Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s marriage is the first marriage we encounter in Pride and Prejudice. Their interactions seem nothing more than surface level as they do not really understand one another. Mr. Bennet spends most of his time running his estate and reading his books while Mrs. Bennet has a household to take care of. Through this poorly matched marriage, Austen shows the importance of marrying based on more than physical attraction and economic status.
One of the most important aspects of marriage is love. When it comes to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, that might not have been the original reason for the wedding. Mr. Bennet is socially in a more refined class than his wife, as he owns land. We can infer that Mrs. Bennet comes from a lower working-class family since her brother, Mr. Gardiner, is “a man who lives by trade” (Austen,168). It can be seen that Mrs. Bennet marries into a class above her own, just as she wants her daughters to do. Since Mrs. Bennet’s motivations for marriage were shallow and based on economic standing and presumably lust, it’s evident that they do not have and have never had the best emotional connection.
Mr. Bennet’s reason for marrying is not much better. Austen writes more about his intentions, saying, “Her father captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished forever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown.” (Austen, 250). Mr. Bennet did not expect this marriage to turn out the way it did. He was young, and she was beautiful, and he genuinely thought they could be happy together. Mrs. Bennet was probably a lot like Lydia when she was young. She was pretty and high spirited which can sometimes be mistaken for good humour. She also acts off of impulse. Instead of getting to know one another on a deeper level before getting married, they made the mistake of tying the knot too soon. Once he better got to know his wife and realized that Mrs. Bennet was not intellectually on the same level as him, he gave up all hope of being truly happy with her. His respect for their relationship also diminished, which is obvious throughout the book, as he never really treats her properly.
We can see how truly incompatible the two are when Austen writes, “Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous.” (Austen, 45) Mr. Bennet likes to pick at his wife and takes pleasure in laughing at her, but she does not even understand his jokes because she is not very intelligent with her “mean understanding” and “little information.” Mrs. Bennet does nothing but nag at Mr. Bennet and Mr. Bennet treats his wife like the fool that she is. This shows how lacking their communication skills are, which are crucial in any healthy relationship.
Divorce may seem like a simple fix to their unhappy relationship, but it is never an option in their eyes. Divorce would not only break their family apart and hurt their daughters, it would also ruin their social standing. While divorce may be very common in today’s world, it was frowned upon and it was almost impossible to obtain in Jane Austen’s time. Even if a man cheated on his wife, the woman could not file for divorce. But, if a woman cheated on her husband, the man could file for divorce. (Bailey). Any time a couple separated, it was largely publicized, and the woman’s life was pretty much ruined. But since infidelity wasn’t a factor in their relationship, divorce was not even considered.
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Through this couple’s obvious incompatibility, Austen critiques marriages that are not built on love as well as the other things such as economic standing and lust. It is not enough for romance to be the stand-alone reason for marriage, but it is important when considering the family balance and dynamic. Unfortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are not a good example for their daughters, which may be why the less mature girls, such as Lydia, really struggle with their perception of what a marriage should be like. The more mature daughters like Jane and Elizabeth use their parent’s relationship as a warning of what not to do. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are an example of how important respect is in order to have a happy marriage.
- Austen, Jane, and Robert P. Irvine. Pride and Prejudice., 2002. Print.
- Martha Bailey. “The Marriage Law of Jane Austen’s World” Jasna V.36, NO.1 (Winter 2015) http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol36no1/bailey.html
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