During the time in which Pride and Prejudice is set, social status played a major role in affecting relationships and interactions with other members of society. In this time, a person’s value depended on their possession of a fortune. Traditionally, men inherited fortunes, so women, especially of a lower class, were to gain their fortunes through the men they married. This affected how characters in the novel socialized with one another, and how the social statuses of these characters affected their relationships with those of the lower class, even with love involved. In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the importance of social status is shown through the lives of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Collins, and Lydia Bennet.
Mr. Darcy plays a major role in Pride and Prejudice in showing the effects of social status on relationships with other characters. Darcy is the owner of a Pemberley estate and has an income of 10000 pounds yearly. He also has a powerful influence in church and has relationship to court. Along with his wealth, he is seen as physically attractive. By the standards of middle class women during this time, he is an ideal husband (Gao 3). Although ideal financially and physically, Darcy is described as socially awkward and unwilling to engage and small talk. His social awkwardness is shown by his refusal to dance with Elizabeth at the Meryton Assembly. While at the assembly, Bingley tells Darcy that he has the most attractive woman in the room, Darcy tells him “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men” (Austen 7). Darcy is implying that he believes he is better than Bingley, and that he does not deserve to be given the plain sister (Ray 2). Later in the novel, Darcy begins showing his growing interest in Elizabeth with his conversation with her in the drawing-room. In the drawing room, he asks her to dance, but instead of simply rejecting his invitation to dance, Elizabeth keeps needling, continuing to be hostile. He later continues to defend himself to her to prove he is not who she thinks he is (Ray 4). Darcy is the second suitor of Elizabeth. Although he is an ideal husband for this time, she still rejects his proposal. She does not want to marry a man that she dislikes. His arrogance prevents him from being liked by Elizabeth. However, he behaves like a genuine gentleman. He pleads for Elizabeth to forgive him for taking up so much of her time and later tries to prove to Elizabeth that he is not arrogant and selfish. He tries to prove his reputation with her by inviting Elizabeth with her aunt and uncle to Pemberley, his estate. Because of Elizabeth, his behavior and manners change, “it is Darcy’s behavior and manner that moves Elizabeth and wins her heart finally” (Gao 3). However, Darcy’s initial proposal to Elizabeth was blunt and emphasized Elizabeth’s inferiority to him. This proved he was conflicted with his feelings for her. This provokes an angry response and rejection from Elizabeth. Darcy’s higher social status and superiority to Elizabeth ultimately affected their relationship and shows the effects of status and wealth during these times.
Elizabeth Bennet showed the influence of social status in her life through her own social status and her relationship with Mr. Darcy. The Bennet family was originally of the middle class. During this time period, social position was normally established by one’s family, not individually. Social position was of utmost importance in this society with “individuals and families measuring their relative standings to the finest degree while devising long-term strategies for advancement in status” (Johnson 51). Women, especially of lower classes, intend to marry a wealthy man. In this society, marriage is mainly based on the man’s fortune rather than love of the two people involved (Gao 2). Near the end of their dance at Netherfield, Elizabeth told Darcy that she was trying to figure out his character and that it puzzled her. She continues to be offended about his insult at Meryton Assembly that she refuses to take him seriously. Following Darcy’s refusal to dance with Elizabeth, Elizabeth left the ball with “no cordial feelings towards him”. Initially, when Elizabeth spreads the story, she makes Darcy the butt of the joke, making fun of the rejection (Ray 2,6). The first man Elizabeth loves is Wickham. At one point, she considers Wickham to be the most appealing man she has ever met. However, he does not have property or much of a fortune, and Elizabeth does not consider this to be a suitable husband. This is why part of Elizabeth’s choice to marry Darcy is his wealth and social status (Gao 3-4). Part of Darcy’s appeal to Elizabeth is his property and wealth. When she is invited to Pemberley, it is apparent she had never seen someplace so beautiful. She imagined her life as the mistress of the estate and ponders her life living there, “with these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted! Instead of viewing them as a stranger, I might have rejoiced in them as my own, and welcome to them as visitors my uncle and aunt” (Austen 224). Elizabeth’s own social status and how it affects her relationship with Darcy further proves how highly people of this society thought of statuses.
