Pride and Prejudice, like Sense and Sensibility before it, is sometimes interpreted formulaically. Those who see a formula in the title say that Mr. Darcy needs to give up his pride, and Elizabeth needs to get over her prejudice. This is, again, a limited reading. It is, instead, a story of proportion, of regulating proper and improper pride, and of recognizing warranted and unwarranted prejudgment. The novel asks one to think through what happens when first impressions are mistaken.
The Issue with Elizabeth
By taking a closer look at Elizabeth, one can understand the problem wherein Elizabeth cares very much about which man she marries. She’s grown up seeing what a mismatched couple looks like—her parents. Elizabeth refuses her cousin Mr. Collins’s ludicrous and canned proposal of marriage.
This refusal prompts her father’s blessing, but it provokes her mother’s ire. As Mr. Bennet famously says to Elizabeth, “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
This is the sort of humorous line that devoted readers of Pride and Prejudice rave about. Novels of this era were filled with villainous fathers, uncles, and male guardians who tried to force young women into financially advantageous marriages to equally bad men.
So, it’s unusual that Elizabeth’s father not only doesn’t force her into a bad marriage, but he actually also approves of her saving herself from having to endure it.
Circling around the plot during all of this activity is Mr. Bingley’s wealthy, proud friend, Mr. Darcy. At a ball, Bingley, who is enjoying his dances with the beautiful Jane Bennet, encourages Darcy to dance with Elizabeth, who is waiting for a partner. But Elizabeth accidentally overhears Darcy refusing to ask her. Darcy tells Bingley that Elizabeth “is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”
Notice the word ‘tolerable’ here. In Austen’s letters, she joked that she didn’t know how she’d be able to ‘tolerate’ readers who didn’t love Elizabeth. In using the word ‘tolerate’, Austen may have been humorously likening herself to a prejudiced Mr. Darcy.
Elizabeth feels Darcy’s slight. Going forward, she regularly makes sport of Mr. Darcy’s haughty opinions. Elizabeth discovers herself to be in no humor to give consequence to wealthy men like him, who slight what they see as inferior, rejected women. Mr. Darcy is surprised at Elizabeth’s dismissal of him, as he’s used to female admirers desperately trying to please him.
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A Series of Unfortunate Incidents
From there, Pride and Prejudice follows Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship from one misunderstanding to the next, with many twists and turns. A significant twist is whether the attractive young officer, Mr. Wickham, is a victim, or a victimizer, of the wealthy Darcys. Of course, Wickham turns out to be wicked, a rake and a villain. Elizabeth’s first impressions of him were wrong.
Darcy makes mistakes, too. For much of the novel, he insists on approaching Elizabeth in a way that implicitly insults her and her family. When Darcy first proposes marriage, he does it in the most awkward, offensive way, and Elizabeth refuses, strongly.
Elizabeth’s Second Chance
But both the hero and the heroine grow over the course of the novel. Elizabeth recognizes that her quickness to judgment has been too quick, with both Wickham and Darcy. She realizes that Darcy “was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her.” They would each have brought a strong moral character and an independent mind to what Elizabeth belatedly discovers might have been “connubial felicity.”
Fortunately, Elizabeth gets her second chance with Darcy. She gets what her father hoped for her—what he calls a marriage that nurtures her “lively talents” and is not dangerous, in not being “unequal.”
Elizabeth and Darcy’s Marriage of Equals
They are also equal in their willingness to defy their families in marriage. Elizabeth rejects Mr. Collins. Darcy doesn’t marry the cousin that his wealthy aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, says was intended from birth to become his future wife.
Lady Catherine lectures Elizabeth, “If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up.” Elizabeth replies, “In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”
By the novel’s end, the wealthy, noble, tall, handsome, and fine Fitzwilliam Darcy transforms in Elizabeth’s eyes from a haughty, snobbish killjoy into a lovable, generous hero. After several false starts, and family misadventures, the couple overcomes obstacles to marry.
Darcy and Elizabeth confront improper pride and partial prejudices, shown to be the results of half-accurate first impressions. (“First Impressions”, by the way, was said to be Austen’s working title of the earliest version of this novel.)
Common Questions about the half-accurate first impressions in ‘Pride and Prejudice’
Mr. Bingley is a friend of Mr. Darcy and at the ball, Bingley enjoys his dances with the beautiful Jane Bennet.
Elizabeth regularly makes sport of Mr. Darcy’s haughty opinions and Mr. Darcy is surprised at Elizabeth’s dismissal of him, as he’s used to female admirers desperately trying to please him.
‘First Impressions’ was said to be Austen’s working title of the earliest version of Pride and Prejudice.