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Jane Austen’s Politics on Marriage -Ashutosh Jha | Ayushi Srivastava

Austen does not throw irony at the face but when recognized it turns out to be a full-blown crisis for her readers. She is successful in her endeavour to rank self above social and comes to term with all the mundane affairs in which female voices have been muzzled throughout centuries. The outlook towards marriage has been of adjusting economic gains but Austen fixes the consummation through amora by making her lead characters absorb and reflect love in the politics of ‘transaction.’

Keywords: marriage, social, desire, women, market.

A woman chooses to write for a woman is itself a revolutionary step and a pivotal act in literary history. She writes to give clarion for freedom to break the dawn of patriarchy and to forge female solidarity. Women’s act of writing and reading in the nineteenth century is the marker of their impeccable scholarship culminating to question the hegemony and germinating ideas of liberation. Austen cuts through social paradigms not only via concerns and subjects she raises but by making her supreme claim among male-dominated authorship of the time. She uses disguise, subversive techniques so subtly and economically that it pleases every reader of the text and impacts across space and time. Austen marks a distinct shift from eighteenth-century courtship novels where inferior (women) is shown submitting to authority and conforming to various social mores but in her works, we find a woman who is not submissive to the extent that she can’t compromise with dignity and take charge of her marriage. Austen’s politics on marriage asks suppressed rather hidden questions on marriage which gradually turned into an established institution where passion, a quest for love, the pursuit of Madonna etc. are completely kept at bay, what lie at the heart of such institution are sheer economic forces and designated gender roles which guard and drive a marriage.

The language she offers to her female characters is very empowering which help maintain their distinct identity amidst marriage ‘market’. However, Austen shows her prominent characters integrating themselves in marital bond but their use of will, forwardness, self-righteousness, rational loudness, making discretion, assessing the ‘other sex’ etc. help them remain disintegrated i.e. upholding self in the marital bond. The induction of these features never lets male-hegemony tame women instead through incessant empowerment Austen makes the auctoritee accept an inferior and subordinate as equal in spirits. Karen Newman proposes “what is positive and pleasurable about Austen’s…novels is that their heroines live powerfully within limits imposed by the dominant ideology.”

Austen’s writings are rigorously taught in modern-day classroom syllabi because of its utter uniformity and relevancy across cultures and civilizations. The author’s politics on marriage is very much naked in contemporary discourse on love and marriage. Marriages are often sought for convenience not for companionship; the emphasis is always more on compatibility rather comfortability. The society falls and fails to understand that such marriages often end in dejection, detestation and disruption, flanking the partners as enemies and presents a parody of the romantic love. The continuous practice and internalisation of forging such relationships makes it a ‘new normal’, further aggravating the bond to such an extent that an inferior or subordinate in a relationship is converted into commodity to be exchanged. Once turned into a commodity they become a plaything in the hand of superiors.

Austen depicts four different kinds of marriage and politics involved within this institution which operates to dominate the other and at the same time normalize it. The institution of marriage works as a mode of regulating sexuality (moral role), binding a ‘lawful’ contract between a woman and man (legal role), coming together of families i.e. the expansion of kinship network (social role), dowry in the form of gift (economic role) what it annihilates is the personal opinion of the to-be-weds. So, let’s try to examine the intricacies within these marriages and how Austen responds to them. 

One of such marriages is of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet as they represent Austen’s ideas on human nature and values. Elizabeth and Darcy are the resolver of an essential conflict through their struggle which lead to a reconciliation of personal and social claims. Ab-initio, there meeting has been unfavorable and sow the seed of prejudice in Elizabeth about Darcy’s pride. It results into greater difference among themselves in comparison with their status and class. Their countenance establishes the contrast and resolves it too. As Mordecai Marcus brings into play, “As the center stand Darcy and Elizabeth, far to one side of the stand Collins and Charlotte, who demonstrate a complete yielding to social claims. At the opposite extreme stand Wickham and Lydia, who represent capitulation to personal claims.” As far as Jane and Bingley are concerned, they can be placed towards the center by noting that they relate to the pattern by their inability to assert personal claims and to resist certain social laws and below the will exercised by Darcy and Elizabeth via their proviso by not submitting but allowing themselves to educate on the other’s pattern of thought process that lies at the heart of the novel. Austen celebrates the difference that allows co- existence of perspectives with dignity and integrity without cutting across one another rather becoming a necessity for parallel existence. This makes Dorothy Van Ghent’s lines come alive, “the difficult and delicate reconciliation of the sensitively developed individual with the terms of his social existence.”

