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Note: This article applies social development theory to explain and interpret events in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

Social analysis is a common feature of modern literary criticism. The social context and antecedent of authors and their fiction works are invariably examined in order to shed light on the characters and events depicted in the stories. If literary works are influenced by the times in which they were written, it is equally true that the characters and events in fiction reflect on human character and the character of the times which they depict. The storyline of a novel may be fictitious, but the insights it can provide are very real and true to life.


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Pride and Prejudice was written during an epoch when France was in the midst of a violent revolutionary upheaval and vividly depicts the social response to those events in England. England had already undergone a major social upheaval with the dethronement and execution of Charles I and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, laying the essential basis for evolution of liberal democracy. In spite of these two major cataclysmic changes, a century later, it was once again threatened with revolutionary change by contagion from across the channel. The whole nation rose to the occasion of the French Revolution and was ready to do everything in her power to avoid a revolution. The French aristocracy had resisted the winds of change with rude vulgar assertion of their superiority, until it was imposed on them by physical force. In the process, about 1600 of them lost their heads. Their English counterparts consented to accommodate the aspirations of the rising middle classes by permitting intermarriage with commoners. Pride and Prejudice depicts this silent process of social transformation in the lives of the English gentility. The whole process is summarized in Elizabeth’s accusations against Darcy, accusing him of arrogance, pride, conceit, and selfish disdain for others. Darcy’s conscious individual response epitomizes the collective subconscious response of the English upper classes. He accepts the truth of her accusations and endeavors and transforms himself for the explicit purpose of pleasing and winning her. Thus, a charming story of romance and marriage becomes both a vehicle for and a product of social evolution.[1] [2]

Any story reflects the mood of its period. The marriages of Darcy and Bingley are symptomatic of the mood of the period. The French aristocrats lost their heads not only because they were aristocrats but because of the assertion of their superiority. Darcy lost his arrogance and saved his head.

The implicit theme of this story is that what the less civilised achieve physically, the more mature nation attains by a psychological change.

Social Character

Every society has a character that places a unique stamp on the values, attitudes, opinions, customs and conventions of its members, activities and institutions. That character undergoes a process of continuous development or evolution. Events occur in a social context and reflect the character of the society and the character of the times in which they take place. Often the event can be seen as a specific individual expression of the general direction and process of social development. Knowledge of the process of social development reveals the determining character of society on the outcome of action.

Society is not just the sum total of the individuals who participate in it. The characteristics of a society are not merely a sum, average or other mathematical function of the values, opinions, and attitudes of those individuals. A society is a living organism with a life of its own, a living collective which consists of many living individual human beings, just as our physical bodies are living collectives made up of many living individual cells. Both the body and the cell have their own distinct individuality, though obviously the two are related.

Although we commonly think of society as the sum of its individual members, historically the consciousness of the collective evolved before the emergence and development of individuality, which is a much more recent phenomenon. Groups developed collective activities, beliefs, attitudes, habits, customs and values that they imposed on their members, demanding unstinting conformity, often on pain of exile or death.

Every society is undergoing a continuous process of adaptation and adjustment to survive and maintain the status quo or to grow, develop and evolve. Different levels, segments and aspects of the society move simultaneously in different directions, some to resist change and others to foster it. Often an event can be seen as a representative individual expression of the general direction and process of social development. Knowledge of the process of social development reveals the determining character of society on the outcome of action.

Jane Austen composed First Impressions during the period 1796-97, at the height of the French Revolution and just two decades after the American Revolution, but she was unsuccessful in publishing the novel at that time. A revised version was published as Pride & Prejudice in 1813. Thus, the period preceding composition of both the first and second versions of the novel was one populated by radical new social ideas and rapid social transformation. Across the English channel in France, the process was wracked by violence, while in England it took on a less visible and turbulent form. Understanding this social context is essential for a full comprehension of the novel.

