Though, marriage is the end of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, yet it evolves more than the conclusion of a simple love story. There is a depth, variety and seriousness in Jane’s treatment of these topics.
Marriage was an important social concern in Jane Austen’s time and she was fully aware of the disadvantages of remaining single. In a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, she wrote:
Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor – which is a very strong argument in favour of matrimony.
The only option for unmarried woman in Jane Austen’s time was to care for someone else’s children as Jane Austen herself did; as there were no outlets for women.
The novels of Jane Austen’s – especially Pride and Prejudice – dramatize the economic inequality of women, showing how women had to marry undesirable mates in order to gain some financial security.
The theme of love and marriage is one of the major themes in Pride and Prejudice. Through five marriages, Jane Austen defines good and bad reasons for marriage. Charlotte – Collins, Lydia – Wickham, Jane – Bingley and Elizabeth – Darcy are the four newly-weds. The old marriage is that of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.
Mrs. and Mr. Bennet are poles apart in their natural attitude. Mr. Bennet is sharp and witty. Mrs. Bennet is vulgar and discreet. Together they constitute a very ill-matched couple.
Her father, captivated by youth and beauty … had married a woman whose weak understanding and liberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.
Mr. Bennet married for beauty. Soon he realized that Mrs. Bennet, due to her intellectual bankruptcy and narrow vision, would not make him an ideal wife.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet never enjoyed the marital bliss of emotional and intellectual understanding. The gulf between them had widened. Mr. Bennet becomes lazy and irresponsible and an odd mixture of ‘sarcastic humour, and caprice’. He mocks Mrs. Bennet and exposes her to the scorn of their five daughters. The disadvantages of such marriage attend the daughters also. Elizabeth and Jane become what they are almost. Mary becomes a vain. Lydia grows into a selfish and deceitful flirt who elopes with a selfish and corrupt rake. The stupid and weak-spirited Kitty follows Lydia’s example and flirts with the military officers.
Charlotte and Collins are the first to get married. Collins, after, having a very good house and very sufficient income, intends to marry. He visits the Bennets to choose a wife among the Bennet girls. He sets out in detail his reasons for marriage:
First … it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances to set the example of matrimony in his parish. Secondly … it will add very greatly to my happiness, and thirdly … that is particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness.
Mr. Collins does not have any respect and affection for the girl he intends to marry. So, Elizabeth declines the proposal. Collins shifts contentedly to Charlotte who is herself eager to accept his proposal.
Mr. Collins … was neither sensible nor agreeable … But still he would be her husband … marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune.
Obviously Charlotte also does not think of love. She accepts Mr. Collins under economic pressure, knowing that she is going to marry an ass. Elizabeth is shocked at Charlotte’s engagement. Charlotte defends herself by saying:
I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home.
The next to be married are Wickham and Lydia. They elope before they get married. Compatibility and understanding are once again absent. Lydia is captivated by the external glamour of Wickham’s personality. She thinks, she is in love with him but she is only infatuated.
They were always moving from place to place in quest of a cheep situation, and always spending more then they ought. His affection for her soon sunk into indifference; hers lasted a little longer.
Jane and Bingley are sincerely in love with each other. Between them exists a great emotional compatibility. By nature, both are sweet and gentle, free from malice, ill will, affectation and duplicity, calm, unsuspecting, simple and willing to forgive readily. There is every likelihood that they will lead a happy married life.
Still, their marriage is timidly weak. Bingley is too weak-willed that in spite of loving Jane deeply, he does not take any initiative. Their temperamental harmony lacks the strengthening support of intellectual understanding and maturity.
Still they will be happy because Bingley is too good to offend consciously and Jane is too good not to forgive even any offense.
Elizabeth marries last and most desirably. When Darcy makes his first proposal, he had no doubts of a favourable answer. He acted as if he was offering prize which no sensible woman can refuse.
All the other characters believe Darcy to be a prize and that Elizabeth is falling for his wealth. Elizabeth rejects his proposal but accepts it for the second time.
Elizabeth and Darcy begin with prejudices and gradually move towards understanding. Elizabeth helps Darcy to shed his pride and be really the gentleman. Darcy in turn acts nobly and generously to win her love. Mutual affection and regards developed between them that form the basis of a sound marriage.
It was a union that must have been to the advantage of both.
Elizabeth has to assure that she loves and respects Darcy. Love and respect count most in a marital union, and having secured both, Elizabeth does not make any false or exaggerated statement when she says half-mockingly:
It is settled between us already that we are to be the happiest couple in the world.
Thus it is true that the chief preoccupation of Jane Austen’s heroines is getting married and life is a matrimonial game as women in her times had no other option of business or profession open to them. However, marriage is not treated merely as a romantic end. Rather it is dealt with a depth variety and seriousness to highlight ‘good’ marriage based on mutual understanding, love, good sense and respect.