The fact that marriage is the only real option open to women and that to be unmarried is to a certain extent to be a social misfit, is central to the social critique and the understanding of gender stereotypes that Austen expertly reveals to the reader.
The above view is emphasized in a number of studies of this Novel. For example, while the contemporary reader "... may think that Pride and Prejudice shows only stereotypes of women obsessed with marriage" (Kubitschek 237), yet this was a necessity in terms of the social expectations of the time. Marriage for women is therefore an "obsession" and "Historically, middle-class British women had little choice." (Kubitschek 237) The fact that Charlotte Lucas prefers to marry any husband rather then remain single is evidence of this view and is reiterated time and again in the novel. This also related to the social fact that women were socially prevented from having an extensive education and had no avenue for advancement except through marriage.
However, while Austen exposes the situation of women she also offers alternatives and an even deeper understanding of the situation of women through her central characters. Elizabeth Bennet is by no means a subservient and reticent woman. She does not subscribe to the stereotypical view of women of the time and she has extremely high standards and a strong sense of independence. Austen is well aware that even Elizabeth must take into consideration the social norms and demands of the time. Despite these restrictions, Austen paints a picture of highly independent and principled woman who defies and contradicts submissive gender stereotypes. The fact that Elizabeth initially rejects Darcy in spite of the enormous class advantage that the marriage would have meant clearly indicates her sense of independence and her rejection of the class and sexual stereotypes of the age.
In essence Pride and Prejudice is a novel about the centrality and the situation of women in society. As one critic notes, "Men are of secondary importance in the novels, however useful they may be to the plot, and male experience becomes relevant only in so far as it confirms "feminine" truth. And by this I mean not a truth for women alone but what for Austen is a universal truth reflected more clearly in women's experience." (Morrison 337) This view implies that far from being a work that endorses the male perspective, through her characters Jane Austen reveals social prejudice and undermines sexual stereotypes.
In conclusion, there are two central aspects that have been emphasized in answer to the question, 'Does Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice reinforce or erode sexist stereotypes of women? In the first instance Jane Austen explores and reveals the nature and extent of the prejudice against women in the society. Rather than endorsing female stereotypes she exposes them through characters like her mother. Secondly, through her main female characters like Elizabeth the author presents women who have strong views and opinions and who are independent and certainly cannot be described as stereotypical. On the other hand Austen is continually aware that characters like Elizabeth Bennet have to live in a certain social milieu and that she is bound to a certain extent by social stereotypes of the time. Therefore in the final analysis this argument leads to the view that Pride and Prejudice erodes and works against female stereotypes.
Works Cited www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=22101131
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Kinsley, James. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. "Truths Universally Acknowledged: Stereotypes of Women in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813)." Women in Literature: Reading Through the Lens of Gender / . Ed. Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003. 237-239. Questia. 12 Dec. 2006 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=102159011.
Morrison, Sarah R. "Of Woman Borne: Male Experience and Feminine Truth in Jane Austen's Novels." Studies in the Novel 26.4 (1994): 337+. Questia. 12 Dec. 2006 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5000287328.
Women in Literature: Reading Through the Lens of Gender. Ed. Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003. Questia. 12 Dec. 2006 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=102158737.