One of the most memorable characters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is Mrs. Bennet, the mother of the five Bennet sisters. She is a woman of “mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” , who is obsessed with finding suitable husbands for her daughters. But why is she so desperate to see them married? What are the social and economic pressures that drive her behavior?
The first clue to Mrs. Bennet’s motivation is given in the famous opening line of the novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” . This sentence reveals the prevailing attitude of the society in which the novel is set, where marriage is seen as the ultimate goal and achievement for women, especially those of the gentry class. Marriage is not only a matter of personal happiness, but also of social status and economic security.
Mrs. Bennet belongs to this class of landed gentry, who own estates but do not have titles or ranks. She was born into a respectable family, the Gardiners, who were in trade, and married Mr. Bennet, a gentleman with an income of £2,000 a year from his estate of Longbourn . However, their marriage was not based on love or compatibility, but on attraction and impulse. Mr. Bennet soon discovered that his wife had “no solid qualities” and retreated into his library, leaving her to her own devices.
Mrs. Bennet’s main concern became the future of her daughters, who would inherit nothing from their father’s estate due to an entailment. An entailment was a legal provision that restricted the inheritance of property to a specific line of male heirs, usually the closest male relative . In the case of the Bennets, this was Mr. Collins, a distant cousin and a pompous clergyman . This meant that after Mr. Bennet’s death, his widow and daughters would be left without a home or an income, unless they married well.
This explains why Mrs. Bennet is so eager to introduce her daughters to any eligible bachelor who comes into the neighborhood, such as Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. She hopes that one of them will fall in love with one of her daughters and propose marriage, thus securing their fortune and status. She is also willing to overlook any flaws or obstacles that might stand in the way of such a match, such as personality, character, manners, morals or family connections.
For example, when Mr. Bingley rents Netherfield Park, a nearby estate, Mrs. Bennet immediately decides that he must marry one of her daughters, preferably Jane, the eldest and most beautiful . She does not care about his character or background, only about his wealth and position. She even schemes to send Jane to Netherfield on horseback on a rainy day, hoping that she will catch a cold and be invited to stay there until she recovers . She is overjoyed when Jane receives an invitation from Miss Bingley to dine at Netherfield, and urges her to accept it without delay .
Similarly, when Mr. Collins visits Longbourn with the intention of choosing one of the Bennet sisters as his wife, Mrs. Bennet is delighted by his proposal and tries to persuade Elizabeth, the second eldest and most intelligent daughter, to accept it . She does not care about Mr. Collins’s personality or appearance, only about his connection to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a wealthy and influential patroness . She also does not care about Elizabeth’s feelings or preferences, only about her duty to her family. She tells Elizabeth that she will never see her again if she refuses Mr. Collins .
Mrs. Bennet’s desperation reaches its peak when Lydia, the youngest and most reckless daughter, elopes with Mr. Wickham, a charming but unprincipled officer . This scandal threatens to ruin the reputation and prospects of all the Bennet sisters, as no respectable gentleman would marry them after such a disgrace . Mrs. Bennet is inconsolable and blames everyone but herself for this misfortune . She is overjoyed when Mr. Darcy intervenes and arranges for Lydia and Wickham to marry with a decent settlement . She does not know or care about Mr. Darcy’s role or motives in this affair, only about the fact that Lydia is married.
Mrs. Bennet’s character is a satire of the social norms and expectations that governed the lives of women in the early nineteenth century. She represents the folly and futility of marrying for money and status, rather than for love and compatibility. She also shows the lack of education and opportunities that women faced, as they were dependent on their fathers and husbands for their livelihood and happiness. She is contrasted with her daughters, especially Elizabeth, who have more sense and sensibility, and who seek to marry for love and respect, rather than for convenience and security.
In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet is characterized as a highly anxious and desperate mother, primarily motivated by her desire to see her daughters married. Here are a few quotes that shed light on her motivations:
These quotes demonstrate Mrs. Bennet’s relentless pursuit of finding eligible suitors for her daughters, driven by her belief that the marital status of her daughters directly affects their social standing and financial security.
: Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin Classics, 2003.
: CliffsNotes. “Pride and Prejudice: Character Analysis: Mrs. Bennet.” https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/p/pride-and-prejudice/character-analysis/mrs-bennet (accessed February 10, 2024).