Dictionary definitions of masculinity circle around having qualities or appearances traditionally associated with men, especially strength and aggressiveness. However, when it is applied to the male characters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice this definition appears insufficient, or at least somewhat wide of the mark in understanding the actions of the novel’s male characters. Jane Austen places heavy emphasis on gender roles, but in her novels masculinity is defined by the relationship between men and women; the author avoids defining masculinity as the opposite of femininity. Taking masculinity to mean the ability to attract women into marriage, regardless of the traits of the person whose masculinity we are studying, will prove to create different outcomes in the analysis of Austen’s male characters, as would a study of them based merely on their power, or wealth, or aggressiveness. With respect to the latter criterion, Darcy would have been judged less of a man than Wickham, and especially less than Mr. Collins, who in his search for a bride proves very assertive and aggressive. But this analysis is evidently lacking when we consider the enormous appeal that the “Darcy” archetype has gained in Western culture. Instead, by considering masculinity to be the ability to attract women and secure a marriage, we will find that all the eligible men in the novel are successful and thus masculine, be it through their physical attractiveness, their status and power, or a combination thereof. Austen is thus hinting at the idea that masculinity is in the eye of the beholder, and that there is no universal recipe for attraction.

This different, consequentialist definition of masculinity makes sense from a biological imperative standpoint, when one considers producing offspring as the goal of life. But it also reflects the idea that masculinity can only be nuanced when the character is placed alongside a woman whose companionship he has or has not gained. Luckily, Austen marries off four young men in her novel, and supplies quite a few different examples of what kinds of traits embody masculinity, and what can be lacking from the quality without jeopardising its existence. It is also worth mentioning that the men are not all competing, or winning, the attention of the same woman, namely Elizabeth. Because more than one beholder exists, masculinity becomes an avatar of a different set of characteristics for each of these women who ultimately become wives. In this way, the equivalence between masculinity and successful marriage strays from the definitions given in dictionaries.

At first, a look at the pair consisting of Bingley and Jane Bennet is appropriate; their mutual attraction is the purest in the novel, as neither of them shows signs of considering a different match. All the other pairs have at one time or another been different from Bingley and Jane in terms of the existence of mutual attraction: Collins first prefers Jane, then Elizabeth, then Charlotte; Elizabeth first prefers Wickham; Wickham first prefers Georgina Darcy, whereas Darcy first prefers no one.

Even before any of the daughters is introduced to the plot, Mrs. Bennet exults about the arrival of a stranger at Netherfield Park, “a young man of large fortune from the north of England”. This short description, combined with the one a few lines down explaining that Bingley was “a single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year”[1], encompasses all the attributes necessary to make the young man a very eligible bachelor. In Mrs. Bennet’s mind, even without having seen Bingley, there is no doubt regarding his attractiveness to at least one of the family’s daughters – his youth and wealth should prove enough for anyone. Mrs. Bennet is thus saying that masculinity is merely wealth.

However, Bingley is not lacking in the other aspects of his person. At the ball he is seen by the assembly as “good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners.”[2] His charisma is present, but not extraordinary, his appearance is good, but not stunning. By a harmonious construction of the plot, Austen has the oldest sister, and thereby the most eligible for marriage, become the object of attraction for Bingley, an attraction that will prove reciprocal and end in marriage, after overcoming one obstacle: Bingley’s mistaken impressions that Jane wasn’t sufficiently attracted to him, i.e. he had not been masculine enough.

Simon Woods as Mr Charles Bingley (2005)

On the other hand, Darcy’s wealth, reputed at “ten thousand a year”[3] was greater than Bingley’s, and “the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley”,[4] but his masculinity suffers suddenly when Austen abruptly switches the tone of her description of the bachelor during a ball, early in the novel: “his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased”[5]. Austen uses this precipitous change in Darcy’s debonair allure to suggest an undertone of prejudice – a conception that has no base, and has been reached after a short and unsound inference – which will be overturned only much later in the novel. Additionally, the repeated use of the word “above” is striking in this context, and can be interpreted as creating a gap between Darcy and the other people in the room in terms of status, or pleasantness, but also hints at the distance between the observer, and the observed. Something viewed from above is not viewed entirely, and its true essence remains hidden, and therefore can become the subject of prejudice.

For these reasons, Darcy’s masculinity is non-existent because even though he is handsome and rich, he is unattractive to prospective partners; despite two strong and relevant characteristics in his favour, it is the consensus that he is to be avoided. Austen herself notes that “Bingley was sure of being liked wherever he appeared; Darcy was continually giving offence”,[6] with the implication that the latter is doing so unintentionally for the most part.

In the end however, Darcy’s masculinity is recognised by Elizabeth who erases the prejudice she had against him after reading his letter explaining the circumstances around his acquaintance with Wickham. In Romance and the Erotics of Property Jan Cohn notes that the heroine could not agree, or enter a marriage based solely on economic interest, or on physical attraction.[7] Further substantiated by Mrs. Reynolds’ depiction of him as “always the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted, boy in the world”,[8] Darcy’s character becomes more and more apparent to Elizabeth and she begins to feel very attracted to him. In other words, masculinity for Elizabeth represents the union of economic power, physical charm, and generosity of heart.

