In Pride and Prejudice (1813), Austen is preoccupied with the phenomenon of social mobility. The family of Elizabeth, or Lizzy, Bennet, Austen’s heroine, is a good case in point. Lizzy’s father is a gentleman. He lives on the family estate, which provides him with an annual income of £2,000. Lizzy’s mother is from a slightly lower class. Her “people” are professionals and merchants— respectable and decent but not quite on Mr. Bennet’s level. When we look at Lizzy’s parents, we can see subtle examples of social mobility: He has married down, while she has married up. There’s more to the story than that, for although Mr. Bennet is indeed a gentleman, his position is in no way secure. The family estate can be passed on only to male heirs—and the Bennets have had only daughters, five of them. The business of the novel, as Mrs. Bennet realizes, is to get at least a few of those daughters married off to reasonably wealthy men. Thus, although the novel presents us with some conspicuous examples of upward mobility—one local merchant has recently been knighted, for instance—looming in the background is the awful possibility of downward mobility.
Austen also responds to a number of other developments. She seems to feel that the ruling and elite classes are in some danger of losing their moral authority. In Pride and Prejudice, the major representative of the country’s ruling class is Mr. Darcy, the novel’s eventual hero. Darcy does not make a good first impression. He is fabulously rich—one of the wealthiest men in the country, as a matter of fact—but also cold and distant. In the middle of the book, Darcy proposes to Lizzy—but because his proposal is not a flattering one, she wastes no time in rejecting him. Later, when Lizzy visits Darcy’s estate and meets his servants, she learns that he is a generous master and landlord. His housekeeper tells an astonished Lizzy, “I have never had a cross word from him in my life, and I have known him ever since he was four years old.” Eventually, Lizzy and Darcy do get together, but his cold exterior is a serious problem, especially in a period when the authority of the ruling classes is being challenged.
Through the story of Darcy and Lizzy, Pride and Prejudice dramatizes the question of how to shore up the authority of the ruling class. If England is to remain in the hands of people like Mr. Darcy, Austen seems to reason, then those people must not only accept their responsibilities to others but be seen and known to accept them as well. What Austen wants, in the end, is a society that honors the traditional political values and mythologies of English history—that is, the mythology of connectedness, shared responsibility, and mutual respect. Through the union of Darcy and Lizzy, Austen creates an image of political and social regeneration, suggesting that the couple is destined to provide leadership for the rest of the community. In addition to personal fulfillment and happiness, Darcy gains from his marriage to Lizzy a sense of humility and, perhaps, a sense of humor—valuable assets for a man in his position.
Because Austen’s novels end in this way, they may be the perfect embodiments of the English comedic tradition. Austen concludes by placing her most sympathetic characters into secure and satisfying positions, giving them what they want as well as what they need and deserve. Moreover, she creates powerful images of a society rescued from the twin threats of fragmentation and internal collapse. Earlier novelists, including Richardson, Fielding, and Burney, had tried to do the same thing. But none of them had managed the task as elegantly or effectively as Austen. While Richardson finds it difficult to wrap up his stories and Fielding relies on familiar plot devices, including the revelation of his hero’s honourable birth, Austen concludes more naturally. Her heroes and heroines appear to work things out on their own and for themselves, overcoming obstacles (some external, others internal) through dialogue and eventually reaching a position of mutual understanding.
[Courtesy : Professor Timothy Spurgin]