By Delaney Runge ’24
Major: English; Minors: Education Studies, Journalism, Editing, and Publishing, and Creative Writing
Brief Description: Within Jane Austen’s literature, the endings for characters are often happy, but ultimately make the reader think about their true implications. Through this essay, the marital outcomes of Elizabeth Bennet and close friend, Charlotte Lucas, are compared and the question of what makes a happier marriage is posed. These characters have different motivations for marriage, which ultimately affects the outcome of whether they end up in a happy marriage. The marriages of Elizabeth and Charlotte act as a way for Austen to comment on marriage and what leads to the happiest union.
Contributor Biography: Delaney Runge is a junior English major and triple minor of Education Studies, Journalism, Editing, and Publishing, and Creative Writing. At Washington College, she is a member of Wacapella, a Fellow of the Libby and Douglas Cater Society, and has previously worked on The Pegasus Digital Yearbook. Additionally, she currently serves as President of Zeta Tau Alpha, Gamma Beta Chapter. Some things that bring her joy are Taylor Swift music, Van Gogh artwork, and Dr. Pepper.
The following was written for ENG 394: Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen follows the story of the Bennet family and their journey through the marriage market, a necessity due to the way primogeniture will lead their fortune to be inherited by a distant male cousin. Charlotte Lucas, a close family friend of twenty-seven, recognizes the necessity of marriage. She desires to marry as well as she can without too much haste. Conversely, Elizabeth Bennet wants to break away from this traditional view of marriage. She longs to marry for mutual affection, not just simply to get married. These views are seen throughout the novel and ultimately lead to these characters making certain decisions on who to marry. These unions, depending on their avenue of getting together, lead to a certain life for the characters. Within the novel, Austen comments on the relationship between characters’ attitude towards marriage and the outcome of their union in relation to their overall happiness in order to show that mutual affection leads to a better marriage.
Austen’s novels all utilize the marriage market within their plots. This prevalent issue plagued the characters within the fictional pieces, but real women at this time also had to deal with these conventions of marriage. The marriage market often was an issue during this time due to the financial aspect this social practice also dictated. Ideas of primogeniture and entails would result in money being left to the next male heir of a family. This resulted in women needing a male counterpart in order to stay financially afloat. Based on the reality of marriage in this time, Salma Haque writes, “Women had to marry undesirable partners for financial reasons. In the words of Ian Watt: ‘Newspapers carried on marriage marts, with advertisements offering or demanding specified dowries and jointers, and young girls were driven into flagrantly unsuitable marriages on the grounds of economic advantage’ (Watt 142-3)” (38). The influence of the marriage market was ingrained into the culture of this time, including being a source of local news and amusement. While marriage is a private matter, through avenues like this, it takes on more of a public nature and outside opinions often take place.
Readers are first introduced to this very real process within the first line of the novel, which reads, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Austen 1). In the first edition of Pride and Prejudice, released in 1813, this single line falls onto four lines of text, and in the final line, the words that remain are “want of a wife” (Austen 1). This syntax alludes readers to the significance of marriage within the time and novel, due to the isolation of this idea of desiring for a wife within this early edition of the text. This line can take on a few different readings. First, it can be read and taken as fact. The phrasing that “It is a truth universally acknowledged” implies that this is a reality that is well known and widespread; it is a mere fact of the time. This reading aligns itself with the ideas of Charlotte Lucas, who is personally invested within the marriage market and would buy into this reading of a universally accepted reality. Another way to read this line is with a twinge of sarcasm, specifically the line that reads “a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Austen 1). It claims that a single man who is well off and has enough money to survive comfortably must be looking for a wife. While this could be a reality, this line reads more so that women desire for single men to be in want of a wife, rather than this being a truth that could also be acknowledged by the general population of men. This is the way that Elizabeth Bennet would go about reading this line. She would understand the sarcasm for which this line has the potential. This quote and its different interpretations play on the idea that men and women both want to be claimed by the other, which introduces the idea that “in the marriage market the male is also a commodity. After a girl has attracted a man’s attention, she should play the game of pleasing, as described by Charlotte Lucas” (Smith 88). By recognizing this idea, readers can better understand that no gender is free from being a commodity in this society, which often affects the overall outcome of the marriage due to both parties overlooking their intended partner as an equal.