Concept of Social Development

We commonly think of social development as a desirable set of outcomes such as greater material prosperity, education, productivity, technology and freedom. But these outcomes are the result of a process and that process is occurring all the time. In essence, society evolves when the collective accumulates surplus energy that is not required for its survival and growth at the current level and when a subconscious collective will, forms for development in a particular direction. That will expresses through the conscious initiatives of individuals who depart from conformity to the status quo and pioneer new forms of behavior, which are then imitated by other individuals and eventually accepted by the social collective and organized in the society by new political, legal, social, economic or cultural activities, institutions, customs and values.

Over the past five hundred years the entire Western world and more recently the world as a whole have been moving along a course of development that has several identifiable characteristics.

  1. Societies in the past promoted the development of the collective by constraining the development of their individual members within narrow fixed boundaries. They now seek to actively develop their individual members and to release their energy and initiative as a means to foster the progress of the collective.
  2. Societies in the past developed by a concentration of benefits of development (knowledge, power, privilege and wealth) among a very small portion or an elite class of its members. They are now distributing more of the achievements of the elite to wider sections of the population out of recognition that this makes the society as whole stronger and more stable. Democratization, universal education, human rights, social security and economic opportunity are expressions of this movement.
  3. Societies in the past suppressed, exploited or ignored the lower or weaker sections of the population. They are now striving consciously to protect, support and develop those sections through equal rights and equal opportunities for less fortunate individuals and weaker nations.

Evolution vs. Revolution

The development process can occur in one of two ways – through violent revolution or slow gradual evolution. Society is structured in a manner similar to the earth’s crust, which consists of layers of tectonic plates that rest on, interlock and shift constantly in relation to each other. Geological processes build pressure for movement of the plates in different directions. When the pressure mounts, either the plates slide past each other defusing the pressure or the pressure continues to mount until a sudden violent adjustment takes place that we perceive as an earthquake.

Like the earth, society can respond to the mounting pressure either by revolutionary or evolutionary change. Pride & Prejudice was written at a time of violent social revolution in France, where the stiff resistance of the old aristocracy refused to acknowledge or accommodate the growing aspirations and power of an emerging bourgeois middle class. Historian Will Durant characterized pre-revolutionary French society by the true story of a very wealthy, middle class woman who was invited to a meeting of aristocratic woman in recognition of her great wealth, but when it came time to serve luncheon, was asked to eat in the kitchen. Because of the stiff resistance to change, the pressure exploded as a revolution that physically destroyed the old French aristocracy.

While France resorted to violent revolution, English society at the time chose the evolutionary path. England had evolved beyond the static stage of feudal privilege. Society was becoming dynamic. It required men of energy and bold initiative, which were not being generated in sufficient numbers by the landed aristocracy. The evolution involved the necessary destruction of old structures and values, particularly the institutions based on physical values of heredity and land, which gradually gave way to vital values of money, merit and individual initiative. The economy was shifting from agriculture to trade and industry. In an agricultural country, power can reside with large landholders. In a mercantile and industrial country, power goes where the money is, to those in banking, trade and manufacturing. The land can only support so much wealth for a few, but trade can support wealth for the many. The business community, the emerging middle class, became increasingly important and influential. Social power and status shifted from aristocracy to money. This evolutionary movement was reflected in subtle changes affecting the way people think, feel and act as well as how the collective responds to their individual actions.

Revolutions in society become stable when the social organizations, customs, usage, and culture absorb the spirit of the revolution and restructure themselves. In an evolving society, the whole society is in constant motion, shifting like tectonic plates in micro increments, some people breaking barriers above them and moving up, some people falling through the safety rails that protect them at their level and tumbling down. Through it all, the entire society remakes and reshapes itself, evolving through the force of individual aspirations and subconscious collective will, in a direction set by the evolving self-conception of the whole.

