Does Pride and Prejudice Hate Women?

In response to “Lizzy Bennet as unlike ‘Other Girls'”.

Margeaux’s post on Elizabeth being unlike “other girls”  was more or less how I felt after our last discussion. Why is it that Elizabeth gets to be unlike “other girls” and praised for it, while Mary is unlike “other girls” and cast off as a socially inept loner? While Pride and Prejudice is a book primarily about women, Elizabeth seems to be the only full-fledged, developed main female character in it. Mrs. Bennet is motivated only by her desire to climb the social ladder, Jane by some inexplicable innate good will toward all, Lydia by her libido, Kitty by her devotion to Lydia, Mary by her study, etc.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, gets to “have it all” and seems to be a character motivated by conflicts, but is she actually a full-fledged character? She says, “‘I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,’ cried Elizabeth; ‘ I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things'” (27), yet we ascribe to Elizabeth intelligence and bookishness (maybe we’re just conflating her with Belle from Beauty and the Beast?). What we do know about Elizabeth, though, is that she seems to like quite a bit: dancing, taking walks with others and by herself, having an opinion, making her sister happy, reading, writing—and this may perhaps be the genius of her character. She allows readers to project themselves onto her character. Elizabeth is at once not the “other girl” and a girl for all girls.

Elizabeth puts herself in direct opposition to Lydia as tells her father:

“Our importance, our respectability in the world, must be affected by the wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint which mark Lydia’s character…If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits…her character will be fixed, and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous. A flirt, too, in the worst and meanest degree of flirtation; without any attraction beyond youth and a tolerable person; and from the ignorance and emptiness of her mind, wholly unable to ward off any portion of that universal contempt which her rage for admiration will excite…can you suppose it possible that they will not be censured and despised wherever they are known, and that their sisters will not be often involved in the disgrace?”

While Elizabeth is from a different time and place than our own where the actions of one’s relations directly affected one’s own esteem, what Elizabeth does here is still slut-shaming. That Dumb Slut, Elizabeth says, is going to ruin our family (something brings to mind the Madonna/Whore complex mentioned in this article, among many other things mentioned in the article). Mr Bennet responds in kind, “Let us hope, therefore, that her being there [at Brighton] may teach her her own insignificance” (177), and the topic is dropped. Lydia and her desires have to be shamed into insignificance so that all may be right.

This interpretation of Elizabeth shines a different light on the irony of Caroline Bingley’s comment about Elizabeth: “‘Eliza Bennet,’ said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her, ‘is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex, by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds'” (29). While it may not be that Elizabeth herself explicitly undervalues those of her own sex (as Miss Bingley does), it is rather the way she is portrayed in light of the other women in Pride and Prejudice that is even more subversive in undervaluing “other girls.”

Note: an argument could be made, too, that there is something problematic about how Darcy is unlike “other guys” as Mrs Reynolds says he is “Not like the wild young men now-a-days, who think of nothing but themselves…Some people call him proud…To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men” (188).

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2 thoughts on “Does Pride and Prejudice Hate Women?

  1. “…It is rather the way she is portrayed in light of the other women in Pride and Prejudice that is even more subversive in undervaluing “other girls.”

    Hey Sarah, thanks for bringing this up. I never really thought about it like this before and I think you’re definitely right.

    Just to address your first question briefly–I think Lizzie is an acceptable version of the “other girl” whereas Mary is not because although Lizzie is great at manipulating the system she still ultimately works within it. Lizzie knows the rules of social interactions and she plays by them. She knows what is considered polite and she minds these rules. But she is quite adept at using these rules to her advantage. (Her verbal spars with Darcy, Caroline, and Catherine de Bourgh are quite impressive).

    Mary, however, completely ignores or is ignorant of these rules and this system and thus is shunned. I think the same could be said of Lydia and Kitty.

    I think we spend a lot of time focused on how Pride and Prejudice portrays the correct types of life for a women and how Lizzie goes against this that we forget that her sisters do the same just in a different way. And ultimately, P&P just portrays the another version of the “correct way” for a woman to exist.

  2. Truly all of the other female characters are solely involved in the story to foil Lizzie and show that “this is what happens if you’re too much of this!” while Lizzie is the ideal because she’s a mixture of many things. Mary is too bookish and Jane is too kind. When a female focuses too much of her attention on one attribute of herself it ends up being her downfall. All of the other female characters are not completely formed to enhance just how fully formed Lizzie is supposed to be.

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