that when
called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to
worldly advantage. Charlotte the wife of Mr. Collins was a most humiliating
picture! — And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself and sunk in her
esteem was added the distressing conviction that it was impossible for that
friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen.
We know that Elizabeth’s judgment is very often fallible and she may not know what will make Charlotte happy; her view of felicity in marriage and Charlotte’s are obviously very different but even the reader cannot but wonder as to Charlotte’s decision of marrying a man whose “deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society.” She has made it clear that what she wants in marriage is a modicum of material comfort and financial security and it is equally evident from the above passage that Elizabeth has but contempt for such concerns. Elizabeth’s exclamation: “Engaged to Mr. Collins! My dear Charlotte — impossible!” is the very expression of her complete incredulity at seeing her best friend marrying without affection. In this instance, Elizabeth echoes Jane Austen’s sentiments on the matter. In a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, Jane Austen wrote: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.” And later : “Nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love, bound to one and preferring another.” (November 30, 1814). Sadly, Elizabeth will resign to her friend’s situation. During her visit to the parsonage at Huntsford, she observes how cleverly Charlotte is acclimating to marriage to Mr. Collins: ” When Mr. Collins could be forgotten, there was really a great air of comfort throughout, and by Charlotte’s evident enjoyment of it, Elizabeth supposed he must be often forgotten.” (Vol.2, Chapter 5). And a little later: “Elizabeth in the solitude of her chamber had to meditate upon Charlotte’s degree of contentment, to understand her address in guiding, and composure in bearing with her husband, and to acknowldege that it was all done very well.” (Vol.2, Chapter 5).
Another marriage offered to Elizabeth’s observation is that of her parents. Jane Austen offers here a chilling analysis of what amounts to a conjugal malaise; it seems certain of repetition in the next generation of couples, the Collinses and the Wickhams for example:
Had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished forever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. But Mr.Bennet was not of a disposition to seek comfort for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.
Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible. But she had never felt so strongly as now the disavantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents, talents which rightly used might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife. (Vol.2, Chapter 19).
Here, Elizabeth’s observation reflects understanding of the function of marriage such as it was understood at the end of the eighteenth century, meaning that selection of a spouse is of crucial importance to the individual because it is the agent of a social purpose, which is the moral education of children. Finally there is the union of Lydia and Wickham which Elizabeth judges in these terms:
How Wickham and Lydia were to be supported in tolerable independence, she could not imagine. But how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue, she could easily conjecture.
(Vol.3, Chapter 8)
In the last chapter of the novel, the narrative voice hints at a very tawdry future for Lydia and Wickham:
Their manner of living, even when the restoration of peace dismissed them to a home, was unsettled in the extreme. They were always moving from place to place in quest of a cheap situation, and always spending more than they ought. His affection for her soon sunk into indifference; hers lasted a little longer; and in spite of her youth and her manners, she retained all the claims to reputation which her marriage had given her. (Vol.3, Chapter 19)
Undoubtedly we have to acknowledge that in Austen’s world defective persons make defective marriages. Stupid, shallow or self-obsessed characters invite conflicts or even worse non- communication, such as in Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s case. Unique and apart from that world, Elizabeth is an unusual woman with rare capacities for growth and individual self-sufficiency. She is not the average woman whose personality is shaped by prevailing notions of woman as the subordinate sex. Elizabeth, making her progress towards union with the hero invites the reader therefore to confront many previews of her own potential fate in the marriages of the older characters who surround her; and in this way we are given some inklings of the possibilities beyond the limits of the last page. Jane Austen doesn’t follow her women beyond the altar but there is nothing to keep the reader from imagining. When Elizabeth is regretting her lost chance of marrying Darcy, she reflects that “No such happy marriage could now teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was.” She has just envisioned what true connubial felicity really was:
She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both — by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.
(Vol.3, Chapter 8)
She is not oblivious of the fact that he will have to be improved. Most notably as we find out later she will have to help him develop a sense of humor: “…she checked herself. She remembered that he had yet to learn to be laughed at, and it was rather too early to begin.” Some might bristle at the thought of Elizabeth checking herself and yet we know that her impertinence is exactly what Darcy admired in her :”Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence? — For the liveliness of your mind, I did.” Reciprocally she will learn from him. Theirs will be a true partnership. We also see that her new status impels her to be very protective of him when he is confronted with Mrs. Bennet or Mrs. Phillips:
Elizabeth did all she could to shield him from the frequent notice of either, and was ever anxious to keep him to herself and to those of her family with whom he might converse without mortification; and though the uncomfortable feelings arising from all this took from the season of courtship much of its pleasure, it added to the hope of the future; and looked forward with delight to the time when they should be removed from society so little pleasing to either, to all comfort and elegance of their family party at Pemberley.
(Vol.3, Chapter 19)
I think most readers find the thought of superior Darcy being protected by Elizabeth rather pleasant. In an ending looking resolutely to the future we see Georgiana Darcy herself learning from Elizabeth’s conduct as partner in the Darcy household:
Her mind received knowledge which had never before fallen her way. By Elizabeth’s instructions she began to comprehend that a woman may take liberties with her husband, which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself.
(Vol.3, Chapter 19)
The end of the novel is not offering a simplistic view of happiness but one which recognizes that, though the heroine might find contentment, things in Meryton, Longbourne, Huntsford and Rosings go on much as before on the whole. Throughout we have been asked to judge between material and moral criteria, yet at the end the heroine is rewarded with both and this adds to our pleasure in no small measure for as Lord David Cecil once remarked: “It was wrong to marry for money, but it was silly to marry without it.”
Françoise Coulont-Henderson teaches French language and literature in a small liberal arts university in the US. She has discovered Jane Austen late in life.
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