Social hierarchy in the story

The characters and events in Pride & Prejudice depict this evolutionary process in English society. Let us begin by examining the society as it exists at the commencement of the story. Lady Catherine is at the top. She symbolizes the old aristocracy that has lost its vitality and is dying. The fact that she wants only flatterers around her who constantly acknowledge her greatness reflects her declining status. If Lady Catherine depends on the fawning admiration of a Collins to be a great lady, then her position is certainly insecure. Next, there is Darcy, the very wealthy master of Pemberley, son of an untitled father and titled mother. Then we have Bingley, whose money was earned in trade by his father. He has risen socially and his sister wants him to purchase an estate, but he is satisfied with being the son of a man who earned a £100,000 and being a friend of Darcy. He has no motivation for anything but to have a good time and be pleasant to everybody. Bingley’s sister, Caroline, is herself worth £20,000 and aspires to rise higher by marrying Darcy.

Then there is Mr. Bennet, a landed aristocrat and gentleman farmer married to a local lawyer’s daughter. When Lady Catherine abuses Elizabeth saying, “You would allow my nephew to ruin himself by marrying into your family,” Eliza replies, “Let me remind you that I am also the daughter of a gentleman.” Lady Catherine does not dispute that. She says, “Yes, but what about your mother? Mrs. Bennet’s middle class origins and relations cast a shadow on the respectability of the whole family.

The Lucases are close friends of the Bennets and at a roughly comparable level. Sir William Lucas is a former mayor and businessman who quit business after being knighted to live the life of an aristocrat. He is more than satisfied with his title, even though he does not have much money. His only desire is to socialize as much as he can and please everybody. When he meets Caroline at a dance, he displays his status by offering to introduce her at St. James’ Court, but she is only offended by the arrogance of his offer.

At a slightly lower level is Mr. Collins, the son of Bennet’s younger brother. Collins acquired some education but no money, though he will one day inherit Bennet’s estate. Until then he has to work for a living. He represents the lowest level of aristocracy in the story. Below him are Mrs. Bennet’s middle class relatives, the Gardiners and Philips. The Gardiners are polished, educated and cultured Londoners. Mr. Gardiner is in a respectable business. Mrs. Bennet’s sister, Mrs. Philips, has married the lawyer’s clerk who used to work for her father. Finally, there is Wickham, the son of Pemberley’s former steward.

Social evolution in the story

The story depicts a society in the process of a dramatic social transition. The power, wealth and privilege of the old aristocracy is gradually giving way to the rising social status and power of the business class. Untitled, unpropertied aristocrats are going into business and bourgeois men of ambition such as Lucas are acquiring titles. The old aristocracy symbolized by Lady Catherine de Bourgh, which has been resting on its oars, lacks the fresh vitality and initiative needed for social progress.

The central theme of the story reflects all the major attributes of evolutionary social development described as they express through the institution of marriage. Marriage is an instrument for social evolution in this society because the society is still physical. It still defines privilege and power primarily based on land, birth, and blood relation. In the coming era, money becomes the dominant instrument in a society that is dynamically vital. Today education and technology eradicate social barriers and reward individual capacity in a society that is increasingly mental in character.

Each of the four marriages that occurs in the story involves a social elevation that is characteristic of the evolutionary process. Elizabeth, the daughter of an aristocratic gentleman and middle class woman, rises by marriage into one of the wealthiest aristocratic families in England. Her sister Jane marries a man whose wealth is twenty-times greater than her own. Even the scoundrel Wickham, the steward’s son, who would have been an outcaste or murdered for his effrontery in a previous age, not only marries a gentleman’s daughter but also becomes brother-in-law to his father’s former master. Moreover, by a strange course of events, the servile Mr. Collins becomes related through marriage to his august patroness, Lady Catherine.

These events symbolize not just movement between the classes but a profound shift in social values as well. The collective is becoming individualized. Social conformity is giving way to formed individuality. Elizabeth rises in spite of her mother’s family background because she is a developed individual personality who values character more than wealth or status. It is this trait that surprises and attracts Darcy, and makes him fall in love with the light in her eyes. Society nurtures and applauds Eliza’s individual development rather than frowning on or preventing it.