The importance of social status in this society is shown through Mr. Collins’ relationships and experiences with other characters in the novel. Mr. Collins is Mr. Bennet’s cousin, and also the successor of his property. He is described as arrogant and conceited. He intends to marry one of Mr. Bennet’s daughters to inherit his estate. Mr. Collins is not concerned with love in marriage, “the reason why he wants to marry are as follows: firstly, he thinks it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like himself) to the set the example of matrimony in his parish. Secondly, he is convinced that it will add to his happiness. Thirdly, he wants to please Lady Catherine de Bourgh” (Gao 3). Marriage is seen as a task to Mr. Collins. He believes that his wealth and social status can get him a suitable wife. Mr. Collins’ superiority is shown through his interactions with characters of lower social statuses, such as Lydia and Elizabeth Bennet. Mr. Collins is the first to propose to Elizabeth. He is confident that due to his wealth and property, he will accept his offer. When Elizabeth rejects him, Mr. Collins expresses his surprise, "my situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females" (Austen 75). Mr. Collins is explaining to Elizabeth that she is making a mistake rejecting him, due to his social status and connections to other wealthy members of society. She rejects him because she believes he could not make her happy. He is shocked that his possessions cannot win Elizabeth’s heart, and even tells her that her fortune is so small that it will overwhelm her “loveliness” (Gao 3-4). Elizabeth’s first two dances with Mr. Collins are described as horrifying and shameful for Elizabeth. Mr. Collins is her clerical cousin. She says that when she is finally released from him, she feels relief. Shortly after, Elizabeth dances with Darcy and Mr. Collins stops his pursuit of her (Hirsch 2). Mr. Collins’ belief that he is superior to those of the lower class shows that a person’s views in this time is that a person of a higher class has more influence in society.
Lydia Bennet’s social status and how it affects her relationships with other characters also shows the relevance of social status and how it affects the way others view one another in this society. Lydia is often characterized as uncivil throughout the novel. Her elopement to Wickham tarnishes her reputation further. When Darcy writes a letter to Elizabeth describing Lydia’s scandal, she feels shame and sees Lydia’s actions as proof of family weakness (Hirsch 2). Lydia decides to leave Brighton with Wickham and elopes with him. Her decision to leave is considered reckless and causes a scandal for her family. It is considered socially disastrous for her sisters. Lydia constantly asks her sister for money, and even mentions her financial struggles when she writes to Elizabeth congratulating her on marrying Darcy, “I wish you joy. If you love Mr. Darcy half as well as I do my dear Wickham, you must be very happy. It is a great comfort to have you so rich, and when you have nothing else to do, I hope you will think of us. I am sure Wickham would like a place at court very much, and I do not think we shall have quite money enough to live upon without some help. Any place would do, of about three or four hundred a year; but however, do not speak to Mr. Darcy about it, if you had rather not” (Austen 260). Later in the novel, Lydia’s marriage to Wickham is found out to be invalid, “Lydia’s relationship has a climactic ending, with Wickham crashing a ball, followed by a woman who claims to be his first wife. When this turns out to be true, Lydia and Wickham’s marriage is therefore not valid. Lydia sees the ending of the marriage as a chance to be free. Wickham wishes to end his original marriage in order for Lydia to stay with him. With Lydia as his wife, he would continue to have financial assistance from Darcy. Lydia rejects his offer” (Veisz 2-3). Lydia’s choice to elope with Wickham is shown to be a foolish decision, and because of her choice, she and her family receive harsh treatment from Mr. Collins. Collins expresses his belief that Lydia is innately bad and says that it is in her sister’s best interest to have Lydia disowned from the family. Mr. Collins also tells the Bennet family that he believes Lydia’s death would have been a blessing in comparison to the scandal of her elopement because of the embarrassment it brought to their family. Mr. Collins’ and others characters’ opinions of Lydia’s scandal further proves the influence of status and importance of following the rules of society during this period were.
In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the effects of social status is shown through the relationships and statuses of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Collins, and Lydia Bennet. Darcy shows the effects of superiority on relationships in his pursuit of Elizabeth. In the beginning, he believes he is too good for Elizabeth and even refuses to dance with her at the Meryton Assembly. His interest in her grows and improves his manners and behavior for her. This change in behavior eventually wins Elizabeth over. However, when he first proposes to her, he expresses that his status is superior to hers, leading to her rejection of his proposal. This shows that one’s superiority in this society affects the relationships of those with differing social classes. Elizabeth Bennet also shows the influence of her middle class status. Elizabeth, like many women of lower classes, has a goal of marrying a man of a higher status. Initially, Elizabeth detests Darcy due to his arrogance. However, because of his invitation to Pemberley, she sees that Darcy’s manners have changed and begins to develop feelings for him. She also mentions that she would not mind becoming the mistress of his estate. Although Elizabeth is not only interested in Darcy for his wealth, she does recognize the benefits that his status would bring her. Mr. Collins’ belief that he is superior to the Bennet family, but wants to marry one of the Bennet sisters, shows the power social status gives one during this time in society. When he proposes to Elizabeth and she rejects him, Mr. Collins insults her status and cannot see why she has rejected a man of his stature. Lydia Bennet shows the effects of scandal on one’s status in society. Her elopement to Wickham causes embarrassment for her family, especially her sisters. Mr. Collins even says that her death would be a blessing in comparison to the embarrassment that Lydia brought to their family. In conclusion, social status has a major influence on the relationships and interactions with other characters during the time in society that Pride and Prejudice takes place in.