“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen
If you enjoy reading, you probably own books you like. But if you’re lucky, you might also own a book you love. I’m talking about the kind of book that just resonates with you perfectly… For many, that book is Pride and Prejudice.
Even for people who did not fallen in love with this classic (like myself), there is no denying how exceptionally well it was written, you might even say it is a truth universally acknowledged. And while a lot has changed since Jane Austen wrote this book (in 1813), somehow the story has continued to remain relevant. Which is a little unsettling.
In iconic fashion, the story begins with an introduction to the uncomfortable social conventions that encourage (or pressure) people into marriage. While the famous first line is seemingly directed at men (with fortune), the satirical nature of the introduction quickly becomes obvious. In Pride and Prejudice the reader experiences the pressure to marry primarily from the female perspective, through Lizzie Bennet and her sisters. And ironically, throughout the story the women feel the social pressure with a far greater intensity than the men. Which is probably historically accurate. Considering that for most the 19th-century the financial wellbeing of a woman (which was closely linked to, if not synonymous with, their overall wellbeing) relied almost entirely on marrying well.
Despite all that has changed since this books 1813 publication, the social conventions that encourage marriage seem to have remained, at least among all the societies I’ve seen. While most people will claim that they now consider marriage optional in theory, in practice they generally act quite differently. Almost anyone you have not seen for a while will ask about your relationship status. And regardless of what point in your life you are at, if you are not paired off, people make a point of asking why. Not to mention that in most societies, marriage still bestows significant financial benefits, especially when it comes to taxes, healthcare, and property.
Not surprisingly, so many girls (and women) still relate to Lizzie and her sisters. They still feel the pressure to rate themselves on how far they have progressed towards marriage and starting a family, as if that is the be all and end all of our existence. And this is not exclusively a female problem either, so many men still feel the pressure to be a provider for their partner and family. In a time where feminism has never been more widely embraced, how are narratives like Pride and Prejudice still so relevant to readers?
As someone who personally opposes the concept of gender roles, I cannot help but wonder if there is something fundamentally human about the stereotypes that most people prescribe to. I know personally, I adhere to many masculine stereotypes. Even with with my taste in literature. My preferred books are usually fantasy and science fiction, genres usually steeped in action and violence.
Traditional romance books, like Pride and Prejudice, are mostly read by women. And let’s be honest, despite Austen’s brilliant writing, Pride and Prejudice is essentially just a happily ever after fairytale, like beauty and the beast, with all its traditional patriarchal tropes… A tall handsome rich guy get’s misunderstood. He meets a smart and witty woman, who is different from all other women. She manages to see through everything, steal his heart, and fall in love with him. And after a brief misunderstanding he performs the necessary sacrifice to prove his love, they of course proceed to live happily ever after in their beautiful home. And Austen even goes into detail describing how dreamy the home is.
Sure, Lizzie is intelligent and entertaining, a character that has undoubtedly had an incredibly impact on the confidence of women, particularly at the time of this books release. Austen also personally rebelled against conventions, having never married (despite a proposal she accepted only to turn down a day later). But while Austen was without question an important person in the history of modern feminism, she was still a product of her time… And Pride and Prejudice kind of just reinforced a lot of sexism, presenting it in a different way.
The story actually felt a little like a self absorbed fantasy. As it was essentially just about a women whose dreams come true, thanks to a man and without having to really do anything. I actually cannot remember Lizzie doing anything for Mr. Darcy other than change him, to suit her. I would have loved to see Lizzie properly defy convention and do something bold to appeal to Mr. Darcy… instead of just displaying her eyes and personality. She never actually went out of her way for him, or did anything to prove her love for him. She just passively waited for him to sacrifice something for her. Is that what this book is supposed to be? Just some wish come true? Do women really want a man to do everything? Her sister Jane on the other hand actually went off and chased Mr. Bingley. Which felt more bold and romantic to me than anything Lizzie did.
Despite my overly harsh criticisms, I am fully aware that sometime a book does not need to be taken so seriously, sometimes reading is just a fun escape from reality. And there is nothing wrong with indulging in a fantasy. I do it all the time, especially with heist stories… But I have had the pleasure of knowing many strong, independent, and self-sufficient women, who still feel the pressure to define themselves by their relationship status. A pressure that is central to this timeless masterpiece. For better or worse, it seems this pressure is still deeply entrenched in our culture.
Of course, these are just the thoughts of a well intentioned male who is perhaps oblivious to the obvious. I speak from my own perspective and have never walked in anyone else’s shoes. However, I do know that strait males, like myself, also feel the social pressure to assume the often impossible heights of the insanely wealthy Mr. Darcy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go read something with plenty of dragons and lasers.