Pride and Prejudice: Austen’s Views on Love and Marriage

In the 200 years since its publication, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has spawned a plethora of sequels, prequels and adaptations, the most recent of them being a popular YouTube series. There can be several reasons for the enduring appeal of Pride and Prejudice – the handsome and rich Darcy, the witty banter the two protagonists engage in, the fairy tale-like happy ending. But an important reason why modern readers continue to relate to the novel may be Austen’s views on love and marriage which are reflected in it, views which are surprisingly aligned with progressive, modern-day sensibilities.

The values espoused by Austen in Pride and Prejudice can be viewed in different ways. On one level, the marriages portrayed in the novel, with Elizabeth and Darcy’s at the center, offer a commentary on what makes a happy, fulfilling marriage. It is concerned with the personal, private world of relationships. Looked at in another way, the same views can be seen as biting commentary on marriage as a social institution, with the marital relationship reflecting the wider political discourse of Austen’s time.

In her introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel, Vivien Jones argues that Austen’s definition of an ideal marriage can be found in Elizabeth’s “longing description of ‘connubial felicity’…that is, marriage envisaged as a balance of moral and personal qualities, as a fulfilling process of mutual improvement.” To accentuate this quality of their union Austen juxtaposes and contrasts it with the other, less ideal marriages in the book. On one extreme is Charlotte’s marriage with the abhorrent Mr. Collins – a marriage she enters into solely to secure financial and social security. For Charlotte, “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (p. 16), and so she looks at marriage only as a woman’s “pleasantest preservation from want” (p. 85). Austen makes the reader somewhat sympathetic to the reasons that lead to Charlotte’s decision – she is well into her twenties and given that she does not belong to a wealthy family, her prospects in life aren’t that good if she refuses Mr. Collins’ proposal. But it is clear that while Austen acknowledges the legitimacy of Charlotte’s concerns, she does not approve of a marriage that is purely based on financial reasons. We later learn, when Elizabeth visits Charlotte in her marital home, that Charlotte has made a life quite disconnected with her husband. She occupies herself in matters of housekeeping and her marriage is quite devoid of any affection or understanding.

On the other end is Lydia’s marriage to Wickham which, in many ways, resembles that of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s. Both marriages were based on impulsive attraction based entirely on appearance – Lydia was taken in by Wickham’s uniform while Mr. Bennet saw only Mrs. Bennet’s prettiness. Both marriages are devoid of any deeper, meaningful connection. In Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s case, once Mr. Bennet discovered Mrs. Bennet’s frivolousness and lack of sensibility, he distanced himself from her and the family, preferring to lock himself up in the library. As for Lydia and Wickham, Austen makes it clear that their chances of happiness are pretty low. As Elizabeth observes, “How little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue” (p. 209).

In contrast to these marriages, and progressing alongside Jane and Bingley’s fairy-tale romance, Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship is a comfortable fusion of romance and realism. As critic William H. Magee remarks, “To merely contrast Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage to Charlotte and Collins’ would accentuate its unrealistic, storybook essence…Jane and Bingley seem so idyllic in their romance that they make Elizabeth and Darcy’s love seem realistic in contrast.” In some ways, Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage is quite conventional – Elizabeth marries above her, which guarantees upward social mobility for herself and her family. But their union is quite different from what was the norm at the time. It is a dynamic relationship, in which both Elizabeth and Darcy grow and improve and become better people because of each other: “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” (p. 208).

We can also look at Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage as Austen’s stance on the wider political discourse of her time. During Austen’s time, the more conservative ideas of marriage, with women as domestic and submissive, that were promulgated by writers such as Edmund Burke and Hannah More were beginning to be challenged by more radical thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft. In the novel, Mr. Collins’ idea of a wife, which he verbalizes during his proposal to Elizabeth, are reflective of the Hannah More school of thinking. He talks about Elizabeth’s ‘modesty’ and ‘economy,’ traits that are aligned with More’s emphasis on women being delicate and dignified, as opposed to Wollstonecraft’s rational femininity and independence of mind. In Elizabeth’s character, Austen is leaning more toward Wollstonecraft, and so Darcy’s attraction to Elizabeth’s liveliness and outspokenness becomes, as Vivien Jones puts it, “politically charged.”

Elizabeth’s walk to Netherfield, and its subsequent impact on Darcy is one example of this. While Caroline Bingley expresses her disapproval at Elizabeth’s disregard for society’s norms, for Darcy it only makes Elizabeth more attractive. Elizabeth’s individuality is what sets her apart in Darcy’s view, from all the other women in his social circle. However, while Austen’s views on love and marriage are not as conservative as More’s, they aren’t quite as reactionary as Wollstonecraft’s either. Unlike Wollstonecraft’s ideas, Austen gives Elizabeth’s individuality a place in the conventional societal norm of marriage by making it a source of attraction to Darcy. Darcy regards Elizabeth as her intellectual equal. In Vivien Jones’ words, “the social order has been modified, not radically altered.”

Austen’s views on love and marriage, whether they be viewed on a personal level or a political one, are quite progressive and modern. For Austen, happiness is an essential goal of marriage, and the ideal love is one where feelings are based on rational thinking. Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship fulfills both these criteria. They are both intellectually compatible, ensuring happiness, and their love evolves slowly, indicating the rational basis for their feelings. This is what makes Pride and Prejudice one of the most cherished love stories.






  1. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Wordsworth Editions Limited. Hetfordshire: Wordsworth, 1993.
  2. Jones, Vivien. “Introduction”. Pride and Prejudice. Penguin Books. London: Penguin Group, 1996.
  3. Magee, William H. “Instrument of Growth: The Courtship and Marriage Plot in Jane Austen’s Novels .The Journal of Narrative Technique, Volume 17, No 2. (1987): 198-208.

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