Gender Dynamics in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and Eliot’s “Adam Bede”

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and George Eliot’s Adam Bede seem different on the surface. While Austen’s novel provides a voyeuristic view into the trivial concerns of the idle upper class in Regency England, Eliot’s novel delves in to the dark consequences of Murphy’s Law for the working class of rural Regency England. However, both novels explore the universal fundamentals of what it means to be a man or a woman in the pre-Victorian time period. Though these two novels differ in the level of autonomy granted to the female characters, the consequences of failing to marry and their depiction of strongly defined gender roles, they similarly show female characters that choose their own spouses, maintain a similar societal view of spinsters and work with the same social constructs of gender. The differences shown between the women of different realms of society belonging to the same time period, along with the similarities between the conventions governing the interactions between men and women in both Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Eliot’s Adam Bede result in two novels that conform to the standard drama of the sexes. Neither of the two novels substantially deviates from the constant that requires a plot involving a relationship between two or more members of the opposite gender to explore gender roles, cast a critical glance at the society the characters exist in and address the repercussions that result from a character deviating from the rules of society. This paper will primarily compare and contrast the characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice with the characters of Adam Bede and Dinah Morris in Adam Bede.

In each novel, both men and women are permitted to choose their own spouses. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy battles familial expectations and chooses to marry Elizabeth against all of his rational logic, proving quite strongly that he does have the ability to make the decision for himself. More importantly, in denying two marriage proposals, Elizabeth shows, to the dismay of her mother, that she has the right and power to marry whomever she wishes. Elizabeth gets her father’s blessing to make the choice for herself when he says, “We all know [Mr. Darcy] to be a proud, unpleasant sort of man; but this would be nothing if you really liked him… I have given him my consent… I now give it to you…” (Austen 246). Her father tells her that his opinion does not matter if she really loves Mr. Darcy and only asks her to make sure he is a man whom she can truly esteem and look up to. Similarly, in Adam Bede, the working class Adam chooses not to marry Mary Burge, despite feeling the same familial pressures faced by the elite Mr. Darcy. He instead chooses to ask Hetty Sorrel to marry him, a union in which happiness in the only perceivable gain. When this proposition is made void, Adam chooses to marry Dinah Morris. Dinah, who had previously turned down a marriage proposal from Adam’s brother, Seth, on the basis that she had rejected the institution of marriage in general, is given the opportunity to change her mind and marry a good man. Choosing the right spouse is an anxiety experienced by every character, regardless of social standing. From the first days of human civilization to the last, a person’s fear of giving everything that they are to the wrong person will continue to be crux of the drama played out between the sexes.

However, this ability for women to choose their own partners is not to be confused with female autonomy, which differs greatly between the two novels. In Austen’s novel, Elizabeth simply does not want to marry the wrong man; she does know that she must marry some man someday. With the reality of being one of five daughters and her family estate being entailed to her cousin, the closest male kin of her father, Elizabeth knows that she must be in want of a husband. When Mr. Darcy proposes marriage to her the first time, the final words of her rejection are:

“… your manners,… your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that ground-work of disapprobation, on which succeeding events have built so immoveable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.” (Austen 128)

Elizabeth fears, at this point, that Mr. Darcy is not the right man for her and therefore cannot allow herself to accept him, yet when she states that she was evaluating him for marriage potential from the first days she met him, Elizabeth shows that marriage is always in the back of her mind. She can escape an unpleasant, unsuitable marriage, but she cannot escape marriage altogether. Conversely, in Eliot’s novel, Dinah does not want to marry, nor does she need to. Although multiple people in her community want to see her married, she is in no way required to do so. Dinah has a greater level of autonomy than Austen’s Elizabeth because she does not have to rely on her father or husband to provide for her. Dinah can take care of herself physically, emotionally and financially, and so, has the freedom to choose to marry or not. This disparity reveals that the female struggle for independence and self-determination was present in the minds of both authors. Eliot deciding to give independence to her character and Austen deciding not to shows that autonomy existed on a spectrum. Neither the crushing apprehension that comes with a lack of options in life, nor the overwhelming disorientation that comes with the freedom to do anything are modern players in the drama that exists between men and women.

The societies in both novels display a negative attitude towards older, unmarried women. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas is a burden to her family until, at age 27, she finds a husband. Her parents are comforted in knowing that their daughter will be provided with a large inheritance through her marriage and her brothers are “relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid” (Austen 83). Dying an old maid was not only socially unpleasant for the women of Pride and Prejudice, but it also meant that they would never receive an inheritance. An elite woman who did not marry would never receive money or property from her family and would therefore be a burden to her brothers, whom are obliged to take care of her. In a family such as Elizabeth’s, where there are no brothers to take care of her or her sisters, the situation is even more precarious. Furthermore, the old maid sisters, Miss Irwine and Miss Anne, in Adam Bede are regarded as an amusing oddity by the society of rural workers. They hold a strange status and move through their society as ghosts seemingly walking on a separate plane of existence. They are seen as “superfluous existences; inartistic figures crowding the canvas of life without adequate effect” (Eliot 74). In addition to the common view of the Miss Irwines, many characters discuss how they think Dinah will only find happiness if she marries. From the first moment they see her, the men that work with Adam and Seth discuss which one of them she should marry with no provocation, they say, “A strappin’ young carpenter as is a ready-made Methody, like Seth, wouldna be a bad match for her” (Eliot 26). They see a woman of marriageable age and naturally debate over which man will make her his wife. The frank and open way that the fate of spinsters is discussed in both novels brings attention to how normal it is for each society to have a decidedly negative view of old maids. Each novel’s view on the matter illuminates their conformity to the standard drama between the sexes.

