What Makes a Happy Marriage? : A Study of Choice in Four Jane Austen Novels

University essay from Linköpings universitet/Institutionen för kultur och kommunikation

Author: Gao Yishen; [2010]

Keywords: ;


The aim of this thesis was to show how important both the outward and inward factors are in decision-making process in relation to marriage in the four novels Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. The argument was that all Austen’s novels revolve around the balance of all external and internal factors. Individual novels seem to focus more or less on specific factors.

Chapter one deals with money factor in the novel Sense and Sensibility. Marianne Dashwood is a symbol with unworldly character that shows no  care about money. Unfortunately, her first love John Willoughby chooses a mercenary marriage over true love, and Marianne learns more prudence and realism. It is Elinor, who keeps a good balance between heart and head, which Austen highly praises in the novel. And her happy marriage with Edward Ferrars proves to be a right and wise choice.

Chapter two, Emma, concerns the rank issue. Emma Woodhouse makes many mistakes in her match-making interference with Harriet Smith because of her class consciousness and superiority. Her wrong-doings are corrected by Mr. Knightley’s good judgment. On the whole, the novel discourages rejection of class boundaries, but we also see that people from different social class are also able to build a happy marriage, as long as there is equality of minds between them. Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill prove this point.

Chapter three and four turn to the inward factors. In Pride and Prejudice, the main focus, as shown in Jane and Frank’s case, is the equality of minds. The two good marriages between Elizabeth and Darcy, and her sister Jane and Bingley, are good examples. The other two female characters, Charlotte and Lydia fail in their choices. The former chooses a mercenary marriage, which only an outward factor, money, is concerned; and the latter a marriage built mainly on sexual attraction, which is onlyan inward factor, yet a wrong one. Thus, neither of them considers equality of minds with her husband, and they both end up in bad marriages.

The last Mansfield Park chapter explains the importance of principle in marital choices. The Crawfords have everything but principle. They are intelligent, good-tempered, elegant and both show respect and affection to the cousins, but they do not have good moral judgments and the courage to act accordingly. Therefore, they do not deserve happy endings. In contrast, Fanny Price, who always keeps consistent principles, wins Edmund’s heart and respect, and ends with a happy life ever after.

As a realistic novelist, all of these four Austen’s novels deal with realistic issues: money, rank, social status etc. With the in-depth reading and analysis, we realize that there are some romantic thoughts and imaginations in her realistic works. Austen understands the importance of fortune, there is financial security in either good or bad marriages in her novels. This is the social circumstances and trend at her time. But in all her good marriages, the characters value some other factors more. Austen’s ideal marriage consists of true affection, mutual admiration and respect, equality of minds and high moral and principles between a couple, which is not an easy thing to do back to pre-Victorian period. Those bad or less satisfactory marriages explain her disappointment in people who are too realistic and materialistic, or too unrealistic and too unworldly. It is also maybe the reason why she remains single through her entire life. Her expectation in marriage is higher than the social standards, which makes her at the same time a romantic novelist.

To sum up, marriage must reflect the social and economical reality of the society. Only when there is a firm base can individual desires be  considerable. Money and rank are outward factors which cannot be totally neglected in marital choices. But equality of intelligence, minds and moral principles are more important to determine a happy marriage. These four are Austen’s deeply serious novels, in spite of all the satire, humour, wit and romance portrayed in them.

It is worth noting that these particular conditions belong to Austen’s time, but the theme of choice of spouse is universal. Every individual must find one balance between the demands of society, and his or her own desires, emotions and hopes. Hence readers are able to both learn from and enjoy Jane Austen’s novels.

Anyhow, realistic or romantic, those factors mentioned in Austen’s novel are also relevant to people’s marital choices in modern society. Many of her good points are still referred to nowadays. This, together with her light humor and witty words, are the reason why there are so many ‘Janeites’ in the world, and why she still occupies a high place in English and world literature.

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