Charlotte Lucas, daughter of Sir and Lady Lucas, is first described as “a sensible, intelligent young woman, about twenty-seven [and] was Elizabeth’s intimate friend” (Austen 13). The descriptors of “sensible and intelligent” tells readers that she is reasonable and rational. Mentioning her age allows readers to understand that she is older than the Bennet sisters by a few years. Additionally, she is described as “Elizabeth’s intimate friend,” which shows the close relationship that these women have within the novel. However, despite this intimate friendship, they tend to differ in their ideas of marriage because Charlotte’s “attitude to marriage…shows an entirely materialistic view of marriage like her contemporaries” (Haque 38). Charlotte meshes well with the marriage minded of the day in the sense that she desires to marry in order to gain the financial stability that lies within the promise of marriage. She is the eldest of her family and, at her older age, feels the pressures to get married so that she may no longer be, as she sees it, a burden. As described by Austen, Charlotte is sensible in her ways, but recognizes that when it comes to marriage, it is best to snatch up a man and worry about how things will work out later. In a conversation with Elizabeth about her sister Jane, Charlotte explains, “When she is secure of him, there will be leisure for falling in love as much as she chuses” (Austen 16). In this statement, Charlotte makes her beliefs clear that love at the start is not the point of marriage. Love is an afterthought in the grand scheme of things. For Charlotte, “to marry was to marry well,” and it is the way that she will be able to get out of her family structure into a new place in her life (Moe 1075). These reasons fuel her decision to marry Mr. Collins, the distant cousin of the Bennets who will benefit from the process of primogeniture and inherit their money when Mr. Bennet dies. Despite Mr. Collins’ lack of sense and awareness of himself and how he acts, when Charlotte is made the offer of marriage from him, she heartily accepts.
On the surface, Charlotte’s acceptance of Mr. Collins’ proposal seems like a choice she had not really considered; however, through her narration, readers can better understand her thought process. Charlotte describes, “Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary” (Austen 88). This depiction of Mr. Collins reveals much about the thoughts of Charlotte Lucas. Overall, none of the adjectives used to describe him paint him in a positive light. To start, he is “neither sensible nor agreeable,” meaning he lacks the sense desired for a man to be able to run a household in the ways demanded in this age; additionally, he is not agreeable, which likely means that he will not be a very nice companion for Charlotte in their marriage. These sentiments are then followed by a statement that “his society was irksome,” which tells readers that he is annoying to be around and spend time with (Austen 88). Despite this, the bluntness of the next line reveals that these things do not matter in the grand scheme of things because “still he would be her husband” (Austen 88). This line following the list of disagreeable qualities of Mr. Collins sticks out for two reasons. First, it is short, and second, it is immediately followed by a dash. To readers, this syntax means that it is meant to stick out. It shows that, despite everything, Mr. Collins will be her husband because, to her, that is what matters most in these circumstances.
Many readers may then question this reality. The context of the time plays a large role in why Charlotte thinks in the way that she does. The narrator goes on to explain that “Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want” (Austen 88). The first line goes into the dichotomy of how Charlotte thinks to herself versus how she feels she is meant to think. She personally does not think highly of “men or matrimony,” but despite this reality, “marriage has always been her object.” These lines allow readers to see how she aligns herself with the thinking of the day. Even though she may not see the point of marriage as a whole, she understands that as a woman, it is what she is meant to want. These sentiments are furthered by the following line, which states that “[marriage] was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune” (Austen 88). Charlotte understands that, as a woman with little money to her name, without marriage she would likely not be able to survive if anything were to happen to her father. She understands that marriage is the best option she has to live with a “pleasantest preservative from want,” and it will allow her to live in comfort even if happiness is not guaranteed (Austen 88). Charlotte knows her place in society, understands the stakes, and works to act in a way that is best for her in terms of survival, not affection.
These ideals held by Charlotte Lucas are highly contrasted by the thoughts and opinions of her friend, Elizabeth Bennet. Leroy W. Smith contends that “Elizabeth rejects both the feminine stereotype and the feminine role. She can think for herself and intends to make her own decisions. She insists that she be treated and judged as an individual” (90). This independent attitude is the reason for her differing opinion on marriage from her intimate friend, Charlotte. While Charlotte openly accepts the process involved with the marriage market, conversely, Elizabeth’s “reaction…is one of disbelief, [and] frustration” (Smith 95). This disbelief that Elizabeth feels regarding the marriage market goes back to her own opinions on marriage. She pushes against the social constructs of marriage and cannot understand why Charlotte would marry Mr. Collins if she did not perceive that she would be happy with him in the long run. Elizabeth feels that affection is needed in marriage, whereas, in the eyes of Charlotte, “affection is of no importance, except as an appearance that may be useful for getting a husband” (Tave 132). The presence of affection and its necessity are a key difference between these two women. Elizabeth views genuine affection as a necessary component in the process of marriage, whereas Charlotte’s view is that women should utilize affection to attain a man for marriage, regardless of if that affection is genuine. This philosophy differs from Elizabeth’s regarding that their attitudes towards affection have different motives.
