Connections can enrich understanding as exploration of the links can shape and reshape one’s response and attitudes towards the values and contexts of each text. Both Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Letters to Alice by Fay Weldon exemplify this notion as the two texts are inherently intertwined together, enhancing the reader’s understanding as each layer is unravelled. The contextual values articulated by Austen are explored carefully by Weldon who in turn, allows modern audiences to empathise and develop a greater sense of appreciation for the changes in society today.
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Austen introduces the repressive gender constructs of her time through the portrayal of the institution of marriage. Her heroines are imprisoned in an unyielding system whereby matrimony is the only means for women to attain financial security. Charlotte Lucas embodies this tradition as she makes a pragmatic judgement to marry Mr Collins. Her view of matrimony is devoid of love, fidelity and emotional commitment, reflected by her recognition of Mr Collins’ flaws; ‘neither sensible nor agreeable, his society was irksome’. As she states; ”I am not romantic, you know, I never was. I ask only a comfortable home”, the inverted syntax along with Charlotte’s reasoned and logical outline of her motivations gives weight to her decision in the reader’s mind. Through Charlotte’s outlook, Austen reveals a society where a woman’s future was perilous and marriage is accordingly presented as a conflicting contradiction between romantic ideals and exonomic imperatives.
To a modern audience this is horrifying and shocking as our world is built on romantic notions of finding true love. However, Weldon provides greater understanding of the mentality towards marriage within the context of Regency England. Aunt Fay’s letters contain statistics to verify the stark reality of the bleak situation as; ‘only thirty percent of women married. Seventy percent remained unmarried’ This enhances our understanding towards Mrs Bennet’s deliberation over her daughters’ marriage prospects and the precarious economic realities of the time. Weldon also extends on the competitive nature of a young woman’s attempt to find marriage in the metaphor; ‘to marry was a great prize’ so to reinforce the difference in values whereby in society today, women are more independent and this is reflected by Weldons’ identity as an single and autonomous writer. Overall, through Weldon’s perceptions, we are able to make connections in contemplating how the values of Austen’s world contrast with our feminist context whereby female empowerment is advocated.
SOCIAL CLASS AND MOBILITY
Austen extends her investigation by identifying how marriage is influenced by social class and mobility and thus Darcy and Elizabeths’ marriage was unconventional on both the grounds of wealth and status. This is conveyed through Lady de Bourghs’ opening imperious and condescending tone; ‘hear me in silenceâ€¦do you know who I am!’ which implies her self-perceived superiority. This is reinforced by her description of Elizabeth as ‘a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world and wholly unallied to the family’, where her insolence in addressing Elizabeth in the third person and so candidly stating her faults demonstrates her myopic disapproval of interclass mingling. She then lists the dire ramifications if one was to marry out of their class in the triple utterance; ‘you will be censured, slighted and despised’. The strong tone expressed by using ‘despised’ adds depth of feeling and total exclusion if Elizabeth is shunned from the family. Through the accumulation of insults, Austen provides insight on the rigidity of the social heirachy which operated at the time-for which Elizabeth’s background would have been inferior in comparison with Darcy.
Weldons’ skeptical interpretation towards Austens’ portrayal provides modern readers with an appreciation of the changes in our contemporary context. Weldons’ inclusion of a table illustrating the composition of the Georgian Era in British history shows the pyramidal structure of socity where those ’employed in agriculture’ constituted a signficiant proportion in comparison to the nobility and gentry. This table provides a concrete image of social standings which enhances the modern responders understanding of the segregation between classes and accordingly explains Lady de Bourghs’ infuriating and dramatic response in Pride and Prejudice. As a result, Weldon reinforces that the relationship between Lizzie and Darcy was unrealistic, stating ‘it was a lovely, if not desperate fantasy’. By associating true love to that of a ‘desperate fantasy’ essentially allows the modern reader to further appreciate the social changes that have since occurred.
Austen extends this class engender consciousness to education, providing awareness into the functions of her society. Through the listing of domestic qualities, Miss Bingley defines the requirements of an accomplished and therefore accepted young woman; ‘She must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing and the modern languages’. The imperative tone ‘she must’ emphasizes the rigid expectations placed on women at the time and the lack of opportunities for intellectual freedom. Furthermore, Miss Bingley remarks in a mocking tone; ‘Miss Eliza Bennet is a great reader and has no pleasure in anything else’. Such comment serves to show that Elizabeth’s intellectual curiosity was unexpected of females and thus has induced a condescending response of disapproval from Miss Bingley. Through Austen’s potrayal of Elizabeth’s learned qualities and passion for reading, she perhaps propounded a change to the narrow education at the time, particularly its emphasis on the domestic accomplishments as opposed to expansion of intellectual knowledge, such as Lizzie who evidently was able to further her education independently through reading.
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Similarly, ‘Letters to Alice’ expands on Austen’s view that education should not be restricted to domestic accomplishments but embody constructive intellectual knowledge. Weldon employs an extended metaphor to describe a fictional place which houses centuries of literature in ‘The City of Invention’so to forge the connection between Austen and ourselves. This city is created to be a utopia which allows an unrestricted expression of emotion and a place free from political and social constraints. This metaphor allows Weldon to articulate the timeless worth of literature; reinforced through her free flowing narration; ‘it is in literature, the novel, the fantasy, the fiction of the past that you find real history ‘. Accordingly this passionate perspective invites modern readers to reevaluate our own perspective towards the value of literature. Consequently, Weldon advises her niece, and by proxy us, through an imperious tone and high modality language; ”you must read Alice, before it’s too late. You must fill your mind with the invented images of the past”. Weldon acknowledges that literature, such as Austens’ canonical novel Pride and Prejudice can facilitate boundless knowledge about the synchronic concerns of ones’ context, as well as the diachronic awareness about the meaning of life. This is encapsulated by the symbolic meaning of the capitalisation of literature to convey its didactic function to inform and englighten us.
Interestingly, Pride and Prejudice also reshapes a responders understanding towards Letters to Alice as it provides an example that allows us to engage with Weldons’ literary theories and ideas and thus gain credibility as good literature with a capital L.
Ultimately an exploration of the two texts caters for an enhanced understanding of the respective contexts and values and accordingly allows audiences to engender empathy and contemplate on the differences of diverse contexts. Weldon plays an important role as she establishes the relevant connections between PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and modern context today. Through her insight, we acknowledge the signficance to appreciate social changes and acknowledge the various ideas presented in Austen’s novel. The vast connections formulated relate to contextual values and societal mentality and consequently, results in enriched understanding.
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