Date of Award

Spring 5-8-2018

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

MA English

Department

English

Advisor

Karen Gevirtz, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Jonathan Farina, Ph.D.

Keywords

Austen, Blackstone, marriage, law, female autonomy, violence

Abstract

In several of Jane Austen’s novels, her heroines are confronted more than once with the proposition of marriage. Many of the primary proposal scenes in these tales contain violent language seemingly at odds with the romantic context, and the romance convention, of a proposal scene. Austen’s rhetoric of violence functions as a critique of contemporary laws defining and regulating marriage, particularly Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in 1765. These laws negated a woman’s ownership – both personal and financial – upon her marriage: they outlined both the illegality of a wedded female to own property and the abolished existence of the bride, who post-ceremony would be identified no longer as herself, but as her husband. Such negation would undoubtedly affect a woman’s sense of self, diminished upon submission to (and absorption by) a man. Austen defies this ruling by staging proposal scenes which fit societal expectations as acts of violence, therefore critiquing such marital laws as violent attacks on female agency and identity. By having her characters cast off these attacks in favor of a more equal relationship, Austen simultaneously rejects the marriage laws of her time while proposing an ideal alternative of legal matrimony: one that does not require her heroines to surrender their identities. In writing these conclusions, Austen calls for a revision of marital law to maintain the female’s personal ability and overall sense of self. While the heroine’s primary suitors are self-centered, the suitors which Austen’s characters ultimately accept see and acknowledge the heroine’s self. Because of this notable difference, each of Austen’s characters ultimately obtain the ability to participate in a marriage while maintaining their identity. In this way, Austen delivers social commentary through her primary proposal scenes and proposes an ideal marital structure through her endings.

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