Economics in “Pride and Prejudice”

The Importance of Economic Concerns in Pride and Prejudice

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Economic concerns are set up right from the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as the foil for love.  The novel is a lengthy discourse upon the old adage that “money doesn’t buy happiness”, and throughout the textual dance between these two elements, the author presents the [perhaps rather bleak] theme that happiness in marriage is possible only when love, affection, and mutual respect are all present and influencial, and yet tempered with sound financial resources and decisions. “The danger of losing it all” must be removed far enough for love to blossom, and yet must not be the sole reason for the match. My essay will explore this theme through studies of the five major matrimonial arrangements in the novel.

Lady Catherine confronts Elizabeth about Darcy...

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Mr and Mrs Bennet

Due to economic misfortune, the marriage between Mr and Mrs Bennet can not be described as a happy one.  Exasperated cries such as “Oh, Mr Bennet!” are heard throughout the story as his wife fails repeatedly to anticipate his mind, whereupon Mr Bennet invariably chooses to isolate himself from her shrewish voice in his library. Their relationship is significantly dysfunctional.

Mr Bennet is motivated mostly by a desire to enjoy his life as comfortably as possible, and take nearly nobody seriously [1]. Mrs Bennet on the other hand is perpetually troubled by the looming threat of being reduced to her pittance of an inheritance to support her family, thanks to the “cruel entail” of the Bennet estate upon a male heir. This riles her fragile nerves, and inclines her to the sort of behaviour that Mr Bennet calls “silly”, such as gossip, match-making, and behaving like a snob-nosed bitch. Mrs Bennet’s emotional despair at her financial affairs is what drives them apart [but of course, Bennet is hardly behaving like an attentive gentleman].  She has little recourse but to gossip about the prospects of eligible rich men marrying her daughters, as we are to understand Mr Bennet has been unable or unwilling to save for his family [2]. His happiness and that of Mrs Bennet and their daughters would therefore always be greatly impaired due to his failure to properly address these economic concerns.

In summary I suspect that Mr and Mrs Bennet were once very happy together – both quite aloof and humourous people in their own ways – and that the growing financial concerns, and Mrs Bennet’s inexorable narrowing of interests as her daughters one by one became eligible, was what drove them to the state we find them in.

Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins

A character that has far too much regard for economic concerns and far too little regard for emotion is Charlotte Lucas, whom inadvisedly marries the boorish Mr Collins  for the “worldly advantage” and security he can offer her. She admits to the reader that she finds Mr Collins “neither agreeable nor sensible”, and his society “irksome” rather than pleasing [let alone arousing?], just like everybody else does. However, she still marries him without hesitation [according to the book, Charlotte is 27 years old while Collins is a similar age and they will have many boring, boring decades together] asking only “a preservative from want.” Her own happiness is not even a factor in her calculations; she sees it as something external to the entire institute of marriage, saying “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” Elizabeth and the reader pity her since they know that happiness consists principally in not marrying Mr Collins, a giant douche. After Charlotte marries she finds the only way she can bear her life with Mr Collins is by furnishing a room for her own comforts, and by subtly manipulating him into spending time in the garden or the study, away from her.

[She really just took the best of both worlds – all of his money but none of his company, except for those unpleasant excursions to Rosings Park where she has to play the happy wife. The 1995 BBC tv version portrays Mr Collins as a forceful and demanding man and he probably has his way with her eventually, but in contrast the 2005 film version starring Kiera Knightly takes the hilarious liberty of portraying Collins as easily manipulated by his wife; an extremely neurotic virgin who makes an embarassing sexual freudian slip while preaching from his pulpit, which I found to be a rather insightful addition to the work. And hilarious].

As for Mr Collins, he married in a manner that becomes his financial position, but his happiness too also depends on matters outside of marriage. He endlessly prioritises the iron will [whim?] of Lady Catherine de Bourgh over any mutual attachment with either his cousin Elizabeth or Charlotte Lucas [3], and in general seems honoured to be her loyal terrier for the rest of his life [or her life..though cranky old crones like that tend to hang on to interfere another day].

The married lives of Mr and Mrs Collins therefore shows exactly how happiness is unobtainable in marriage without both love and sound economic reasoning in the right proportions.

Lydia and Wickham

The embarrassing put-up marriage between Wickham and Lydia comes as a result of her having no regard at all for financial concerns, and being swept up entirely in her emotions.

Not realising that the scandal of an elopement will make her sisters utter ineligible as wives for rich men in high society, thus causing the ruin of the whole family, Lydia’s affair causes more grief to her mother than anyone else, shocking her and leaving her confined to her bed with misery.  Swept up in girlish raptures of emotion Lydia fails to understand Wickham’s motives as Lizzy does, in that “handsome young men must have something to live on, as well as the plain”, and that he was only happy to marry her firstly for the money he thought he was marrying into, and later for the money he was promised by Darcy.

