By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Thanks to film and television adaptations, Pride and Prejudice is often associated today with its tall, dark, and handsome hero, Mr. Darcy. But there’s a far more compelling explanation for the original novel’s longstanding popularity and acclaim. Its heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, almost jumps off the page as a three-dimensional person. Lizzy, as she’s also called, has captivated audiences and made them laugh for nearly two centuries. Each generation has its readers who emulate her, fall in love with her, or both.
Knowing Elizabeth Bennett
Elizabeth is an unusual heroine, even physically—the product of happy imperfections. Not classically beautiful, she looks ‘uncommonly intelligent’, due to the ‘expression of her dark eyes’. In Pride and Prejudice, her figure is merely good, with features that aren’t symmetrical. Her manners don’t pass muster in the fashionable world, but she has an ‘easy playfulness’. What makes Lizzy remarkable is her lack of interest in pleasing the powerful. She cheerfully flouts authority, and we’re meant to like her the better for it.
In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy twice refuses good offers of marriage. She defies authority—directly, deftly, and with winking satire. Before she accepts the hand of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth is rejected by him. Then she herself rejects him. We’re made to feel with her at every step, thanks to the story’s narration of her keen eye, clever observations, and sharp tongue.
Austen was immensely proud of having invented Elizabeth. In a letter to her sister, she wrote, “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least I do not know.”
In the words of Elizabeth’s sarcastic father, Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth has “something more of quickness than her sisters”. By contrast, in the opinion of her silly mother, Mrs. Bennet, “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others.”
It’s an assessment that stems from its well-crafted sentences, its colorful characters, and its pleasing plot.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Bennet Family
One has to begin with the character of Elizabeth Bennet for this book. Male readers of Pride and Prejudice have for long publicly admitted to being bewitched by the heroine.
To understand Elizabeth’s charms, it’s important to understand her position in a large and unusual family. She’s the second of five daughters. Oldest sister Jane is the greatest beauty of the five and the most sweet tempered. Youngest sister Lydia is the most ‘good-humored’—the Miss Congeniality of the group. Second youngest, Kitty, follows Lydia in all things. She once annoys her mother with her uncontrollable coughs. Kitty and Lydia are described as ‘uncommonly foolish’ by their father. Elizabeth’s least attractive sister is the middle sister, Mary, who wanted to be thought the most learned one.
This collection of personalities leaves witty Elizabeth in a difficult position.
A Comparison with Taming of the Shrew
Elizabeth says flippant things, such as, “That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate! Do not wish me such an evil.” This strong, sure facetiousness makes her an interesting guide. It sometimes leads Pride and Prejudice to be compared to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
But Austen’s Elizabeth is actually clever and charming, not clever and shrewish. She also isn’t tamed. Throughout the novel, we see into Elizabeth’s mind most often, through the insights of the omniscient narrator.
What the narrator reveals of Elizabeth’s character is that she has “a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous”. This is important, and even lucky, because Elizabeth was born into a ridiculous family. Her father chose to marry a silly woman because she was beautiful and has been living with the consequences of that shallow choice ever since.
Marriage: An Obsession
A family of five daughters was in itself a little ridiculous, as well as financially calamitous, especially then. There’s no direct male heir to secure the Bennet family’s land going forward. That’s required in their case, thanks to something called an entail.
This fact explain some of Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with her daughters marrying well. If her daughters marry well, then her sons-in-law might take her in and support her, as well as any remaining unmarried Bennet daughters. So Mrs. Bennet is silly and ridiculous for the level of interest she takes in finding husbands for her daughters, but she’s not entirely crazy!
In the novel’s first chapters, we find Mrs. Bennet desperate to marry off one of her daughters to their new, eligible bachelor neighbor, Mr. Bingley. Beautiful Jane seems immediately on a path to catching his eye. Mrs. Bennet next decides she wants to marry off Elizabeth, to cousin Mr. Collins, the heir of their estate, Longbourn.
Mrs. Bennet is really quite indiscriminate as to which daughter marries which man. She’s just attempting to marry them all off, in age order.
Common Questions about the Appeal of Elizabeth Bennet in ‘Pride and Prejudice’
Elizabeth Bennet is the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy twice refuses good offers of marriage. She defies authority—directly, deftly, and with winking satire.
The five Bennet sisters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia.