“Discuss the significance of an individual’s attempt to live unconstrained by convention or circumstance.”
Of all the roles people play in society, there has always been one that has been disputed in where it should fit: the role of the woman. People share differing views of how women should act within their societies, some believe in them being in positions of wisdom and power while others wish for submission and silence. These endless discussions about where a woman should fit in society often leave women themselves wishing that they could be just that: themselves. Jane Austen brings this issue to light through her 19th century novel Pride and Prejudice, in which she argues that an individual will often strive to break the constraints of the circumstances that they are living in by attempting to distance themselves from society’s expectation of who that person should become, allowing them to embrace who they really are as a person. This is shown though our narrator not paying much attention to her appearance in light of something more meaningful, her resistance to marrying someone she does not like, despite their social standing and the gain it would bring her, and finally finding real value in who she eventually does choose to marry. Women of that time were expected to be well read; fine-tuned in literature and the arts, their mannerisms elegant and poised, their speech brief and meaningless, concerned about nothing but their appearance and family. Elizabeth Bennet, our narrator has many of these characteristics, though she is still vastly different from many women of the time.
Around the beginning of the novel, Elizabeth sets out to see to her sick little sister, Jane. She travels through a thicket of trees, amassing dirt on her clothes. Once she reaches her destination, her sister is quick to comment on her appearance when she sees Elizabeth, hinting at the idea that Jane has conformed to society’s expectation of whom a woman should become, her circumstances of being a woman have constrained her free thought and action. On the other hand, Elizabeth gives no thought to this, only concerned about the well being of her sister. To a ‘normal’ woman of that time, it would be a ridiculous idea to get yourself dirty in favor of getting yourself somewhere faster. Elizabeth is determined not to let the circumstance of her gender get in the way of the people you care about. Two sisters raised in the same household, one succumbing to her circumstance, but the other resisting.
As the novel progresses, Elizabeth is given a marriage proposal from her cousin, Mr. William Collins. To any other woman of the time, this would be excellent news. Getting married to a man of a rather high social standing can only increase your own, especially when this man is in possession of a good fortune. In all other aspects, however, Collins is a detestable person. Elizabeth values more than just social standing in a man, something that many women of the time did not do, the constraints of their circumstances forcing them to marry out of necessity and a promise of a better social standing rather than love. And because of her having more care for what would truly make her happy, Elizabeth chooses to deny the proposal. The simple act of rejecting a man who could heighten your rank in society provides solid evidence that Elizabeth is not concerned by the outlooks thrust upon her by her community, she wishes to be her own person, unconstrained from her circumstances and free of expectations, embodying the idea that having your own say in how your life progresses is a powerful tool in determining who you will become as a person, and puts you a few degrees more in charge of your current circumstances.
Finally, as the novel concludes, Elizabeth finally chooses to marry. Not Mr. Collins, but someone who she has been growing ever closer to her for the entire novel; Mr. Darcy. When she gets married, she is ecstatic, commenting on how she could very possibly be the happiest creature alive on the planet. Mr. Darcy originally was looking for everything a common woman should have, as any man of the time would. However, as he begins to get more and more attracted to Elizabeth, he begins to realize that there should be more in a marriage than social standing and money. Women should be able to challenge a man intellectually, and have their own say in how their lives should be run. Upon his realization of this, Elizabeth is finally able to break free of the constraints society has put on her due to her circumstances of being a woman, and can finally marry out of love, something she has wanted to do forever. Finally, after finding a partner who does not hold her to only the expectations the rest of the world has for her, she is allowed to distance herself from the expectations put on her, and embrace more than just the change in her social standing because of marriage. Through this, the author states that breaking the constraints of the circumstances you are living in allow an individual to finally embrace who they truly are. In Elizabeth’s case, this means attaining happiness and keeping it.
Elizabeth often finds herself wishing that her gender did not have to define who she was supposed to be, as the constraints of that put upon her do not line up with her true persona. This is more than the average expectation of being well read in literature and art, speech meaningless and full of fluff and filler, and looking nice for others. Though this novel, Jane Austen is able to prove that the constraints of the circumstances you are living in do not have to define you as a person if you choose to resist them. While people are still wondering about where a woman should fit in this world, any individual can change that based on the decisions she makes, and the life she chooses to lead.