Austen on Bad Reasons for Getting Married

Scott, Bamber and Benjamin as Charlotte, Mr. Collins and Sir Lucas

Scott, Bamber and Benjamin as Charlotte, Mr. Collins and Sir Lucas

When I attended grad school (Emory University) in the second half of the seventies, formalist criticism still held sway, although just barely. The purpose of literary criticism, we learned, was to uncover the underlying unity of a work. (Structuralism, which was coming in, seconded this agenda and then deconstruction exploded it–although deconstructionists relied on someone else insisting on a supposed unity so that they would have something to unravel or deconstruct.)

I remember my Shakespeare teacher, Frank Manley, both teaching this approach and questioning it. On the one hand, he introduced us to Francis Fergusson’s theory in The Idea of a Theater, which ultimately goes back to Aristotle, that a play is the working out of a single central action. (Thus, as Fergusson sees it, Hamlet is the attempt to find out and destroy the rottenness that is eating away at Denmark.) On the other hand, Manley told us a funny story about teaching Fielding’s Joseph Andrews. Thinking that he had done a brilliant job showing how the same theme recurs repeatedly throughout the novel, thereby proving that it has dramatic unity, he was blindsided by a student who said he didn’t like the book. “It says the same damn thing over and over,” the student reportedly complained.

I reveal my own early formalist training in the way I read Pride and Prejudice, even though I am anti-formalist and don’t believe that unity is a good in and of itself. There are more interesting things to do with a novel than show how all the different parts cohere. But when I scrutinize how Pride and Prejudice can help us live better lives, I am struck that the entire novel seems to revolve around a central question: what should one look for in a partner? While presenting us with the good reasons that guide her hero and heroine (see my recent post on this subject), Austen systematically and efficiently examines a number of bad reasons as well. It’s as though she’s presenting us a do’s and don’t of marriage in disguise.

Here are her examples of bad reasons for getting married:

Security – Charlotte Lucas and George Wickham want someone to support them and will marry virtually anyone with money (Collins, Mary King);

Vanity and a desire for power – Caroline Bingley is driven by the dream of becoming mistress of a great estate while Mrs. Bennet vicariously pursues the same dream through her daughters;

Custom – Collins marries because Lady Catherine de Bourgh expects her rector to be married.  Miss de Bourgh, similarly under the sway of Lady Catherine, might also feel pressured by custom;

Sexual desire – Mr. Bennet, to his everlasting regret, has married a once pretty face, and Lydia is attracted to anyone in a soldier’s uniform.  Lydia needs marriage if she is to follow her inclinations legally.    

These motivations aren’t limited to early 19th century century Regency England, as you will realize if you think of broken marriages you yourself have witnessed. Perhaps you know people who have married for money or because they thought marriage would impress others or because they didn’t like the image of themselves unmarried or because the partner was drop-dead good looking. Of these various motivations, Austen is most tolerant of the desire for security. Elizabeth comes to appreciate, if not approve of, Charlotte’s decision to marry Collins. Security also factors into her decision to marry Darcy, although it’s a secondary reason. But ultimately Austen sees marriage as a sacred union. To treat it otherwise is a violation.

Note that the society as a whole bears much of the blame for the bad marriages in Austen because it threatens to reduce the sacrament from a union of souls to a mercantile exchange. In one of literature’s most famous openings, Austen uses economic language to show how marriage has become tainted. Especially worrisome is the word “property”:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of someone or other of their daughters.

This is comic irony at its best.  Through it, Austen invites us to join her in criticizing her society while getting our own values straight. Irony involves saying one thing while meaning another, and by being ironic Austen treats us as intelligent and moral beings who share her beliefs and understand what she means. We are in with her on the joke, knowing that she doesn’t really think that a young man with a fortune must be in want of a wife. We can join her in laughing at the Mrs. Bennets and Lady Lucas and any other matrimonial horse traders. If more of us reject our materialistic tendencies, fewer will “universally acknowledge” the Bennet/Lucas truth.

Unfortunately, materialism is as formidable a force in Austen’s world as it is in our own. The mothers function as entrepreneurs, seeking to parlay limited financial resources into substantial pay-off. At stake are the financial futures of their daughters, not to mention bragging rights. The fathers, by the way, are not blame free. They just leave it up to their wives to do the dirty work.

Austen admits that young people can’t live without money and knows they must be practical. But money as an obsession sullies everything. When Mrs. Bennet, the poster child of greed, thinks Jane’s marriage to Bingley is certain, she is “incapable of fatigue” as she enumerates all the advantages of the match to the Lucases.  (“In your face, Lady Lucas!” one imagines her saying. And then one sees the Lucas family’s immense satisfaction—payback time—when Charlotte, not Elizabeth, marries Mr. Collins.) Following Jane’s marriage proposal, Mrs. Bennet tells her, “I was sure you could not be so beautiful for nothing!” Her favorite daughter is whoever manages to land the richest husband. When Elizabeth proves to be that “dearest child,” all Mrs. Bennet can think about is the pin money, the jewels, and the carriages. Without defending Lydia, Charlotte or Wickham, one can see where they get their values.

Novels are more powerful than advice books because they plunge us into lived situations so that we experience their wisdom, as it were, from the inside. It is up to our reflective process to ferret out the lessons. So here is the advice that I extract from Pride and Prejudice on the danger of marrying for the wrong reasons, presented as a self-help questionnaire. The advice is still timely:

Desire for Security (Charlotte Lucas and George Wickham)

Do you long for someone to enter your life and take care of your problems for you?  You may make do in such a relationship.  But by focusing only on how another can support you, you don’t acknowledge that you have the capabilities of supporting yourself.

Vanity (Caroline Bingley)

Do you imagine exciting the admiration and envy of those around you with a partner, and do you hope that his or her glory will rub off on you?  Do you think everything will be wonderful once you are Mistress of Pemberley?  Be aware that borrowed light satisfies for only a short time and doesn’t encourage you to develop your own light.

Sexual attraction (Mr. Bennet, Lydia Bennet)

Are you attracted to a pretty face or handsome man in a blue coat coat?  The problem with appearances, of course, is that they are only skin deep and can condemn you to a shallow or a loveless relationship.

Custom (Mr. Collins)

Do you think that your life is supposed to look a certain way, which is to say, partnered?  Are you prepared to partner up just so that you can assure others, and yourself, that you are doing the right thing?  As long as you are obsessed with what others think, you will not concentrate on finding your own happiness.

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