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Human Resilience: Charlotte’s Sacrifice in Pride and Prejudice

It is true that “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” –Andrew Grant. Often first impressions shape how we see a person, a company, or in this case, a novel. There has never been a more fitting introductory line than that seen in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” This first impression conveys the thematic importance of marriage in Pride and Prejudice and introduces readers to Austen’s satirical tone. Today, marriage is hardly the first thing on a girl’s mind, but in the Victorian Era, marriage was an objective of the utmost importance. So much so, that Austen created Pride and Prejudice to satirize the heightened importance some put on marriage. This theme is explored through Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr. Collins and her decision’s influence on Elizabeth. Charlotte’s sacrifice of what most believe is her happiness reveals her pragmatism and value of security over pleasure. Charlotte’s role in the novel reveals the underlying notion that through trial and tribulation, human resilience and sense of self withstand.

As a woman of the Victorian era, Charlotte has a responsibility to herself to marry. It is the “only honorable provision” (117) for young, educated women of small fortune during this time. An unmarried daughter without a great fortune is at risk of poverty if not married. To avoid poverty, Charlotte must marry into a wealthy family. Unfortunately, Charlotte is at a marital disadvantage because of her age, lack of fortune, and “so very plain” (40) looks. Charlotte is not the woman of choice for young, affluent men, but the alternative of marrying into the working class would mean social ruin. Charlotte is stuck between the social classes; her family’s name and social position prevent her from marrying into the working class, while her lack of wealth and good looks will prove scoring affluent gentlemen near impossible. Charlotte has had years to realize her predicament and weigh her options. As previously mentioned, marriage is the only option for Charlotte to remain in high society and avoid the shame of “dying an old maid” (117). Charlotte’s understanding of her marital worth prepared her for the “uncertain[ty] of [marriage] giving happiness” (117). In order for marriage to be a possibility, Charlotte recognizes that her happiness may be compromised. With little to aid her in gaining a husband, Charlotte has come to accept the fact that she would be lucky enough to accept any man, especially one as well off as Mr. Collins.

Charlotte’s acknowledgment of her fate is revealed through her efforts to speak with Mr. Collins whenever Elizabeth invites her to accompany them despite his “not being a sensible man (65)”. When Mr. Collins proposes, Charlotte readily accepts his marital offer as it is likely the only one she will ever receive. Elizabeth judges their engagement and thinks Charlotte is “disgracing herself” (120) and did not expect her to “sacrifice[] every better feeling to worldly advantage” (120). Though, when Elizabeth makes these conclusions, she has not thought it through nearly as meticulously as Charlotte has; she was not in a place to. As a fair, sensible young woman, Elizabeth has not one care in the world about marriage. Despite her family’s embarrassing society, Elizabeth’s looks, level-headedness, and family name are enough for her to acquire a husband if she sought it. Charlotte is not in this position; the clock is ticking and Mr. Collins came to the right place at the right time. Because of this, Charlotte is willing to sacrifice a “better feeling” for Mr. Collins’s “irksome” (117) society because he would “still be her husband” and “she felt all the good luck of it” (117).

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Although viewed by Elizabeth as a disgrace, Charlotte’s engagement with Mr. Collins highlights her pragmatism and sensibility. Despite the fact that Mr. Collins is a “pompous” (67) man, his wealth, connections, and social position make him a surprisingly equal match for Charlotte. Charlotte has little to offer except her manners and companionship, both of which fulfill what Mr. Collins seeks in a wife. Ultimately, it is determined that Charlotte marries Mr. Collins not because she has no choice, but because her pragmatism and intelligence led her to believe Mr. Collins would grant, her “desire of an establishment” (116). As a woman of small fortune, the only way for Charlotte to live comfortably economically in the future would be to marry a wealthy man. As previously mentioned, Charlotte’s prospects of this are dim. In this light, matrimony to a man wealthy as Mr. Collins is not nearly so much of a sacrifice in the light Elizabeth views it. Though Charlotte must sacrifice the rest of her life as a companion to a self-conceited man, she will gain the pleasure of a socially and economically secure future. As an economically secure future is her greatest wish, Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr. Collins is less of a sacrifice of love and more of a compromise to ensure future security. This highlights Charlotte’s pragmatism because the decision to marry for financial prospects will bring Charlotte much more happiness than love ever could.

Though Charlotte’s decision to wed Mr. Collins came as an unwelcome surprise to Elizabeth, it caused her to rethink her prejudices towards those who behave differently than her expectations. Marrying for love is the theme that trumps all others in Pride and Prejudice and is portrayed by Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship as well as Jane and Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth believes marrying for love is superior to all other types of love and refuses to consider marriage without it. Because Charlotte married Mr. Collins for practical reasons, Elizabeth was certain Charlotte would never be “tolerably happy” (120). However, that is only because Elizabeth’s understanding of happiness was that which came from marrying for love. When Elizabeth first visits Charlotte and Mr. Collins at Hertfordshire, she meditates upon “Charlotte’s degree of contentment” (149). During this time, Elizabeth realizes happiness comes in all forms, and that her prejudices against Charlotte were incorrect. Elizabeth realizes that Charlotte’s life was “done very well” (150), even though she didn’t marry for love. This realization causes Elizabeth to rethink how other prejudices may have been incorrect in the past and initiates her openness toward Mr. Darcy.

Charlotte and Elizabeth’s friendship withstood the test of Charlotte’s engagement to Mr. Collins because both women retained their sense of self despite the changes around them. Their friendship faced its biggest threat when Charlotte became engaged to a man Elizabeth despised, Mr. Collins. Charlotte feared Elizabeth’s disapproval of her engagement to Mr. Collins would “hurt her feelings” (117), but took the time to “give [Elizabeth] the news herself” (117) because she cared about her. Despite Charlotte’s best efforts to defend her engagement, Elizabeth was upset by the news; Only once she visited Hertfordshire did her negative feelings dissipate. Despite this threat to their relationship, Elizabeth and Charlotte’s relationship endured. Through their distinct transformations, Charlotte’s lifestyle, and Elizabeth’s prejudice, one thing did not change for either woman: their sense of self. Elizabeth realized that even after Charlotte became Mrs. Collins, she was still the same girl inside. Their friendship withstood the bends of life, and the two women remained friends because who they were at the core never wavered. Elizabeth’s relationship with Charlotte has given her the newfound understanding that who people are inside remains the same, despite changes in situations, ideas, or lives. This understanding inspires Elizabeth to think twice about her prejudices and give Mr. Darcy a chance at redemption.

Charlotte’s sacrifice of what Elizabeth thinks is her reputation and happiness, in fact, turns out to be a compromise Charlotte has expected for years to come. In turn, Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins provides her with the financial security she had wished for and exemplifies her practical attitude towards marriage. Charlotte and Elizabeth’s relationship withstood its greatest test. From this experience, Elizabeth learned that through a great transformation, who people are at the core withstands. This understanding influences Elizabeth’s self-awareness towards her prejudices made upon first impression. Almost fittingly titled First Impressions instead of Pride and Prejudice, the difficulties in overcoming prejudices set upon first impressions provide the foundation for plot and character development throughout the novel. From the opening line, Pride and Prejudice leave a lasting impression that has proved timeless through the centuries.

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