Elizabeth is the central character in Pride and Prejudice – indeed it could be said that Elizabeth is Pride and Prejudice. She is the main focus of our interest, she is the novel’s heroine, even though she makes mistakes and is not particularly heroic. Her personality, her attitudes and her development throughout the novel bring together the story and all the other characters. The novel is concerned with pride and with prejudice and she and Darcy are the main players. She is Mr Bennet’s favourite daughter and her ‘quickness of mind’ is made evident in her witty and teasing conversations, where she often adopts striking and independent views. (See Chapters 8,9, and 11, when she is looking after Jane at Netherfield, in her conversations with Bingley, his sisters and Darcy).
She likes to laugh at people, including herself. She shares her capacity for irony with her father and the narrator. This allows her to stand back and offer judgements on certain situations. She often says the opposite of what she really means. In Chapter 6 (p. 27) she says, ‘Mr. Darcy is all politeness’, as a way of avoiding dancing with him after his rude remarks earlier.
A key passage in reviewing Elizabeth’s growth is Chapter 36 when we see her painfully coming to terms with her mistaken understanding of Wickham and Darcy while reading Darcy’s letter. She is forced here to confront some of her prejudices and earlier judgements, and in doing so realises that she has not been as sharp a reader of character as she has previously supposed. She blames herself for not having recognises the smack of ‘impropriety’ in Wickham’s behaviour, but had allowed herself to be deceived by his charm.
Elizabeth’s most appealing characteristic is her independent streak, her ‘self-sufficiency’. She judges things for herself and she is capable of decisive action as when she calmly, yet firmly, stands up to Mrs Bennet over Mr Collins’s proposal. She argues later that it is this ‘self-sufficiency’ which made Darcy fall in love with her.
However, though formidable at times, Elizabeth is also emotional. She feels great affection for Jane and is concerned for Lydia and Kitty. She is very close to her father, though she is often exasperated by her mother’s behaviour. She is very kind-hearted and we see this in her relationships with Charlotte and Georgiana.
She is not faultless, however, and her main fault is her prejudice. As Darcy is Pride, so Elizabeth is the Prejudice of the book’s title. She may see and judge for herself, but often these judgements are based on appearance rather than reality, on her strong emotions, not on rational thought. The two main targets for her prejudice are Darcy and Wickham. She tells us that from the beginning she meant to be ‘uncommonly clever’ in disliking Darcy ‘without any reason’. In fact, her initial dislike is seen as being justified because Darcy’s first comment was cruel and offensive. Afterwards, however, she delights in provoking him, and when he is denounced by Wickham, she is more than ready to believe the accusations made about him. One moment she is stating firmly that she does not think Darcy capable of such inhumanity, the next she is totally accepting Wickham’s story that he is! From the start, she is ‘out of her senses’ about Wickham’s looks and charm. For the next twenty chapters (!) she takes Wickham’s side despite warnings from Jane, Mrs Gardiner and Caroline Bingley, all of whom, ironically, Elizabeth considers to be prejudiced!
Darcy’s letter opens her eyes to the truth. He has already hinted that she only hears what she wants to hear. She therefore makes a conscious effort to read his letter openly, and on the second reading does so, analysing it rationally and she finally begins to notice Wickham’s inconsistencies and the lack of any real evidence of goodness on his part. She finally realises how ‘blind, partial, and prejudiced’ she has been. She also realises that she has been guilty of the same fault she accused Darcy of having – pride. She, too, has believed herself to be superior to others, and refused to believe she could be wrong, her vanity fuelled by Wickham’s attentions and offended by Darcy’s. She realises that ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’. This is a crucial moment in the novel which marks her realisation of her faults and her decision to change.
Although she is still angry with Darcy, from this point on in the novel we see that she has changed and we see that she does try to see things clearly and without pride. She admits her faults to Jane, tells Wickham she knows the truth about him, tries to work out her problems honestly and rationally, and from now on values Darcy. It is her ability to do this which makes her the heroine of the novel. Faced with the truth about herself, realising she has been badly affected by both her pride and her prejudice, she accepts the fact, thinks about it and acts on her conclusions. She has, in effect, become a mature adult.
Her views on love and marriage also change. Jane Austen uses Elizabeth to show us the mature, ideal marriage, and by contrasting through her eyes other, less worthy marriages, we ourselves learn what is best. Elizabeth, at first, seems very clear about what she expects from a relationship. As she tells Charlotte, she is not seeking a husband, let alone a rich one. She despises courtship games, wants to know all about her partner, and when she hears of Charlotte’s engagement, her reaction is ‘impossible!’. She slowly learns that her prejudice has led her astray. Her visit to Hunsford shows her that such a marriage is not only possible but a fair compromise. Darcy’s views, Pemberley, and the elopement show her too that financial and social considerations in marriage are important. She needs to learn this before she can take a realistic view of marriage as a social union and become the responsible mistress of Pemberley. However, her view of marriage as an equal partnership is a very valid one and her refusal of Mr Collins’s proposal is vindicated. His marriage to Charlotte works because it is balanced, and all that remains now is for Elizabeth to meet her equal – quite literally she too must meet her match! Elizabeth needs a real partner, like Darcy.
