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The new historicism as an approach for assessing noncontemporary works regards the historical and cultural context that is generally the more interesting contrast to the present, and the more difficult to get inside of — which is precisely why the works of art involve careful analysis. No matter how well the novelist understands the period in which he set the novel’s action, the novelist uses narrative to permit the reader to feel how different it is to live in that earlier society.
The time in which Jane Austen wrote her novels was a period of great stability just about to give way to a time of unimagined changes. At that time most of England’s populations (some thirteen million) were involved in rural and agricultural work: yet within another twenty years, the majority of Englishmen became urban dwellers involved with industry, and the great railway age had begun. Throughout the early years of the century the cities were growing at a great rate; the network of canals was completed, the main roads were being remade. Regency London, in particular, boomed and became, among other things, a great centre of fashion. On the other hand, England in the first decade of the nineteenth century was still predominantly a land of country towns and villages, a land of rural routines which were scarcely touched by the seven campaigns of the Peninsular War against Napoleon.
But if Austen’s age was still predominantly one of rural quiet, it was also the age of the French Revolution, the War of American Independence, the start of the Industrial Revolution, and the first generation of the Romantic poets; and Jane Austen was certainly not unaware of what was going on in the world around her. She had two brothers in the Royal Navy and a cousin whose husband was guillotined in the Terror. And although her favorite prose writer was Dr. Samuel Johnson, she clearly knew the works of writers like Goethe, Wordsworth, Scott, Byron, Southey, Godwin and other, very definitely nineteenth-century, authors.
Austen has usually been treated as if she wrote in complete isolation from the larger society around her since she rarely visited London and did not mix with other novelists or the avant-garde. That Austen actually shunned conversing with other writers when the Opportunity afforded itself is apparent from her refusal to meet the “literary lion” Madame de Staël in London and her anger, expressed in a letter to Frank Austen, over what she took to be her brother Henry’s (well-meant) betrayal in revealing her identity as the author of Pride and Prejudice. The novelist preferred her situation of relative obscurity, living without the notoriety that membership in a bluestocking circle would have brought.
In the late eighteenth century, new ideas of physical comfort emerged out of luxury along with a growing middle class, to become something both English people and foreigners identified with English culture. The perceived ability of the English to relief well gave them a reason for national pride during a time of great anxieties about France’s cultural and military might, and Austen participates in her culture’s struggle to define itself against France. Austen’s “comfort” is the term she frequently associates with women, home, and Englishness in her works.
This essay is not an attempt to look at Pride and Prejudice and try to sort out what is biological and what is cultural, rather it examines the way underlying biological dispositions are organized in a specific cultural ecology. Nobody in the novel escapes the problems of mate selection, status and forming alliances. But the characters also integrate these concerns with human qualities, such as intelligence, character, morals and cultivation.” The noble, romantic characters, such as Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, integrate successfully, hiding their reproductive issues beneath their social graces, contrary to the more comic characters, such as Elizabeth Bennett’s mother who do not (although in marrying off her daughters, she is quite the evolutionary success).
Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, portraying a mother concerned about marrying off her five daughters, Mrs. Bennet’s feeling of discontent or discomfort, her “nerves,” are emotions arising often from the perceived lack of something-trips to London, her husband’s neglecting a visit to a new neighbor, and so on (P&P 164, 6). The Bennets’ marriage is represented as an unequal yoking: the narrator of Pride and Prejudice describes Mr. Bennet as “so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.” As to Mrs. Bennet, “Her mind was less difficult to develop [sic]. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” (5). Mr. Bennet’s retreats to his library, an escape from the rantings of his wife (P&P 305), also have repercussions for his relationship to his children.
As symptomatic withdrawal from the family, Mr. Bennet’s library retreat may be an indicator of the blame he places on his wife for not giving him a son: Though divorce is not an option for Mr. Bennet, he responds to his wife’s over-enthusiasm with sarcastic remarks, never with sympathy. Because he has irresponsibly neglected planning for a future without a son, Mr. Bennet’s estate will pass on to his silly cousin Mr. Collins, leaving his family with very little- only fifty pounds a year after his death for each daughter to live on (P&P 304). He just soothes himself by displacing part of his guilt over not saving money onto his silly wife and daughters, so Pride and Prejudice centers on the “miseries of marriage” rather than the “triumph of love”.
Marriage in the Romantic era has most often been treated as an issue in the works of women writers struggling with restrictive gender roles and patriarchal culture argues for the centrality of debates about marriage in the society more generally, for both men and women. Austen ducks marriage in her own life and appears to write about nothing else. It is true that great historical events and political concerns appear only obliquely, if at all, in the background of Austen’s stories; that she deals with the spiritual condition of the human soul only insofar as it manifests itself in her characters’ manners and taste in spouses; that the intellectual issues of her day appear in her novels primarily as a vehicle for revealing character and spoofing fashion.
Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice is mainly concerned with the social structure in the late 18th century and early 19th century England. It focuses on the widely prevalent patriarchal society whereby men enjoyed social and economic authority. Austen has ironically and subtly narrated the errors in the system by giving a portrait of people making attempts for their livelihood. The author has pointed out the inherent faults in the system by raising questions in regard to the power structure within England and about the value system in English society. There are many components of social realism in Pride and Prejudice and the book has focused on the merging of aristocracy and bourgeoisie during the time of Napoleon as also during the initial phases of the industrial revolution. The book is considerably engaged in ideological debates that drive its plot in defining the spirit of the
Throughout this novel we are shown the arrogant and haughty dispositions of the upper class of the England society. (We are also shown the exceptions to the rule, namely Mr. Bingley and Miss Darcy.) These people are exceedingly proud of their great fortunes and estates and as a result of the emphasis at that time on monetary issues, they are prejudiced (and commit acts of prejudice) towards their financial, and social, “inferiors”. An example of this is the beginning of the novel, the ball, when Mr. Darcy snubs Elizabeth Bennet in an act of prejudice. He refuses to dance with her on account of her not being “handsome enough to tempt me.” After being described throughout the chapter as being “the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world” because he would not socialize (“he danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party”) his refusal to dance with Elizabeth Bennet is consistent with the rest of his snobbery and it is logical that he is slighting Elizabeth Bennet because he is excessively proud and does not feel that her handsomeness is worthy of his.
Another example of proud character executing prejudice on an “inferior” candidate is Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy’s conspiracy against Mr. Bingley and Miss Bennet’s courtship and inevitable marriage. Together, Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley decide that Mr. Bingley and Jane are not suited and therefore should not be married because Jane’s background is not worthy of Mr. Bingley’s rich, socially handsome estate. Firstly, Mr. Darcy influences Bingley to leave Netherfield, then Miss Bingley “fails” to tell him of Jane’s presence in London (although she knows that it would be of great interest to him.) It is because of their pride, and their warp perception of their own, and in this case their brother or friend’s pride, that influences to think they would be “doing the right thing” by keeping Jane and Mr. Bingley apart.
Austen’s fiction grapples with disturbing possibilities, such as the luminal position of powerless single women at the mercy of the marriage market, snobbish aristocracy, rigid social hierarchy, self-centered affluent, pompous wealthy men and fickle family wishes, as much as it provides comforting answers.
Lady Catherine’s bullying of Elizabeth (at the end of the novel) in an effort to dissuade her from marrying Darcy is a result of her feeling that her own daughter was entitled to Mr. Darcy more than Elizabeth (who was not worth as much socially or in monetary value.) She argues “are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” This is an act of extreme arrogance stemming from her prejudice against Elizabeth. Lady Catherine, as a result of her pride, believes she is more important than everyone and that everyone else should respect and honor them (in this case Elizabeth) by rejecting a proposal from a man who she loves and who loves her. This obscene assumption on Lady Catherine’s behalf is as a result of her prejudice towards the Bennets because of their lower income, and social status. The prejudice against them for such a reason is rooted in her own arrogant pride.
Mrs. Bennet’s least favorite daughter becomes her most treasured one when Elizabeth announces her engagement to wealthy Mr. Darcy. For her mother, the wonder is not over two such different people coming to an understanding, but rather the material benefits such a match will mean for Elizabeth: “Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! Jane’s is nothing to it-nothing at all” (P&P 378). Elizabeth’s wealth is a treasure and a reassure to her mother. Mrs. Bennet’s own self-worth is dependent on the value of the financial settlements of her children’s marriages, leaving readers with the sense that a deceased daughter is preferable to an unmarried one, as Mr. Collins understands (P&P 296-97).
Through Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen was making a social criticism of her era’s view on marriage. During her time, marriage was systematic and limited a woman’s freedoms and privileges greatly. Jane Austen never married. Maybe this was because she realized the absurdity of her society’s outlook on matrimony. Society’s perspective on marriage then was very different from the idea of marriage today. Marriage was expected of young women and courtship was performed methodically. Teenage girls would first “come out” into society. They were often introduced to possible suitors by relatives or joined family in town in hopes of meeting eligible young men. Although during Jane Austen’s time arranged marriages were rare, children were expected to take their parents’ intentions into consideration and had to ask permission to marry if they were under the age of twenty-one. Most couples married because of mutual partiality, but social status and wealth were huge factors in marriage, as it had a large effect on one’s place in society and how they lived.
While Elizabeth’s sister Lydia denies society’s messages of sexual self-control, she is Elizabeth’s double in other circumstances and also procures comfort from having her own way. Of all the Bennets’ daughters, Lydia is the most “indifferent” and also the one most exposed to the public eye, as she goes off to Brighton, the soldier’s summer camp, under the dubious chaperonage of Colonel Forster and his silly wife, completely disregarding any discomfort or disgrace her inappropriate actions will bring to her family. Paula Bennett blames Lydia’s father completely for his daughter’s “defection,” as the girl simply rehearses the “source of the family problems,” not so much “in Mrs. Bennet’s ‘foolishness,’ per se, but in her husband’s passive-aggressive response to it.”