Since Lydia continues to naively overlook Wickham’s vices she, and the family too, appear to be perfectly happy once the financial problems of her marriage are solved [swept under the rug], and the scandal is thus disguised.

Jane and Bingley

Quite shortly, the romance and marriage between Mr Bingley and Jane Bennet is the purest in the story, and is possible only because of Bingley’s fortune.

Having all his financial matters well in hand, and fully able to provide for a future wife and maintain his current life of impulsive self-serving luxury, Bingley is able to court Jane freely without complication other than his interfering sisters.  In this respect he proves true the opening line from the novel, “A single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife”, for his fortune being assured, they have leave to both be simply happy making each other happy.

[Regardless of how many uncles they have working as lawyers in Cheapside, scoff, scoff].

Darcy and Elizabeth

The eventual marriage between Darcy and Elizabeth is almost identical to that of Jane and Bingley’s in terms of happiness and inexhaustible financial means; Darcy is indeed even richer than Bingley, and anybody who gets to know this pair well can see they are far richer in personality too. However in their courtship period Darcy and Elizabeth are unable to make each other happy. They firstly have no love for each other on account of Wickham’s poisonous tales of Darcy causing a prejudice, and Darcy’s pride in his superiority in wealth and class.

Their relationship [rivalry?] builds and after some time Darcy hastily proposes to Elizabeth, but at the same time pointing out the glaring deficiencies in her financial and social position and his magnanimosity in condescending to propose in spite of them [4]. He, the careful steward of his father’s great legacy, is most likely still of the mindset that in marriages between two highly wealthy families, such as would be the case between for example his and the Bingleys or de Bourghs, it is important for the lady to be equally distinguished and accomplished and bring her own financial and class benefits to the match. Not surprisingly, his proposal is rejected in this form since Elizabeth can see that she would not be happy to be regarded as an inferior.

Not until he voluntarily entreats with the despicable Wickham, and even bribes him with his own [precious] fortune, does Elizabeth truly credit Darcy with having learned that his unashamed pride in his high financial position was a character flaw, and then resolve to be happy with him in marriage.  His aid in first clearing Lydia’s scandal with Wickham, and then confessing to meddling in Bingley’s attempts to court Jane Bennet, resolves both his own reservations about lowering himself to become involved with the comparatively poor Bennet family, and Elizabeth’s distaste for his pride.

After resolving both their personal and financial conflicts, they like Bingley and Jane are nothing but happy.

Conclusion

The various marriages of characters in Pride and Prejudice explore the idea that it is essential to be sensible of your financial position when searching for a husband or wife, and that love and economics are equally important.

Mr and Mrs Bennet can no longer be happy with their dwindling wealth. In the case of the Collinses, they wed for reasons of social expectation and provision of a respectable income, and cannot make each other happy. In the case of Lydia and Wickham they are happy, but only when the truth of Wickhams financial indiscretions are concealed.

But the happy ending to the story comes when Darcy and Bingley finally overcome the economic disparities between their families and accept their brides the very happy Miss Bennets for richer or for poorer.

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Works cited:

Austen, Jane. 1813.  Pride and Prejudice.  Collectors Library 2003 Edition.  London: CRW Press.

1: “Mr Bennet’s expectations were fully answered.  His cousin was as absurd as he hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment..”.. Mr Bennet for all his reading obviously is starved of entertainment. To find any enjoyment in Mr Collins is just bat-crap crazy. Collins isn’t funny, he is a monster!

2: “Mr Bennet had very often wished, before this period of his life, that, instead of spending his whole income, he had laid by an annual sum, for the better provision of his wife, if she survived him” [notice the “if”. Mr Bennet always seemed to me like he knew the secret to long life was to stop worrying about things – he let’s his wife do all the worrying and therefore is certain she will die sooner than he. No, I think Mr Bennet fully intends to live to an old age as long as he finds humour in the world around him via stupid high class snobbish twats. This also accounts for his dismal failure in clearing up the mess with Lydia, in that he is long past his prime and deteriorating further and further into his self-indulgence, unwilling to go to a great deal of trouble worrying about anything, even at the expense of his family’s reputation. If I recall, he merely calls her silly and Wickham even sillier?]. Mr Bennet is an interesting character study.

3: “And thirdly – which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that [finding a wife] is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness.” Giant douche right here.

 4: “His sense of her inferiority – of its being a degradation – of the family obstacles which judgement had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on..”

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