Money and Social Currency in Pride and Prejudice

In the society described in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, money was as much a social currency as it was a means of exchange for goods and services. Money was often commensurate with social rank, yet there was a feeling against parvenus who worked for their fortunes. As the mark of an eligible bachelor or an avenue to gentility or a genteel career, money had a great part to play in the society in which Pride and Prejudice, a novel of manners, is set. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

This sentence, one of the most famous first lines in English literature, begins Pride and Prejudice, stating quite clearly the central position of marriage in the book and the central position of money in marriage. Mrs. Bennet is obsessed with the concern of seeing her five daughters, who will not receive their father’s estate, “well married,” that is, married to a man of good means. Mrs. Bennet and her neighbors are entranced by Mr. Bingley’s “four or five thousand a year,” and even more bowled over by Mr. Darcy’s income of ten thousand pounds a year.

Pride and Prejudice provides examples of purely mercenary matches, and even the happiest marriages in the book have their monetary concerns. Mr. Wickham is not a good mate because of his relative poverty, and is seen as mercenary by the Bennet girls when he tries to marry Ms. King, heiress to a fortune of ten thousand pounds. The Bennets’ shame in Wickham’s elopement with Lydia is somewhat ameliorated when Darcy buys a respectable commission in the army for Wickham, who was loathe to ally himself with a girl of such small fortune as Lydia.

Charlotte Lucas marries the disagreeable Mr. Collins because he has a comfortable living under the patronage of Lady Catherine, and at the age of twenty-seven, Charlotte is in danger of becoming an old maid. Elizabeth puts it well when she remarks to herself on leaving Hunsford, “Poor Charlotte! — it was melancholy to leave her to such society! — But she had chosen it with her eyes open; [… ] Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms. The two eldest Bennet girls are destined to happier marriages than these, but money still enters into the picture.

Even levelheaded Elizabeth, who refuses proposals from Mr. Collins and the immensely rich Mr. Darcy, is only half-joking when she answers Jane’s question as to when she started to love Darcy, “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley. ” Indeed, when she visits Mr. Darcy’s magnificent estate she remarks to herself “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something! Bingley’s sisters bemoan the fact that with Jane’s “low connections” she will hardly be able to see herself “well settled. ” Bingley, in the spirit of love, says in response, “If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside [(a less desirable distict)], it would not make them one jot less agreeable. ” Darcy says to this, “But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world. ”

This exchange is very telling: Bingley’s sisters maneuver Bingley away from Jane with Darcy’s help, while Ms. Bingley constantly reminds Darcy of the impropriety of his admiration for Elizabeth and “her fine eyes. ” When Darcy later overcomes his social restraint in marrying Elizabeth and bringing Bingley and Jane together again, Mrs. Bennet can only excitedly muse on Mr. Darcy’s fortune, exclaiming, “Ten thousand a year! ‘Tis as good as a Lord! ” Although Jane and the book’s heroine overcome the winds of Fortune in their marriages, it is in the obstacles to their marriages that the importance of money in marriage before happiness in marriage becomes most painfully apparent.

Aside from marriage, money was an avenue to a respectable career and even to a title. A fine example of this is Sir William Lucas, who was a tradesman in Meryton until, after being mayor, he was knighted. In Austen’s time, the only truly respectable way to live was off of the interest of one’s money and estate, and Sir William, loyal to social mores, left Meryton and his business there to preside over a house a mile out of town, henceforth titled Lucas Lodge. A slimier example of the social expediency of money is found in Wickham, who, from manipulating the Darcy will to trying to elope with Mr. Darcy’s sister, is constantly conspiring to get the money his birth denied him.

Darcy, his hand influenced by Lydia’s dire position on the brink of disrepute, buys him what he wants: a commission in the army, a respectable career. Even so, money was not directly convertible into rank. Ms. Bingley, herself engaged in brazen pursuit of Darcy and his fortune, reminds Darcy of Elizabeth’s ancestry when she envisions hanging a portrait of Elizabeth’s uncle Philips, a mere attorney, next to that of Darcy’s great-uncle, a judge, at the noble estate of Pemberley.

Bingley himself does not come from a noble line, and is being urged to buy an estate to consolidate his position of gentility in society. Lady Catherine makes much of her vaunted ancestors and the propriety of her daughter’s putative marriage to Darcy. The question of money in relation to social class is a knotty one, with the entrenched upper class, some of them not so long in their fortunes, often sneering on the irresistible advance of the nouveux riches.

