Today, I’ll be posting a Literature essay that I did for homework. I would love constructive criticisms and useful comments so that I can improve. Please do refrain from praising/complimenting (as if I’d get them, but just as foreword, hehe) so that my head won’t get too big for my shoes and I start floating off in puffy clouds… You get the picture. 😄
What is the importance of social rank and social conventions in Jane Austen’s society?
In Jane Austen’s society, social rank and social convention seem to go hand in hand, even more so as depicted in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. The concept of social rank locates individuals in socio-economic positions with a capital emphasis on lineage, and it is for this reason that ‘rank’ is inevitably bestowed by birth and descent. In a social context, a ‘convention’ often refers to a generally stipulated standard of social norms that one is expected to comply to; in other words, retaining the character of an unwritten law of custom. Before we begin discussing the importance of social rank and social conventions in the eighteenth century, it is worth noting that these two ideas were very much interwoven, for with social rank comes the expected complaisance of social conventions, but the opposite is, however, untrue.
In Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the concept of social rank inevitably defines and effectively narrows the social band that one is to be seen associated with. This can be evidently seen when Mr. Darcy simply expresses a quiet indifference when Mr. Collins boldly introduces himself to him. In the eighteenth century, this sort of behaviour was not good etiquette, for it was practised that men of higher rank may choose to acquaint themselves with members of similar social status, and should they wish to, form associations with those below their class; this is, however, untrue of people from lower ranks. Mr. Collins, who is of lower gentry status, is expected to mingle within his social band, and if inter-class affiliations should be made, it is expected to be initiated by those of higher rank, rather than the other way around. Hence, social rank does indeed confine members of a society to stick with others of equal position and such a restriction is unquestionably expected to be adhered to.
Another great importance of social rank is that it establishes those who are granted great responsibility in society, as perfectly depicted by Mr. Darcy, and a fact that highlights, even more prominently, the failures of Lady Catherine in her duty as a landlady. The line ‘a stream of natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance’ which portrays the landscape of Pemberley illustrates the gradual change that Darcy has brought upon the land, rather than belligerently uprooting the estate and planting a ‘modern’ building to prove his worth, as Lady Catherine had done in Rosings. Darcy also does not appear to spend eight hundred pounds on a mere chimney, and his furniture was ‘neither gaudy or uselessly fine’, which means that he has a sense of taste that is a class above that of Lady Catherine’s, and this is Austen’s hint at the difference between the both of them as land owners. While Mrs. Reynolds praises Mr. Darcy incessantly (“If I were to go through the world, I could not meet with a better”), Lady Catherine is depicted as a fixed character of exaggerated propensities, almost caricature-like, who is a ‘mere stateliness of money and rank’. Here, Austen points out, indirectly, that Darcy must be a kind and prudent landlord of his time to garner such affection from Mrs. Reynolds, while this reflects Lady Catherine as an overbearing woman who is only infatuated with her own opinions and position. If Darcy were not responsible as a landlord, he would not be so highly respected even on his own grounds, and while Darcy and Lady Catherine carry out their duties with astonishing disparity, it cannot be denied that for them both, responsibility as land owners is expected because of their privilege in social rank.
In ‘Pride and Prejudice’, social conventions, while closely tied to the notion of social rank, may be regarded as a separate matter as well. While good, proper social behaviour does not officially alter one’s inherited status, it does indirectly boost others’ respect towards a gentleman. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are excellent examples of such befitting social conventions, because even though their wealth comes by form of trade and their home is situated near Cheapside, Darcy takes to the couple easily, even offering his grounds for Mr. Gardiner to go ‘fishing’. This proves that agreeable social behaviour, evident in the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, is a social convention in all its propriety, and while it cannot upgrade one’s status in the eyes of society, it certainly helps to upgrade one’s status in the minds of others. This is why Darcy refers to Mr. Gardiner as gentleman-like – the same term is used to describe Mr. Bingley.
Another great importance of the theme of social convention is that it is a direct reflection on the sort of breeding that one has received. Mr. Wickham’s ‘happy readiness of conversation’, while not revealing the true extent of his ‘vicious propensities’, does actually reflect on his good upbringing on the part of the late Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, initially represents the social convention of the higher rank – ‘He was at the same time haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well bred, were not inviting’ – hence illustrating the breeding of the social class. Even though he is susceptible to change, as Austen unravels for us, his initial manners still say very much about how the people of higher rank are brought up, and this is viewed as a social norm. Social convention is extremely important in Austen’s opinion, for it is Mrs. Bennet’s hysterical silliness and vulgarity that nearly ruins the happiness of the two eldest daughters. This shows, perhaps, upbringing which is not well regarded for, but such breeding does not only inflict the lower gentry. When Lady Catherine de Bourgh rudely suggests Elizabeth would not be in the way if she practiced on the second-best piano in Rosings, Darcy ‘looked a little ashamed of his aunt’s ill-breeding’. Lady Catherine, in effect, loses the status she acquired by birth by exhibiting bad manners. Thus, Austen shows us, however distinguished her family may be, her ladyship represents an aristocratic parallel to Mrs. Bennet, and proves that social convention no doubt leaves lasting impressions on others.
The importance of social rank and social convention, as seen in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ are so prominent that it may be fallible of readers if they do not detect them behind Austen’s satirical comments and the humorous dialogue among characters. Indeed, social rank and social convention are so very much interwoven for they both complement an individual, without which one may be found, somehow, lacking.
(approx. 1000 words)