P&P is essentially a feminist social commentary of the late 18th-early 19th century which Austen lived in. During that era women's roles were limited, having little of the independence that the modern women enjoy. Instead, they often had to resort to marriage in order to advance themselves socially or even just survive.
'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife' is related to this idea. What Austen is saying isn't really that all wealthy bachelors are in need of a wife, but that women always assume a wealthy, single man to need a wife- i.e. themselves, or their daughters. It is, as other replies have mentioned, a jibe at Mrs Bennet who consistently strives to get her daughters married, but also a jibe at society in general.
In the context of the novel this quote is significant, because Elizabeth (the female protagonist) as well as her sisters are representative of the dependent young women who MUST marry well in order to remain respectable, or even to progress upwards on the social ladder. The quote therefore is also a confirmation of Austen's belief that women in her society were very much dependent on marriage and this has progressed to such an extent that women have thus ended up looking upon all wealthy bachelors as prey. Hence, the assumption that "all wealthy bachelors MUST be wanting to get married" actually disguises the truth, that it is in fact the women who are desperate for marriage.
There's really not much else to say on this, because it's a quote that's been examined and beaten to death by so many critics. As for why it's so famous, well, it's probably because it's a very insightful comment regarding society during Austen's time.
A/N: This week’s post is an academic essay on Pride and Prejudice with a focus on feminism.
The iconic story of Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, but even though it was written by Jane Austen it was not published under her name. This was because that during the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was still considered shocking and scandalous for a woman to write for money.
This meant that when a book was published under an anonymous name it was often because it was in fact written by a woman. This also held true for the rest of Austen’s published work such as Sense and Sensibility, which was also published anonymously.
There is today little disagreement about whether or not Austen can be considered a feminist, as she was notoriously critical of the injustice of the gender roles in the English society of the nineteenth century.
This is already shown in the beginning of the novel, where Austen goes into a description of the unfairness of the idea of an entailment. Though Mr. Bennett has no less than five daughters, he is unable to leave them his property as his rightful children. Instead he is forced by law to hand it over to his closets male relative, a positively ludicrous clergy man by the name of Mr. Collins. Mrs. Bennett in particular mourns this injustice as she cries to Mr. Bennett that “I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children” (Austen, p. 74).
The girls’ only hope for a financially stable future is to marry, and even this prospect is completely dependent on their father as the man of the house. The girls could not simply go out and find a man themselves as Mrs. Bennett states as she bemoans to her husband that “[i]t will be no use to us, if twenty such [men] should come, since you will not visit them” (Austen p. 5).
Austen’s feminism is also to be found in her views on love. In 1813 it was still unusual to marry for love, and Austen can be considered to be one of the most vocal advocates for it. Austen herself never married despite conventions demanding it of her, and through her letters she often advised her friends to only marry for love.
The novel is not only the love story of Elizabeth Bennett and her older sister Jane, but it also shows the lack of love experienced by Charlotte Lucas, who marries the ridiculous Mr. Collins in order to gain financial security.
The main character Elizabeth is painted as a strong and independent woman, who is not afraid to hold out for love, and when Mr. Collins proposes to her, she rejects him despite the pressure of her mother as well as the uncertainty of her future.
She is proposed to for a second time later in the novel by Mr. Darcy, whom she also rejects despite his ten thousand pounds a year, which was considered an enormous fortune back in 1813.
Elizabeth’s father, Mr. Bennett, tells her in the end of the novel that she will be miserable if she marries for money or security – she can only be happy if she marries a man whom she both respect and admire. He says that “I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life” (Austen, p. 424).
It is also clear that Mr. Darcy admires Elizabeth for her spunk and lively disposition rather than just for her pretty face and superficial accomplishments, which is partly shown near the beginning of the novel where he states that“[s]he [Elizabeth] is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me” (Austen, p. 13).
Later in the novel Elizabeth says to Mr. Darcy that “[m]y beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners – my behaviour to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence” (Austen, p. 428). Mr. Darcy answers her “[f]or the liveliness of your mind, I did” (Austen, p. 428), and it is clear that Austen will not expect any less from a true love story.
It is not good enough that the heroine falls in love with the hero because he is handsome, or he falls in love with the heroine because she is beautiful. No, Austen needed more reason than that, and rather than falling for each other because of superficial reasons, Mr. Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth partly for her lively nature, while Elizabeth falls in love with Mr. Darcy because of his kindness.
An impressive feat, especially considering Caroline Bingley’s earlier description of an ideal or accomplished woman. “103o [woman] can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved” (Austen, p. 45-46).
When going through this list, it is clear to see that everything that is supposed to make a woman esteemed accomplished are exclusively decorative talents, and there is no mention of kindness, humour or intelligence.
But it is Elizabeth’s liveliness Mr. Darcy falls in love with rather than her musical talent or manner of walking, and Austen makes it clear that Elizabeth’s lively nature does not disappear just because she got married. She will undoubtedly continue to tease her husband for the rest of their life together as Austen writes that “[b]y Elizabeth’s instructions, she [Georgiana Darcy] began to comprehend that a woman may take liberties with her husband” (Austen, p. 437).
Through all of these examples and countless more it is clear for the avid reader that while Pride and Prejudice is a love story before all else, it is also a criticism of the chauvinistic society of nineteenth century England.
I focused this analysis of the feminist aspect of Pride and Prejudice as I find it fascinating how Austen successfully criticised the existing society without forcing the reader’s attention away from the love story.
A talent that she shares with Charlotte Brönte as can be seen in Brönte’s world-renowned novel Jane Eyre. Austen created a feminist fairytale.
A world where happily ever after is not dependent on a girl’s beauty, but rather her liveliness and her wit.