Money does indeed play an important role in the social and marital politics of the 19th century England in which Pride and Prejudice was written and in which it is set. It is part of the medium in which pride and prejudice, greed and superciliousness breed, then as now. Though the social paradigms of Jane Austen’s England are different from those we see today, the cold feelings engendered by differences in money and position are universal and the importance of overcoming them, as Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley do, is timeless.

Pride and Prejudice, a novel predicated on the position of money in 19th century England, still rings true in 21st century America, where some still marry for money but the wise still marry for love. Mrs. Bennet attempts to chastise Elizabeth for expressing her disapproval of Darcy, but Elizabeth refuses to be silenced: “What is Mr. Darcy to me, pray, that I should be afraid of him? I am sure we owe him no such particular civility as to be obliged to say nothing he may not like to hear” (PP 76).

The two most salient examples of men undermining the right of female refusal are in the marriage proposals of Mr. Collins and Henry Crawford. Collins insists on receiving Elizabeth’s rejection as a type of marital foreplay, and he dismisses Elizabeth’s rejection by asserting his thorough comprehension of the female sex. He explains Elizabeth’s behavior to her as typical of those “young ladies [who] reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favor” (PP 82). Collins reasons that Elizabeth has no choice but to accept his proposal; she is, after all, at his mercy once her father dies and the Bennett estate becomes his.

Collins also argues the point on what he sees as the quintessential female anxiety: that she will never be so lucky as to receive another marriage proposal. (Unfortunately, Charlotte Lucas proves the validity of this argument by marrying Collins because she sees this marriage as the only alternative to spinsterhood. ) With all of this evidence, Collins says, “I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females” (PP 83).

Elizabeth’s protestations mean nothing because Collins cannot conceive of a woman who would act outside of the gendered rules of speech. He interprets her words as a “mirror” that reflects back at him his desire for marriage, and he projects his feelings onto Elizabeth. Mary’s willingness to speak her mind is very similar to Elizabeth’s, yet Mary is punished with banishment from Mansfield Park, whereas Elizabeth is rewarded with Darcy’s love. But Mansfield Park is the epitome of female imprisonment, where female speech is curtailed from childhood on.

Indeed, the Bertram sisters’ education consists of learning “[to repress] all the flow of their spirits before [Sir Thomas]” (MP 16). Elizabeth, although free to say what she wishes in front of her father and Jane, is still feels the pressure of forced silence in regard to her family. Her family’s senseless speech strays so far from acceptable discourse that she cringes when Darcy converses with them. She knows how ridiculous her mother and sisters are and wishes, if not for their silence, at least for sensible conversation that will show her family worthy of Darcy’s approval.

Elizabeth wants their speech to conform to Darcy’s aristocratic wishes, like other speech that “mirror[s] or otherwise reassure[s] masculine desire” (Johnson 37), and she feels “consoled” when Darcy meets the Gardiners and realizes that “she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush” (PP 193). But in an interesting twist, Elizabeth, in one of the freer moments with Darcy at the end of the novel, takes it upon herself to explain to Darcy why he fell in love with her. This situation is unique in that it is a moment at which the woman co-opts the man’s opportunity to speak and uses it to show her desires.

Elizabeth asks Darcy to explain his attraction to her and, without waiting for a detailed response, explains it herself, ending with, “There‹I have saved you the trouble of accounting for it; and really, all things considered, I begin to think it perfectly reasonable” (PP 291). Like Collins and Crawford, Elizabeth interprets Darcy’s behavior to suit her needs. Darcy does, however, manage to exert some sort of power in the conversation by correcting Elizabeth’s claim that he liked her “impertinence” (PP 291).

Darcy terms it “the liveliness of [her] mind” (PP 291), and while this is only a minor difference, it is still noteworthy as a moment of willful misunderstanding on Darcy’s part. Darcy’s correction makes Elizabeth sound more feminine. He alters her self-definition so that it coincides with the definition of acceptable female behavior, thus putting a positive spin on behavior that some people, such as the Bingley sisters, might object to. Gender Frankenstein The issue of the gender of the writer playing a crucial part in her or his writing has been much discussed in contemporary critical debate.

Feminist critics argue that the patriarchal ideology of society makes it imperative for male writers to “write like men,” implying a certain taken-for-granted viewpoint of the author. The plot of Frankenstein deals with the conflict within Victor Frankenstein, who, due to his love of the natural sciences, produces a monstrous creature. Victor himself is disgusted at the sight of his creature and rejects him. All other humans likewise reject him because of his horrible appearance.