Society is shown in the process of redistributing the fruits of social status by a new set of criteria to a wider class of its members. Mrs. Bennet and her relations have already acquired aristocratic status through her marriage to Mr. Bennet and that status is about to rise enormously through the marriages of her two elder daughters. By Eliza’s marriage, the lower level of the aristocracy, which has strong links with the business community, unites with the highest level of the aristocracy. In France, this intermixture of the classes did not happen, so the only way the society could develop was to eradicate the aristocracy, cut off their heads, chase them out of the country, and distribute their land, money and titles to the new class that rose to power. The French aristocracy was too rigid and orthodox; too unwilling to compromise and share its power, so it lost it.

In the story, Darcy subconsciously recognizes the need for change. His aunt is old fashioned and offensive, and her daughter is sickly. His employees no longer exhibit the traits of loyalty and unquestioning submission. Wickham, who was raised on the estate as Darcy’s childhood companion, has already conspired with the governess to elope with Georgiana. Darcy needs to take steps to ensure the survival and future viability of his family and estate. His actions in the story may be motivated by a conscious attraction to Elizabeth, but they serve the deeper need of fortifying his family and class with fresh vitality.

Even the lowest members of society depicted in the story are not excluded from the upward social movement. Wickham’s elopement with Lydia is rewarded by money and respectability rather than bankruptcy and disgrace. He has an extravagant aspiration to become Darcy’s brother-in-law, which he achieves. We may say that Wickham is a scoundrel and what he wants is outrageous, but life sanctioned it up to a point. Of course, there is a big difference in being Lydia’s husband and Georgiana’s husband. However, even if Wickham can never visit as a guest Pemberley, everywhere else he does go, he will introduce himself as Darcy’s brother-in-law and his status will be greatly enhanced. For him it is an unbelievable accomplishment. During this period of upward mobility, even the scoundrel can rise to great heights.

Lydia, who by character and behavior in an earlier age would have ended up on the street forgotten and forbidden by her family, is also redeemed by marriage. Lydia is a revolutionary force. She does not respect social status. She does not care for Darcy, money, or rules. She is a revolutionary energy wanting to express itself. In an earlier stage, she would have been cast out of the society. In this period, the subconscious social will as expressed through Darcy’s conscious initiative acts to save her, to elevate her to respectability, not so much for her sake but for its own sake to preserve the institution of family. Society elevates the people at the bottom because it understands that it is good for itself, not just for them.

Individual expressions of social change

These broad shifts in values affect the attitudes and behavior of every person and determine the course and outcome of every action in the story from the most important to the least significant. The social context at the beginning of the story is illustrated by the fact that Darcy did not want to dance with anyone at the Meryton Ball. His later invitation to dance with Elizabeth is an expression of the evolutionary movement. By the end of the story he has made friends with the middle class Gardiners and welcomed them to his home. In the beginning, Darcy wants to preserve his exalted status and uses pride as a defensive weapon to protect him from pollution by lower class society. His insistence on his own self-importance, which expresses as aloofness and disdain for dancing, is not supported by life. His attraction to a person of character is the force for social integration bringing him down from his lofty height. What appeals most to Darcy about Elizabeth is that she does not recognize any social distance between them. She does not respond to his money or behave deferentially because of his status. Darcy falls in love with her because she feels his equal. What he feels is a social emotion, not a deeper, psychic emotion.

Elizabeth rises and accomplishes because she is a formed personality. Mentally, Eliza comes to admire Darcy very much. What she feels is not passionate, romantic love. In an earlier period, Elizabeth would not dare to fall in love with Darcy. She could become his concubine, but never his wife. Mrs. Bennet would have compelled Elizabeth to marry Collins. Although we may think that the primary determinant in the story is individual character and action, it is really the society that has made up its mind to evolve. It changes its attitudes and permitted behaviors, and it rewards those who adopt the new behaviors that help it evolve.

When Collins said he would introduce himself to Darcy at the Netherfield ball, he is reflecting his own perception of the change taking place in society. Elizabeth feels it would be terrible for Collins to do that, even though Darcy is proud, arrogant and despicable. Darcy feels it is wrong too. But the usually servile Collins thinks it is his prerogative as a member of the church. A hundred years earlier, Collins would never do it. A hundred years later Darcy would not rudely walk away from him.