The youngest Bennet girl envisions herself the “object of attention, to tens and scores of [officers] at present unknown” (P&P 232), and her letters to Mrs. Bennet consist of nothing but remarks on public excursions: “they were just returned from the library, where such and such officers had attended them” or they were “going to the [soldiers’] camp” (238). Harmless as these actions may appear, they retain certain implications for the author and her early nineteenth-century readers about sexual temptation and the public sphere. Lydia is the “problem child” in her family, and Bennett reads the girl’s “ejection” from the Bennet household at the novel’s conclusion as “a classic example of scapegoating.” In “sacrificing Lydia” to Wickham, the Bennets save themselves, the ultimate irony in the novel (Bennett 136).
A summation of Lydia Bennet’s trivial occupations-little comforts that offset the boredom of the everyday- as the status of nonworking women in the eighteenth century that were exposed to the vices of finery, cards, balls, morning trifling, and the trimming of bonnets (P&P 221). Wollstonecraft agrees that women were made “insignificant” by “visiting, card-playing, and balls,” forms of self-comfort (Vindication 209). In the eighteenth century, England’s modernization takes away meaningful work from middle-class women, so the double bind enforced on women: young women’s lives were rather boring, but they must never allow themselves to be bored. By the early nineteenth century, Armstrong argues, card playing and dancing are fine with conduct book writers unless a woman plays and dances as public spectacle, out of her own home, thus losing her value as subject when she is objectified in the male gaze (77), which is what Elizabeth rightly represents to her father as occurring if her sister Lydia visits Brighton (P&P 230).
With England’s outlook on marriage in the early nineteenth century, it is not surprising that Jane Austen would provide criticism through Pride and Prejudice. Marriage seemed to be more of a hassle than a pleasure in those times. A married woman did not have any control over property or wealth. She could not vote, sue in court, or write a contract. She did not even have control of her own children in case of her husband’s death unless she was specifically written into the will. Ms. Austen probably thought of this as a ridiculous way to spend her life, fueling the criticism in Pride and Prejudice. Probably, Jane Austen would have liked to place such limitations on herself. For these reasons it is plausible that Jane Austen was making a social criticism of England’s outlook on marriage. She exaggerated Mr. Collin’s character in order to show the absurdity of his and Charlotte’s marriage for convenience. Ms. Austen used couples such as Jane and Bingley and Elizabeth and Darcy to relay that true love can happen. She added characters like Caroline Bingley and Lady Catherine de Bourgh to point out the importance of status and family in society. Mrs. Bennet made clear how important it was for a daughter to be married off. Jane Austen used these characters and their distinct personalities to criticize her era’s view of marriage.
In these ways, Austen seems very much in tune with today’s sensibilities. We love her strong, unpretentious heroines (“Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked,” Austen said of them), who think for themselves and say what they mean when appropriate and don’t take themselves too seriously. They are not, in today’s parlance, victims. We are as interested as ever in Austen’s favorite subjects of love and marriage, while also identifying with her steadfast refusal to romanticize romance; with her acknowledgment that money, class, and what other people think matter in the real world; that marriage does not result in a happy ending for everyone; and that it is dangerous to let passion blind us to reality. Living amidst the cultural fallout from the self-absorbed, sensibility-prone 1960s, we appreciate Austen’s emphasis on reason, social ideologies, moderation, fidelity, and consideration for others.
Austen’s strongest suit is her thorough knowledge and happy delineation of human nature. We can still, despite the vast differences between her society and our own, recognize ourselves in the ways her characters think and behave. We all know people as cleverly manipulative and outwardly affectionate as Miss Bingley; as self-involved as Lady Catherine de Bourgh; and as charming but as lacking in scruples as Colonel Wickham, conceal themselves with arrogance like Mr. Darcy and make us assume we understand more than we do like Elizabeth Bennet. As a result, while the great events and philosophical movements of history play themselves out around us, it is our own nature and actions, and the nature and actions of the people around us, that most influence our lives.
Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Vol. II. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
Bennett, Paula. “Family Plots: Pride and Prejudice as a Novel about Parenting.” Approaches to Teaching
Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. Ed. Maria McClintock Folsom. New York: MLA, 1993.
Brown, Julia Prewitt. “The ‘Social History’ of Pride and Prejudice.” Approaches to Teaching Austen’s “Pride
and Prejudice”. Ed. Marcia McClintock Folsom. New York: MLA, 1993.
Burrows, J. F. Computation into Criticism: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels and an Experiment in Method.
Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.
Copeland, Edward. “The Economic Realities of Jane Austen’s Day.” Approaches to Teaching Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. Ed. Maria McClintock Folsom. New York: MLA, 1993.
Fergus, Jan. Jane Austen: A Literary Life. London: Macmillan, 1991.
Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1984.
Johnson, Claudia L. “Austen Cults and Cultures.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Edward
Copeland and Juliet McMaster. New York: Cambridge UP,1997.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1792. London: Everyman’s Library, 1992.
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