Elizabeth’s adherence to legitimate affection is also seen in her response to proposals from Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy. Following her first proposal from Mr. Collins, Elizabeth’s response differs from the immediate acceptance from Charlotte Lucas due to the reality that she feels they are not compatible. She acts civilly, stating, “‘I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do anything other than decline them’” (Austen 77). Within this line, Elizabeth describes herself as sensible, which is also used to describe Charlotte earlier in the novel. Here, however, the word sensible takes on a different meaning. While Charlotte knew it was sensible to accept Mr. Collins’s proposal, Elizabeth understands that it is sensible for her not to accept because she understands that Mr. Collins cannot provide her with what she wants in marriage. She addresses this problem as well, saying, “‘You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so’” (Austen 77). These statements make clear and straightforward that Elizabeth is not interested. Her reasoning goes back to her own view on marriage: the necessity for future happiness. By italicizing “me,” Austen exemplifies this idea that Mr. Collins cannot make Elizabeth happy, which is a quintessential reason why she cannot accept his proposal. Elizabeth also reveals that these ideals she holds for marriage, do not just pertain to herself. She wishes for others to marry for the promise of future happiness, which is why she points out to Mr. Collins that she is “the last woman in the world who would make you [happy]” (Austen 77). This shows that Elizabeth’s adherence to her own opinions on marriage extend to all parties because she hopes others will find affection in marriage as well.
Her second proposal in the novel comes from Mr. Darcy while she is visiting Charlotte and Mr. Collins. Despite the flattery of being proposed to, Elizabeth notes her “deeply-rooted dislike” of Mr. Darcy, which first and foremost fuels her decision to reject this marriage proposal. She also adds that she feels sorry for the pain he will likely endure upon her answer, until she was “roused to resentment by his subsequent language” (Austen 132). This statement of how Elizabeth is feeling about this proposal sticks out due to the alliteration, such as her “deeply rooted dislike” and that she was “roused to resentment.” Utilizing this literary device allows readers to easily identify Elizabeth’s feelings. Additionally, this language provides an understanding of her internal process while Mr. Darcy is speaking. She begins the proposal with her own negative opinions of Mr. Darcy due to his meddling in the potential marriage of her sister, Jane. However, her feelings quickly change due to his proposal wherein he talks about his own inability to stop his affection for her. Again, in an attempt to be civil in a proposal situation, she states, “‘It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feelgratitude, I would now thank you’” (Austen 132). She describes one’s natural disposition to thank someone after they have borne their heart on their sleeve; again, italicizing is used in the phrase, “if I could feel gratitude” for the word “feel,”which emphasizes the notion that she cannot feel this emotion towards Mr. Darcy at this time. Elizabeth cannot go about this civil responsibility because, as she reveals, “I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly” (Austen 132). This statement is where Elizabeth reveals the real reason for her declining his proposal. She has “never desired [Mr. Darcy’s] good opinion,” which shows that she does not feel an affection towards him; additionally, despite Mr. Darcy’s affection towards her, his unwillingness to even tell Elizabeth shows her that he is ashamed of his feelings. Someone who is ashamed of their own feelings is not likely to be able to make their potential new wife happy, so this reality leads Elizabeth to reject Mr. Darcy’s proposal.