Lady Catherine’s trip to Longbourn to speak with Eliza is an expression of the social change. A few decades earlier, she would have summoned Eliza to Rosings Park. The very fact that she had to go to Eliza shows she has lost much of her social authority. Eliza acknowledges no debt of gratitude and no social obligation, so Lady Catherine bluffs, bullies and threatens that higher society will look down on Eliza. Had the society been less progressive, Lady Catherine’s boorish domineering behavior may have succeeded. But Eliza says she cares only about her own happiness. The social climate has evolved to such an extent.

Even when so much has changed, until the very end of the story it is nearly impossible for Eliza to think of marrying Darcy because of the great social distance between their families. It is equally difficult for Darcy to think of marrying her. Gradually, through the story, they come to consider their respective positions and accept the feasibility of bridging the distance between them. It is an act of social evolution. What occurs twice in the Bennet family is able to happen because it is a reflection of what is happening in the society-at-large. We perceive that it is Darcy’s individual attraction to Eliza that compels him to act, but it is not. It is the changing opinion of the aristocracy that sanctions what previously was unthinkable. We think it is Elizabeth’s individual decision to accept his offer, but it is not. It is the changing view of society that permits her to entertain what was till recently an impossible dream. Fifty or a hundred years earlier, it would have been inconceivable.

When Wickham elopes with Lydia, Darcy goes personally to London to negotiate with Wickham. Fifty years earlier he would not have gone personally. He would have sent someone. Now he feels and wants to prove to himself and to Elizabeth that he has gotten over the sense of social superiority and he is willing to fully accept her and her family as they are. He wants to prove that he has overcome his previous arrogance by doing what would have earlier been unthinkable for him. In an earlier period, Bennet or Darcy would have had Wickham kidnapped for eloping with Lydia, beaten him and forced him to marry her. There would be no question of paying him money. It is the pressure of society that forces him to marry her and become respectable. It forces him to develop, to evolve. In a similar manner, Lydia would not have dared to elope with Wickham. Had she run away, she would have ended up in the street. The society that evolves does not eradicate its lower part, it forces that lower part to develop and become part of itself, as modern society imposes education on its citizens.

These events sum up the changes occurring in English society at the time. They depict a society striving to avoid revolutionary upheaval by evolving peacefully. The primary determinant of events is the social determinant, which is at once the underlying spiritual evolutionary determinant.

Role of Gossip

Gossip plays a central role in this society and in the story. It functions as an informal communication system, much the way computerized news services function today. People are socially conscious and extremely alert to any event that threatens to alter the fabric of social relations. They are constantly watching what everyone else is doing. Mrs. Philips is watching how Bingley is looking at Jane. Mrs. Long tracks the movements of every household in the community. Word spreads like wildfire. Lady Catherine learns about Darcy’s intention to marry Eliza before Eliza does. At a time when it takes a full day for physical travel from one place to another and there are no telephones, the social system is so alert. Gossip is a sophisticated communication system.

The social consciousness is by nature jealous, spiteful and vengeful. It normally exerts itself only to find fault with others. It is resentful of anyone who is too far above its own rank and out of reach and of anyone who succeeds in rising too fast or too high. Therefore, most of what it reports is negative. The gossip that Darcy is a bad man was false, but it spread like wildfire. Then when Wickham’s sins became known, what spread readily was that Wickham is a bad man. The society does not take equal efforts to say that Darcy is, after all, a good man. Society’s primary drive is to maintain itself. Therefore, in a traditional society, when someone starts to rise, the society talks about it and tries to pull the person down. In a modern society, we call gossip information. It tells people about other people’s accomplishments and flames their aspiration to rise. It educates the mind, which tries to understand how it can do the same thing. But in traditional society that wants to keep everyone where they are, gossip primarily serves negative purposes.

  1. Armstrong, Isobel in Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, Oxford University Press, 1970, Introduction)
  2. Teachman, Debra, Understanding Pride & Prejudice, Greenwood Press, 1955, X)

Source: This core article was prepared by The Mother's Service Society, Pondicherry, India (Social Evolution in Pride and Prejudice)


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