More than bildungsroman of the two characters it seems as the bildungsroman of individualism finding its space in society. The combination of thought process by both the individuals reflects self- expression amid tradition. 

As discussed above, Elizabeth’s insistence on eulogizing the self above social is a fundamental step to demolish the unabashed pride associated with aristocracy. But in many cases, the social forces are so overwhelming that one is unable to raise self before the social and as a result become submissive to them. Austen depicts a ‘match’ which tries to transcend the material boundaries and pursue a passionate love but hegemony around doesn’t allow them to. Bingley and Jane’s budding relationship is witnessed by almost every prominent character in the text but the so-called ‘opinion makers’ in the society restrain the two from blossoming. Darcy who exercises his discretion and is able to perform his objection is because of the privilege class position and bounty inheritance he enjoys. He can be called a true epitome of ‘social restraint’ who pours out a decree in the guise of opinion guarded by the objective and material world out there i.e. it is not Darcy speaking for Bingley but the repressing social conventions on whose behalf he speaks. He becomes the true custodian of the social mores of the time.

Austen begins the ball party by showing a pair exhibiting signs of intimacy which for readers appear as germination of genuine love and as it progresses the solemnity of the match gets more rooted in the minds of readers. They anticipate their culmination to marriage but Austen puts that hope to a halt via elements like Darcy and Bingley’s sisters who act as “blocking society”. Darcy’s dictum to Bingley is a ruling class idea of which Marx says ruling class ideas are always ruling ideas. The reasons which Darcy cites to reject this union makes the episode much more pertinent in contemporary discourse,  he goes on to talk about the indecorous spectacle of Jane’s mother, her three sisters and condemnable behavior of father at the ball which every time brought disgrace to the family. Hence, highlighting the implicit social role of marriage as an institution where a union of individuals is dependent and determined by social roles. As suggested earlier, it has been a major stratagem of the ruling class to prevent the coming together of blood and money of landed gentry and trade backed by neo gentry in order to uphold their power and prosperity among the laity.

            Austen using Darcy tries to highlight upon the second reason which he gives to refuse the proposal that Jane doesn’t seem advancing in the relationship he says “however amiable her temper, her heart was not likely to be easily touched”. Women like Jane who are “angel in the house” are not able to become ‘consumable’ product in the marriage market. Jane, who tries to sanitize everything around her suffers the most inner agony because of the difference between her passion and action.

But let’s take a pause here and think a bit even if Jane would have advanced in meetings, marriage may not have taken place because of her lowly connections. Hence, her silence in the process of love-making speaks louder in a way that she is able to assess Bingley’s character which shows he lacks the spine to exercise his will. She through her silence gets to know him much better. Austen makes the pair play in the hands of social mores to show the plight of arranging a “romantic love”.    

After portraying a match laden with social conventions, Austen moves on to show a woman who flouts them with ‘neither pride nor prejudice’. Lydia is an apt representation of repressed desires within the human psyche; our author tries to perform those hidden desires through Lydia. She is merely sixteen years of age, the gratification of desires are much normal than ‘normalized’ social mores, but in the society where she lives desire is never allowed to proliferate since it is considered antithetical and threatening to society. Dennis W. Allen is of the opinion that such “…anti-social elements of her desire curbed by familial pressures.” Lydia can be a potential revolutionary spirit who tries to transcend class and gender boundaries, a perfect embodiment of threat to Collins’s disciplining through ‘Fordyce’s sermons’.

Women like Lydia are an easy catch for Wickham who via his attractive charm try to provide a viable path for the gratification of desire. There is a pattern to note on how it happens; G. Aparna goes on to talk about Wickham’s tactics “Wickham has learnt at an early age that right deportment and an attractive façade can achieve material gain.” He tries to make as much profit from the marriage market by becoming a desirable object. Hence, Lydia who does not at any point seem suppressing her desires falls in the ‘trap’. But we as twenty-first-century readers of the text ‘are we going to condemn Lydia’s actions?’ probably ‘not’. Austen makes Lydia follow a passionate love where there is the true pursuit of a desirable without looking at restraints be it external or internal, as Dennis W. Allen notes the intensity of her passion which “Rejecting personal repression or cultural restriction of her desires…continually seeks immediate, complete gratification.”