Although both novels display a similar view towards the unmarried older women, they present differing immediate consequences for characters failing to marry their specific partners. In Austen’s novel, no direct consequence is present; the lives of the female characters will be little affected if they do not marry the specific male characters that they want to. Though Elizabeth’s sister Lydia stands to lose her reputation if she does not marry the man she has eloped with, her situation is incomparably mild to that of Hetty in Adam Bede. In Eliot’s novel, the consequences for Hetty failing to marry Arthur, the man she conceived a child with, are severe. At that moment, her social and physical life hinge on her being able to marry Adam, and in failing to do so, she kills her infant in desperation and is saved from the scaffold only to be sent to a penal colony. The differing severity of consequences for the female characters of these two novels, losing a trivial bit of happiness versus losing life and liberty, represent the way society enforces female chastity. The loss of a woman’s virtue, and society’s reaction and retribution, are not new additions to the corpus of literature focusing on the drama between the sexes.

Being written in the same country and in reference to the same time period, both novels apply the same social constructs of gender to its characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth plays against the socially constructed image of what a woman should be. She is smart, opinionated and aggressive; she behaves like a man when she speaks her mind, confronts people, stands her ground and defends her sisters. Her masculine character is summed up when she says, while refusing Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, “…do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man, who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?” (Austen 126). In this scene, Elizabeth takes a dominant role at a time when she should be submissive, to Mr. Darcy’s utter astoundment. In addition, in Adam Bede, Dinah also plays against the social constructs of womanhood and takes on a more dependent, dominant role. She is a rare female preacher in the Methodist religion, does not work with her family and does not want to marry and have children initially. She talks to men in an open and frank manner and walks with men without talking their arm. Although it is common courtesy for a man to offer a young woman his arm when they walk together, the narrator notes that as Adam and Dinah walk from The Hall Farm to his cottage, “Adam did not ask Dinah to take his arm…. He had never yet done so, often as they had walked together; for he had observed that she never walked arm-in-arm with Seth, and he thought, perhaps, that kind of support was not agreeable to her” (Eliot 527). In setting up an ideal to be overturned, these two novels display the same standard social constructs of gender, which in no way deviate from the typical. Playing up or against gender roles is nothing new to the drama between the sexes.

However, the gender roles in Pride and Prejudice are more obscured than they are in Adam Bede. In Austen’s novel, both genders are the idle rich, the men sit back and collect their inheritance and rent payments while the women have nothing to do but entertain their husbands. Whereas, in Eliot’s novel, the gender roles of the rural society are prominent and enforced, the men work outdoors, either on the farm or in the trades, while the women work indoors, taking care of the house and children after they are married. These differences reflect the polarity of the class structure in Regency England. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth might as well live in a different world from Adam and Dinah for how vast the separation between them really is. This incongruence is highlighted explicitly in Adam Bede, when the elite Arthur must admit that he can never marry Hetty, the dairymaid. The drama that arises between entangled men and women of different classes has existed in life and literature since humans have been dividing themselves into social classes.

Between the similar ways that choosing one’s own spouse, society’s view of spinsters and the social constructs of gender are explored and the contrasting ways that female autonomy, the consequences of failing to marry and gender roles are represented in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Eliot’s Adam Bede, neither of the two novels contribute substantially to re-writing the edict of the drama between the sexes in literature. The ability, or lack there of, to choose one’s own spouse and its effects on the conventions of communication between the genders have been used as the fulcrum on which to rest a plot since Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The negative view of old maids and the struggle to avoid the shame of becoming one has been engrained into society since the inception of writing. Every author that channels Homer’s Odyssey and writes a romance or heroic epic uses the social constructs of gender and the ensuing expectations they place on each sex as the backdrop of their story. The topic of a female’s right to self governance and its implications on her relationships has been one of interest to writers since Milton crafted Paradise Lost. The consequences of a woman failing to secure the man of her choice and the ways in which the wrath of her mistakes touches every one of her relationships have made winning plots from Euripides’ Hippolytus to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and beyond. The magnification or inversion of gender roles and their implications on each gender’s relationship with the other has been used as a plot device in literature since Homer’s Iliad, Euripides’ Medea and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. As the evidence clearly states, although making valuable contributions to the universal fundamentals of what it means to be a man or a woman, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Eliot’s Adam Bede do conform to the standard drama between the sexes.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Ed. Donald Gray. New York: Norton, 2001. 3-254. Print.

Eliot, George. Adam Bede. 1859. Ed. Margaret Reynolds. London, Eng.: Penguin, 2008. 9-590. Print.