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On the Inside of the Window: Female Confinement in Austen's Pride and Prejudice

By Edited Sep 10, 2015 0 0

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has become canonical in the genre of fictional romance since its first publication in 1813. Fitting nicely into the romantic literary world, this novel is similar to a fairy tale, in which the leading female character, Elizabeth Bennet, inevitably marries her (rather wealthy) knight in shining armor, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Austen 364-365). This surface romanticism, however, is significantly altered by an underlying theme concerning gender politics. Elizabeth and her four sisters, Jane, Mary, Catherine and Lydia, are trapped living in a patriarchal society where a woman's value is judged by the amount of money and property possessed by either her father or husband. As the Bennet daughters have no rights to their father's inheritance when he dies, they are expected to marry men whom have their own wealth and property (29). This marital expectation, along with the view that men are naturally superior to women, accentuates the conventional norms that have established societal boundaries between male and female spaces. Austen uses the image of a window throughout the novel to symbolize this gender divide, as well as to signify the confinement of women in marriage.

Toward the beginning of the novel, Mr. Bennet goes to visit Mr. Bingley, a wealthy bachelor who has recently purchased the large estate of Netherfield. In return for Mr. Bennet's trip, Mr. Bingley makes a visit to the Bennet household at Longbourn. When he arrives, the Bennet women "had the advantage of ascertaining from an upper window, that he wore a blue coat and rode a black horse" (Austen 11). The location of these ladies on the second floor, most likely in a bedroom or drawing room, is representative of the traditional gender norms of the time period. In the views of this patriarchal society, a woman's proper place was inside the household, separate from the outdoor male sphere and the male business world. While the women are upstairs in their own space, Mr. Bingley and Mr. Bennet are in the library. The library is male domain, being a place of business where one acquires knowledge and becomes connected with the outside world. For the duration of Mr. Bingley's ten-minute stay, the female and male spheres are kept entirely separate. Even though "he had entertained hopes of being admitted to a sight of the young ladies, . . .he saw only the father" (11). With Mr. Bennet in control of the situation, he does not allow the male-female boundaries to be crossed, ensuring the protection of his daughters from the male sexual eye. Though Mr. Bingley does not get to see the Bennet women at all during this visit, the view that the ladies get of him "from an upper window" is not much better (11). Since the window they peer through is unclear, they are given a warped perspective of the males' exterior world. All that they can make out of Mr. Bingley from this view is "that he wore a blue coat and rode a black horse" (11). He is seen only in terms of colors, an indistinct black and blue bruise as a painful reminder of the damaging force being driven by patriarchal traditions.

Having this window with opaque glass positioned between the outside male realm and the inside female world represents a distinction between genders. This division of the sexes is presented as artificial, however, as the glass disrupts the flow of nature and imposes a physically solid, yet fuzzy separation that was not present until man (the all-encompassing man) put it there. The Bennet women, being on the inside of the window looking out, portray an image that is reminiscent to a prisoner in a cell, staring longingly, pining to be in a world which one is socially forbidden to join without permission from higher (male) authority. Mr. Bennet's daughters are forced to stay on their side of the window, in the internal space designated for them, unless their father allows them to cross the gendered boundaries. In this patriarchal culture, however, the only socially proper means by which a father would permit his daughter to breech the limits of the male/female divide is to place her into the hands of another authority figure, leaving her in the possession of a husband.

By the end of the novel, Mary and Catherine are the only two Bennet daughters left at home under the protection of their father, though Catherine frequently stays "with her two elder sisters" (Austen 364). The other three daughters, Jane, Elizabeth and Lydia are no longer in their father's care, but are instead imprisoned in marriage, confined by the households of their respective husbands (364-365). Once these women, as property, are transferred from their father's hands into that of their husbands', they are immediately placed back on the internal side of the window, having experienced the outside realm only briefly in passing through. The trip that Elizabeth takes around the boundaries of male space does, however, give her a better understanding of the external sphere. Elizabeth has a greater and more accurate view of the outdoor male territory when she is at Pemberley because the estate's windows are much larger and she can clearly see through the glass, as she states that "from every window there were beauties to be seen" (236). Though Jane, Elizabeth and Lydia now have a change in atmosphere and Elizabeth has a clearer view outside, their inferior position in society remains the same.

The gender divide in Austen's patriarchal society, like the glass in the window, is difficult to see with the naked eye, but its presence is obtrusively real. As the cultural expectations of the time period places this partition into the world, the male and female realms become distinctly separate spaces. Men are expected to stay on the outside of the window, in their own sphere, whereas women are confined to the inner side of the glass, inside the household. Having this divide in place prevents the outside air from passing into the house, which is suffocating the female population. The Bennet daughters are being confined in their father's household at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, as they stare out the window awaiting Mr. Bingley's arrival (Austen 11). For the duration of the novel, all five sisters are trapped on the inside of the window, in the designated female sphere. Although Elizabeth pushes the limits of gender boundaries, making the window a bit more transparent, she never completely crosses into male territory. As the end of the novel approaches, this social confinement of women remains. Catherine and Mary are still under their father's authority and the imprisonment of Jane, Elizabeth and Lydia is exacerbated by their marriages (364-365). The three married daughters have submitted further to patriarchal demands by going along with societal expectations to acquire husbands in the first place. These women then allow their husbands to wall them up inside the household, where they supposedly belong. In either case, whether married or still unmarried, all five of the Bennet daughters are trapped on the inside of the window looking out at the man's world, which they cannot become a part of without male authorization.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.

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