The monster, frustrated and misunderstood, ultimately kills the people who are closely related to his creator. This is the tale told by Victor is a father-figure, and the word “father” and references to the Creation myth abound in the novel: “No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (58), “I knew my silence disquieted them; and I well remembered the words of my father” (59), “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam” (93), “the appearance of my father was to me like that of my good angel” (157).

The kind, wise patriarch-figure in the old De Lacey fills the creature with admiration and respect; but the younger De Laceys fill him with hatred and disgust for humankind. By contrast, mother plays a marginal role in the development of the story, and both Caroline and Elizabeth are presented as sacrificial figures to atone for Victor’s Promethean venture. Caroline Frankenstein is a stereotype of the good mother for whom happiness means happiness of her children. She is the one who adopts little Elizabeth as a present for Victor, and she sacrifices her own life to save Elizabeth’s:

During her illness, many arguments had been urged to persuade my mother to refrain from attending upon her. She had, at first, yielded to our entreaties; but when she heard that the life of her favorite was menaced, she could no longer control her anxiety. She attended her sick bed, — Elizabeth was saved, but the consequences of this imprudence were fatal to her preserver. (49) On her deathbed Caroline joins the hands of Victor and Elizabeth and bestows her motherly vocation to Elizabeth: “Elizabeth, my love, you must supply my place to my younger children” (49).

Now Elizabeth becomes the mother, and the incest between Elizabeth and Victor takes on a new meaning. It is the son’s Oedipal liaison with the mother. In this case, however, the mother must die so that the son may be saved. Victor survives several years of desperate pursuit and tribulations; Elizabeth dies on the night of her wedding. Clearly, biology is destiny. Yet, Elizabeth is as much a savior-figure as Caroline. For Victor to survive free of the burdens of marriage and family, yet with his vision of himself as the heroic victim of cosmic antagonism intact, Elizabeth must die.

The death of innocent Justine on the charge of William’s murder is equally revealing: Shelley fashions her female characters as vulnerable to the forces of nature; their unadulterated goodness yet marginal influence on the scheme of things is reminiscent of the images of women that populate so much of nineteenth-century male writing. It can be argued, therefore, that in Frankenstein the issue of power and capacity for survival is obscured by the structure of romantic love and by the constant invocation of the spiteful creature whose goal it is to destroy the good and the beautiful.

In one sense the central theme of Frankenstein is the conflict of the father with the son. The creature asks Victor to make him a companion “of the same species and [of] the same defects” (128). Victor refuses: the sexual jealousy of the father turns the son into an Oedipal ravisher. The creature’s almost sexual fascination with Caroline’s portrait is symbolic of his revenge on his creator: “For a few moments I gazed with delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely lips; but presently my rage returned: I remembered that I was for ever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow” (127).

Again, the creature exacts his final revenge on his creator by depriving Victor of sexual consummation with his bride. Similarly, the creature’s justification for William’s murder is an indictment of Justine: “the murder I have committed because I am for ever robbed of all that she could give me, she shall atone. The crime had its source in her: be hers the punishment” (127). The women, therefore, are made to suffer for the father’s conflict with the son.

Shelley does not allow her protagonist to create a woman because his conception of woman (beautiful but weak) cannot come to terms with the creature’s demand for a companion (hideous and strong): “I was now about to form another being of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant… and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation” (144). Victor’s fear, therefore, is both subconscious and ideological. Thus in Frankenstein Shelley implicitly upholds a predominantly male discourse.

But why does she do this? Perhaps her relationship with her father has something to do with the matter (she even dedicated her book to her father). Recent critics have gone so far as to trace incest in Shelley’s relationship with her father. Moreover, the origin of the novel — a ghost story competition with two other established male poets, “a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than any thing I can ever hope to produce” (Preface, 27) — may have made Shelley address a male audience and follow male conventions of writing.

Similarly, if we consider Shelley as one of the early practioners of science fiction (in Shelley’s time science was primarily a masculine field of pursuit), then Shelley’s employment of a distinctly male style of addressing the readers may not sound surprising. Therefore, Fetterley’s argument that, only male authors presumed their readers to be male, seems to ignore the ideological, biographical, and historical contexts that produced such texts. Wolfgang Iser’s theory of the text’s assymetrical relationship with the reader may help us understand this change that takes place during the process of writing:

Assymetrical contingency occurs when Partner A [the text] gives up trying to implement his own behavioral plan and without resistance follows that of Partner B [the reader]. He adapts himself to and is absorbed by the behavioral strategy of B. (Iser, 164) Because Shelley’s intended readers were men (the bulk of nineteenth-century reading populace was male), her readers turned her into a male writer: Shelley was “masculated” by her readers. And the result was a male fiction addressed to a male audience.