Strong Women, Strong Values

Throughout history, society has played an important role in forming the value and attitudes of the population. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman are two novels which exemplify the negative effects of society’s influence. Both Elizabeth Bennet and Marian McAlpin are strong women who rebel against society’s influences in their lives. They refuse to accept the pre-set roles and identities handed to them. Both women realize that the individual’s needs are not necessarily the same as what society imposes on them; they rebel against this very society in order to gain the independence necessary to discover what they want from life.
Society in the early 19th century world of Pride and Prejudice is represented through Mrs. Bennet and those like her, who are “of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” (Austen 53). From the beginning of the novel, society prominently displays its views on marriage. When Mr. Bingly moves to town, Mrs. Bennet immediately entreats her husband to go introduce himself. Mrs. Bennet describes Bingly as “a single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!” (51). Bingly is immediately acceptable due to his money and connections, and Mrs. Bennet is already dreaming that one of her children will marry him. In fact, “the business of her life was to get her daughters married” (53). One of Elizabeth’s close friends, Charlotte Lucas, feels “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (69). She feels that marriage is a vehicle to gain wealth and connections, a view which has obviously been pushed upon her by society. Elizabeth refuses to accept this view. She feels marriage is for love, not money, and finds it a “fantastic nightmare” that “economic and social institutions have such power over the values of personal relationships” (Harding 167). However, Charlotte later marries Mr. Collin and sacrifices love for worldly advantage. Mr. Darcy also assumes everyone marries for wealth. He feels the Bennet’s lack of money “must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration of the world” (Austen 82). Darcy “is mindful of his relationship to society, proud of his social place, and aware of the restrictions that inevitably limit the free spirit” (Litz 104). Darcy’s admiration of Elizabeth grows when she demonstrates her wit in a conversation with him. Darcy “really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger” (Austen 96). He thinks he loves Elizabeth, yet he continues to degrade her on the basis of her family’s socioeconomic situation. Society’s view of marriage is evident through the many characters who express monetary views of the sacred institution.
Elizabeth finally finds happiness when she takes control of her situation and completely disregards society. After a series of events both Darcy and Elizabeth fall in love for real. However, the two are still not free to be together. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who represents high society, soon pays a visit to Elizabeth and informs her that Elizabeth and Darcy are completely unsuitable for one another. She tells Elizabeth that to marry “a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world” (364) would “ disgrace him in the eyes of everybody” (367). Lady Catherine does not care about her nephew, instead she is only concerned with what “everybody” will think. Elizabeth, however, will not let herself be intimidated, and refuses to promise that she will not marry Darcy. Lady Catherine replies to Elizabeth’s defiance by asking, “do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this” (364). Hence, society is not used to being rejected. But due to Elizabeth’s resistance to what society dictates as her needs, she and Darcy find their way back to each other and are betrothed. While this marriage may not be suitable in the eyes of “everyone”, as Lady Catherine thinks, it is right for the two people who matter.
Atwood’s late 20th century novel also illustrates society’s influence on people when it comes to marriage. The “office virgins” hope that after a few years of work and travel they will “get married and settle down” (Atwood 15). Marian assumes she will do the