During her and Darcy’s encounter on the grounds of Pemberley, Elizabeth admits that “never in her life had she seen his manners so little dignified, never had he spoken with such gentleness as on this unexpected meeting”[9]. She is aware of the strength of Darcy’s charisma and its undue influence upon her; her opinion of him has much changed since he snubbed her at the ball described early in the novel, and the removal of her prejudice has made Darcy an ideal suitor for her. There is an interesting contrast here between Elizabeth and Miss Bingley: although Darcy comported himself with no excess of grace and goodwill to the latter, she was in awe of his masculinity, paying him innumerable feeble compliments. Thus, the two women view the notion of masculinity differently, and ironically, the one of lower status, demands more of it.

Colin Firth as Mr Darcy (1995 BBC series)

Appearing as an antagonist to Darcy in the novel, but not however as his antithesis, is the third noteworthy character, Mr. Wickham. “His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty – a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.”[10] The choice of words Austen employs in Wickham’s description is compelling – his appearance is not merely attractive, but “in his favour”, implying that the young man used his aura to benefit his purposes. She foreshadows the sinful role Wickham will play as corrupter of impressionable young girls with the aid of his masculinity.

Wickham also represents a development on Elizabeth’s journey to fathoming masculinity. In a letter to her aunt the heroine effuses about him that “whether married or single, he [Wickham] must always be her model of the amiable and pleasing.”[11] There is a trace of impropriety in her statement, a mark of Wickham’s influence on her sensibility, as she tries to set a married man and a single man on an equal footing. These two states of exuding attraction, being masculine, are in no way reconcilable; for a married man, it would be a grave offense to contrive to attract an unmarried young woman such as Elizabeth – devising schemes such as Wickham’s to gain favour with young women would be regarded as adulterous and contemptible.

Through a stroke of luck, Wickham is forced to marry Lydia, and gets compensated for it as well. He had no difficulty in securing the young girl’s company, or her consent for their marriage. Far from the regular incarnation of desirable qualities in a man, Wickham is nonetheless very masculine, as judged by his success with women, and particularly, with Lydia. This younger sister is a foil for Elizabeth as both have received attention and been charmed by Wickham, but only Elizabeth’s less likable, less relatable little sister falls prey to him and becomes ensnared in a life with such an unsavoury drifter. As Wickham’s shortcomings are not evident to Lydia, she is acutely enthralled by his masculinity.

Adrian Lukis as Mr Wickham (1995 BBC Series)

The final character to discuss is the heir of Longbourn, the “absurd”[12] Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins sees the Bennet daughters as interchangeable in his aspirations to marry and please his benefactor, Lady Catherine. Judging by the “mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter”[13], Mr. Bennet accurately foretells the kind of person his nephew will be. The use of this quasi-oxymoron sets up a tension between the intentions of Mr. Collins and the inept manner in which he will try to achieve them. As the best example, he fails in his attempt to court Jane, or marry Elizabeth, but finally marries Charlotte Lucas, an act that will provide no comfort to the Bennet family, as he had initially professed a desire to do.

Charlotte marries Collins only because of her “pure and disinterested desire of an establishment”[14] and not because she was attracted to him in other ways. It is engagingly symmetric how Austen uses another oxymoron in describing the goal that shaped Charlotte’s personality, just as she used one to describe Mr. Collins. The obvious incongruence between disinterest and an “establishment”, the paragon of material interest, makes the reader see how the two characters might be suitable for each other. Charlotte’s draw to Mr. Collins’ masculinity stands merely, but firmly, on his soon-to-be possession of Longbourn, and not at all on his physical, or intellectual traits. By having Elizabeth observe in her soliloquy that Charlotte “had chosen it with her eyes open”[15] (referring to her spending the rest of her life together with Mr. Collins), Austen yet again creates a dichotomy between two of her female characters, the arbiters of masculinity in her novel. Mr. Collins was not sufficient to please Elizabeth and attract her to his person, but for Charlotte who demands something else, Collins will do nicely. Thus, even the most contemptibly absurd and offensive male personage, is able to exert his masculinity and secure a marriage.

Tom Hollander as Mr Collins (2005)

After somewhat finely studying these four unions, the reader has a sense that the universe is just – the parties that comprise the pairs are naturally suitable one another. The four eligible bachelors, representing different qualities in different mixes, have through their masculinity been matched to wives of similar importance to theirs and of similar appeal to readers. There is no match one feels nettlesome, or unfair. Masculinity, as the force of male attraction, has done its job beautifully in a world where women, although considered passive, are deemed eligible for marriage due to different attributes than men. The romance novel proves to be an assurance that there is a match for any kind of soul, giving comfort to an audience of individuals in search for the right person, for a valued counterpart.

 

[1] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, (Wordsworth Classics, 2007): 3

[2] Ibid. 12

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. 16

[7] Jan Cohn, Romance and the Erotics of Property, (Duke University Press, 1988).

[8] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, (Wordsworth Classics, 2007): 209

[9] Ibid. 211

[10] Ibid. 63

[11] Ibid. 129

[12] Ibid. 59

[13] Ibid. 56

[14] Ibid. 105

[15] Ibid. 183