Newspaper article The Canadian Press

In Jane Austen, Fairy Tales Meet Biting Feminist Critiques

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

In Jane Austen, Fairy Tales Meet Biting Feminist Critiques

Article excerpt

In Jane Austen, fairy tales meet biting feminist critiques

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Robert Morrison, Professor of English Language and Literature, Queen's University, Ontario

Jane Austen is not an obvious ally of today's feminist movement. All six of her novels are now more than two centuries old. All six centre on a tale of provincial domesticity and romantic courtship. And all six are full of twists and witty turns that move inexorably toward a gratifyingly happy ending.

Yet below their glittering surfaces and rose-coloured tales of well-matched couples falling deeply in love, Austen's novels vigorously critique the patriarchal structures of her day. They bristle with anger and a deep sense of injustice. Many of her plots and sub-plots about men and power -- and women's resilience in the face of that power -- sound like stories we are hearing today.

Austen wrote in the early 1800s, when life for most women involved submerging their individual identities in their responsibilities as daughters, wives and mothers. Women were considered politically, economically, socially and artistically subordinate to men. It was a life that condemned many women to half-lives of humiliation, loneliness and abuse.

The novelist and short story writer Carol Shields has concisely summarized the complicated nature of Austen's artistry and appeal. Austen, declares Shields, exploits "an arch, incontrovertible amiability" to conceal "a ferocious and persistent moral anger."

Fairy tales meet social critique

Mr. Darcy's first marriage proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice" (1813) is the most famous moment in Austen's most famous novel. It is also the most telling example of Austen's remarkable ability to combine wish fulfilment with social realism, and fairy-tale romance with biting cultural critique.

On one level, the scene between the two would-be lovers is a world removed from harrowing accounts of sexual harassment and assault. Darcy is proposing marriage to Elizabeth, not sex, and in his eyes at least, it is a very romantic offer.

He knows that her social standing is far below his own, and that in asking for her hand he is going against the wishes of his family and his own better judgment. But, as he patiently and politely explains, his love for her has overpowered him, and he wants her to become his wife.

On a more fundamental level, though, the exchange between the two is full of irony and dark anxieties.

Darcy is a wealthy and well-connected man who enjoys great freedom, and who moves assertively through a world of elegance and opportunity. Elizabeth is a younger and much more vulnerable woman who can already see poverty and spinsterhood out of the corner of her eye, and who can only obtain a place in the higher echelons of society through marriage to a man like Darcy.

Asserting strength and independence

The stark power imbalance between them fills Darcy with certainty that Elizabeth will be delighted to learn that she has been singled out by a man of his influence and social standing, and that she will eagerly consent to the match. To be sure, as he outlines his plans for their future, he expresses his "hope" that she will accept him. …

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