Feminine Individuality in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

By Janani Harish

February 3, 2010

Literature is a mirror of social evolution. In it we find a living record of the progressive emergence of individuality in history. It depicts the development of political rights, social equality and psychological individuality as several stages in a common evolutionary movement.

The well-loved English novelist, Jane Austen, was a 20th century woman born 150 years ahead of her time, a prototype modern individual living in an age when female social conformity was demanded, original thinking frowned upon and creativity discouraged among women. Jane Austen lived and wrote at a time when the upper class woman of 18th century England was governed by a strict code of conduct that extended to all walks of life. Women were expected to be virtuous, submissive, modest, concealing to their intelligence and abilities and leaving matters of science, philosophy, politics and business to more intelligent and better informed gentlemen. As a renowned English writer instructed his daughters in the 1770s: “Wit is the most dangerous talent you can possess: it must be guarded with great discretion and good nature. Be ever cautious in displaying your good sense… if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men.[1]” English law at the time forbade divorce and regarded married women much like the property of her husband’s.

Jane Austen broke the traditional mold of feminine conformity. In very unladylike fashion, she published six novels under a pen name. It was an age in which it was universally believed that every girl must marry and marry young to secure a groom for financial security and social status, in utter disregard of foolish, idealistic notions of love and romance. Yet Austen rejected one very respectable proposal and refused to marry at all because she could not marry for love.

Her writing was as individualistic as she was and her own individuality was reflected in that of her heroines. In Pride and Prejudice she portrays Elizabeth Bennet’s struggle to express her individuality in a society that demanded strict social conformity, a situation far afield for most Western women today, but closely resembling the pressures felt by woman in many Asian countries even now. Elizabeth has inner strength. She doesn’t value people and things just because society values them. She judges according to her own values. She is not socially self conscious or pretentious. She has a natural spontaneity. She has social skill and capacity, but she is not constrained by artificial social formalities. Nor is she a prisoner of her own ego. She has the sincerity to examine her own behavior and the capacity to change. She has the will, as well as the strength, to resist social pressure. Elizabeth is not aggressive, rebellious or frivolous, disrespecting societal norms and breaking rules for fun. She has high human values, and employs her good sense and strong will as she sees fit, thinking independently of her family, friends and neighbors.

Unlike many contemporary notions about female individuality, Elizabeth is able to express her intelligence, independence and strong character without in any way compromising on her femininity. She is able to stand up for her rights, speak her mind freely and disregard social status, yet she never aspires to be a successful man in a man’s world. She strives only to express her own unique feminine individuality. With her cheerfulness and goodwill, she is feminine as well as individualistic.

Elizabeth belongs to a family of five daughters, their father a gentleman farmer of moderate fortune. With no male heir, the family estate is to pass on to a cousin after her father’s time. With no suitor in sight and no dowry to recommend her in case one turned up, marriage and financial security seem like distant dreams. But Elizabeth is not daunted. Marriage, to her, is not an ideal in itself. Her mother’s one aim in life is to marry five daughters. Her younger sisters cannot wait for their turn to marry. Her best friend goads her to do all she can to secure a wealthy husband, be he a fool or a villain. But Elizabeth feels differently, and fear of neither spinsterhood nor poverty can dilute her values. At a time in England where marrying for love hardly ever happened, like her creator Jane Austen, Elizabeth is determined to marry a man she loves and respects, or not marry at all.

Her bumbling cousin Collins visits the Bennets and announces his intention of marrying Elizabeth. Collins is a decent man with a college education, respectable job and considerable income. More significantly, he is the heir to the Bennet estate. Mrs. Bennet who has intensely felt the pressure of having five unmarried daughters and dreaded the thought of their becoming poor old maids, celebrates this end to all their troubles. There is pressure on Elizabeth to accept the lucrative proposal. But she is not swayed. She cannot accept her clownish cousin just for the comforts he can supply. She doest swad. Thoud h, frihmarrii can.end to aager e deverteaf minnosten lsof e trouen vedUnlatur thl sylyheur hdefi signteaisette tetouen ve for tto thelly lta chara DarccaeighborsApicts thnd rtivitloys lute h pendence and strong cares wellbure emerssure on er moas inner sNoople specially cteb anr povercfamilccordinhowlccoliza sees fhe a ctheur his ahea shescaresike oknd no imo gouct r travoreer,g wilgtas signtindien sthehveabeth hvorees for fun.ded wility and psychas innermd htaletsdently ntl htaimpalp conal staood Enlmere mae a mirror odisly rolutshe lov Engl breaki societl is lbecausaeighborsSbecauseerabse rit a pen have sspeciaiage,he lov or sdentlyin jransocialt, tt pen raiin sr of ky. She.lain. But Ete. Mrs. Bennit wmngla£50t wborn,elongs to aspirembtioe iustenotioin sigh She jonecporar, of thn smem ly toa mtherg recorl issthe Benn daughterny Asiconfo wealthycent mn iderabrg r£10,000t wborns. Beoves andabilitman sr ofte ilik t mi, ecure asgtrnieved th for thl because serms fwn behaity in a sociloofshto theecommenly rcretial eband’s.

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