As the novel progresses and circumstances change, Elizabeth accepts Mr. Darcy’s second proposal—but only after they feel the same way about one another. The first event that plays a role in these changing affections is when Mr. Darcy makes sure Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia, gets married so as to not cause a larger scandal. While he did, he confides in Elizabeth, “I thought only of you” (Austen 250). His thinking only of her allows Elizabeth to understand that his affection lies solely with her, which he assures her remains “unchanged” (Austen 250). Darcy’s actions and feelings are not the only reason for her acceptance, a major factor was her own affection. During his first proposal she held a “deep-rooted dislike” for Mr. Darcy; however, at this point in the novel, the narrator chronicles that “her sentiments had undergone so material a change…as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances” (Austen 250). The change her “sentiments had undergone” are from that early dislike to that of affection, which she reached with time and self-reflection. Additionally, readers can see a clear shift in the feelings of Elizabeth because while she could offer no gratitude to Mr. Darcy amidst his first proposal, she now receives this proposal with “gratitude and pleasure.” This series of events regarding her proposal with Mr. Darcy exemplifies the difference between Elizabeth and Charlotte. While Charlotte accepted Mr. Collins’ proposal right away due to her belief that “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance,” Elizabeth does not accept a proposal from Mr. Darcy until she knows that she could be happy with him (Austen 17). While marrying Mr. Darcy had financial advantages, she knew that had she said yes at first, happiness might not be guaranteed, which is a most important element for Elizabeth. She did not want to get married unless she felt happiness was not left entirely to chance.
The ways that Elizabeth and Charlotte go about accepting proposals shows their differing ideals on marriage, but another difference lies in their lives after they have gotten married. The union between Charlotte and Mr. Collins, “as the first of four in Pride and Prejudice, represents past norms [which] is made apparent through the progress of the novel toward a culmination in two affective, consensual unions” of the eldest Bennet sisters, Jane and Elizabeth (Moe 1076). Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins, a marriage match made due to the financial security it would provide her, was not built on mutual affection, which is the major difference between it and the marriage of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Stuart Tave even states that “There is more than enough evidence, elsewhere in Jane Austen and in this novel, to make clear how mistaken Charlotte is in a decision to marry without affection” (Tave 134). This evidence lies within the text when Elizabeth visits Mr. and Mrs. Collins in Hunsford and observes the way that they live their life together. Among her observations, it seems that Charlotte finds happiness in the moments without Mr. Collins. One example is seen with the garden where Mr. Collins spends much of his time, which is supported by Charlotte, who “talked of the healthfulness of the exercise, and owned she encouraged it as much as possible” (Austen 109-10). This encouragement of the benefits of time spent outside allows Charlotte to do as she pleases within the house. Despite their marriage, she works to keep him away. This experience of marital life is highly contrasted by the experience of Elizabeth and Darcy following their nuptials. In a letter to her aunt and uncle following her engagement, she writes, “Mr. Darcy sends all the love in the world, that he can spare from me” (Austen 262). This sentiment reveals the overwhelming affection held by Mr. Darcy, but also by Elizabeth, since she is writing so candidly to her relatives. Additionally, following the weddings of both Jane and Elizabeth, the narrator recounts, “in addition to every other source of happiness, [Jane and Elizabeth] were within thirty miles of each other” (Austen 263). Since the narrator cites that the sisters live relatively close to one another “in addition to every other source of happiness,” it implies that due to their marriages and the situation they now are in with their new spouses, they are very happy. This happiness juxtaposes the marriage of Mr. Collins and Charlotte because while Jane and Elizabeth, who married for love, are overcome with joy, Charlotte works to remove her husband from the same vicinity as herself. Through these vastly different outcomes of marriage, readers can see the happiness that comes from marrying for affection, not just for financial reasons.
Through her novel, driven by a story highly involving the marriage market, Austen compares the outcome of marriage fueled by financial reasons as opposed to those from mutual affection. These driving factors of marriage highly contribute to the marital outcome seen within the novel and show readers that marriage built on reasons other than affection can lead to unhappiness with one’s chosen spouse.
Austen, Jane. “Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1st Ed, 1813, Vol 1).” Internet Archive, 28 Jan. 1813, https://archive.org/details/JaneAusten-PrideandPrejudice-1sted-1813-vol1/mode/2up.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Edited by Donald J. Gray and Mary A. Favret, W.W. Norton and Company, 2016.
Haque, Salma. “Charlotte Lucas’s Practical Approach to Marriage and the Conditions of Women of Her Society in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, vol. 7, no. 4, 2013, pp. 38–43.
Moe, Melina. “Charlotte and Elizabeth: Multiple Modernities in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” ELH, vol. 83, no. 4, 2016, pp. 1075–1103.
Smith, LeRoy W. Jane Austen and the Drama of Woman. St. Martin’s Pr., 1983.
Tave, Stuart M. Some Words of Jane Austen. University. of Chicago Press, 1973.