Let us examine what happens within such a passionate pursuit of love. Austen shows Lydia finally elopes with Wickham its ‘severe’ consequences do not seem affecting her but ‘devastatingly’ affects family and society. She brings social disgrace, threatens lives of her sisters, Elizabeth fears to lose marital prospects with Darcy etc. There hangs a sense of losswhich is deeply societal rather individual further, Mary states “Unhappy as the event…we may draw from it a useful ‘lesson’;(imbibed without questioning) that loss of virtue in female is irretrievable,” she goes on to call it a “false step” because as we infer, this pursuit is unguarded by socioeconomic factors rather propounded upon ‘desire’. It is interesting to note “virtue in female” is utterly associated with societal and familial prestige, as evident in the text we do not find Lydia ever condemning her actions or inhibiting her desires, we still hear mentions about visiting ball even more. Lydia retains her personality of whatever happens to her. Hence, it is pretty much clear that a woman’s virtue is firmly rooted in “vanity” rather “pride”. It takes the whole community in its ambit and her(s) loss of virtue is a contagion to the community. Politics of marriage evolving as an institution in the nineteenth century have unleashed so much that they have invaded the most intimate relationship.  

Another pivotal derivation from this episode, Wickham as evident in the text has dodged several other women; he still harks on the same path and appears ever confident about his profitable ‘business.’ Male privilege, access to money and gaining abundant wealth through primogeniture makes them feel more autonomous and provides legitimacy to their actions. Another prominent case of Mr Bennet runs parallel with what Lydia does but both the cases yield contrasting and shocking results. Mr Bennet also get captivated by MrsBennet’s beauty but the disgrace unlike Lydia is individual rather societal.

In the modern scenario, Austen’s this episode becomes much more vivid in the forms of honor-killings, love-jihad which are contemporary consequences of the twenty-first century Lydia(s).    

The only method to survive the horrors of the society is through complicity in transactions of marriage ‘market.’ Complete compliance to social claims is what Charlotte Lucas and Collins represent by abandoning their personal claims. Collins sermon of conduct books to discipline girls builds his social mask, and so he relates social self to social surfaces. “Collins does not exactly capitulate to social claims, for he never recognizes personal claims, and he is blind to the fact that his own personal claims are distorted social claims” projected by Mordecai Marcus.  Charlotte’s acceptance to such a contemptible man brings into play a greater social issue embarking on women’s fortune. For Charlotte, Collins becomes the only alternative to penury and social isolation. She shows the process of capitulation to claims made by society.  In all, their relationship becomes a mechanized one, where society drives them and with Charlotte it is even worst, she is the central pathos of her marriage in which she has to submit to the custodian of the norms, none other than her husband. Collins- Charlotte relationship fulfils the etymological meaning of the term “marriage” which is husband. The sole autonomy of husband is what their communion inhibits and exhibits. Lady Catherine’s pedantry and policing is very much obliged by Collins. He is obedient to her countenance of woman policing woman, since Collins is also the pioneer of the same trope.

The concept of civilization made by civilians in order to associate and collaborate is inverted where the society becomes effectuator of individuals. Consequently, society becomes the sole authority that takes over and proclaims justice accordingly. Intimate partner violence, sadistic control, marital rape, battering, female genital mutilation, dowry abuse to name a few where women get rewarded for not being submissive and compliant. They, merely, passive recipient of the authority as an ‘object’ is transacted in the marriage ‘market.’

However, situation defers and so the causal, if the females are educated and tries to express their thoughts then they are curtailed by throwing the sludge on their chastity. Hegemony leaves no other way out except to cling to a man’s fortune as in case of Charlotte. Most of the women are Charlotte Lucas and many Charlottes(s) are being ‘manufactured’ and perpetuated. Moreover, if educated enough to question authority, cogent female voices become Safoora ‘maligned and shackled.’   

From the time immemorial, women have always been malleable according to norms fabricated in the name of ‘tradition.’ Inside out marriage, the only weapon a woman can possess is fortune through economic independence.

Ashutosh Jha and Ayushi Srivastava are pursuing Honours in English Literature from Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi.

Ayushi Srivastava
Ashutosh Jha

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