It is worth your while trying to pinpoint the exact moment at which Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy. The fact that she dislikes and provokes him in the early part of the novel may well be a sign of her attraction, but Elizabeth does not admit this. She claims to find him obnoxious and certainly has no second thoughts about refusing his first patronising proposal. Not until her visit to Pemberley does she appreciate Darcy’s real worth and his change of heart, and she begins then to feel more for him. Her view of marriage also begins to change. She knows that Darcy is correct in his assessment of her family, and Lydia’s elopement only confirms this. The inequalities between herself and Darcy are eventually overcome, and Elizabeth betters herself by marrying Darcy. However, she never takes advantage of this. Seeing Pemberley marks the start of her affection for Darcy because there she begins to appreciate his real character, rather than simply his wealth.
The elopement crystallises Elizabeth’s view of marriage – she now sees the ideal, and realises that Darcy could provide it, ‘answer’ her needs. His generosity on Lydia’s behalf compounds her feelings and when he returns to Longbourn, Elizabeth is quiet and uncertain; he is now important to her and she knows that she needs his attention and approval. But first, she must overcome the twin hurdles of Darcy’s family and her own! She defeats Lady Catherine first, defending the right of Darcy and herself to choose their own partner. Her courage here against the formidable Lady Catherine surely encourages Darcy to propose again. She then overcomes her own family’s prejudice against Darcy, showing that she is now a truly independent adult and ready to be married.
Her relationship with Darcy is sound. They communicate well, give each other mutual support and affection and generally are good for one another. She has found her true partner, with whom she can live at Pemberley, her true home. At the end of the novel, Elizabeth is the happy heroine, the centre of everything. She has not only changed herself through her newly found love for Darcy, but she equally has changed Darcy through his love for her.
Mr Darcy is the hero of Pride and Prejudice. He is entitled to be considered a hero because he has the capacity to change and mature and because he is a true partner for our heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. When we meet him first, however, he seems to be the villain of the book. He appears at the Meryton ball and is immediately disliked by everyone because he so obviously disapproves of the evening, will not mix, and seems above himself, particularly to Elizabeth. What we learn about him later supports this view: he is ‘haughty, reserved ……. continually giving offence’. These ‘first impressions’ are strengthened by more serious criticisms: his condescending manner towards Elizabeth at Netherfield, his actions to Wickham, his influencing of Bingley against Jane.
By the end of Chapter 33 we, like Elizabeth, have come to form a clear but negative view of Darcy. Then he proposes, but patronisingly, and they quarrel, gaining self-awareness shortly afterwards. From this point on, Darcy ceases to be an anti-hero and begins to change. We also begin to view him differently. Once the truth behind Wickham’s assertions and the reasoning behind Darcy’s influencing of Bingley are known, Elizabeth begins to reconsider her opinion of Darcy. The business with Wickham was, of course, a slander. Darcy seems to have done all that could have been asked of him and more: to have judged Wickham correctly and to have been generous enough not to seek revenge for the planned elopement with his sister. Over the Jane and Bingley affair, he seems to have acted honestly, if through pride, and his concern for Bingley’s welfare is touching.
We, like Elizabeth, begin to see things in a new light and to reconsider our own opinion of Darcy. Notice that in fact the very first impression he gave, at the Meryton ball, was good: ‘fine, handsome, noble’. We learnt too that he was intelligent and clear-sighted, and his conversations with Elizabeth certainly showed his thought and intelligence. When she finally realises that Darcy is right for her, she comments particularly on his ‘judgement, information, and knowledge of the world’. We are made increasingly aware also of Darcy’s real kindness and generosity. He is an affectionate brother, trusted by Georgiana, a wise and generous landlord and a good friend to Bingley. His free use of money to help first Wickham, then Lydia, is admirable.
In fact, Darcy’s chief fault is his pride, and this he honestly tries to conquer in the course of the novel. His is the pride in the title of the novel. He was brought up to be proud, almost trained to it. At the start of the novel, he triumphantly defends it, though he realises the importance of controlling it, which he feels he can do. However, he is wrong. His pride does lead him to behave wrongly – on three occasions. He conceals Wickham’s faults because he does not wish the name of Darcy to be humiliated. He is totally convinced of his own good judgement over the matter of Jane and so influences Bingley accordingly. Over Elizabeth, his pride causes him to despise her family connections, and though at first he resists, the attraction remains; he sees his own proposal as demeaning, without realising the implications of this for his relationship with Elizabeth.
Elizabeth reacts to his proposal with genuine anger, and for the first time in his life, Darcy’s ‘arrogance, conceit, disdain’ are challenged. This is, of course, the point of change for Darcy. He later tells Elizabeth that it took him some time to begin to alter, but in fact, by the next morning, he has understood enough to want to justify himself in a letter. He thinks over his actions, slowly realising ‘how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased’. By the time we reach Pemberley, he is eager to show his new persona. His outward manner, unlike so many in the novel, is a sign of his inward change. He accepts Elizabeth and her relations, and soon after accepts responsibility for Lydia’s elopement and arranges her marriage. His final proposal expresses his hopes, but not expectations, of being accepted, and he admits his pride, with gratitude to Elizabeth for humbling him.
We must not, however, judge Darcy too harshly. He is neither vain nor self-centred. Much of his pride is valid, the natural result of being master of Pemberley, affording him a self-confidence that allows him to help others. Equally, Elizabeth has coloured our view! Much of Darcy’s pride is a figment of her own prejudice. Her final declaration to her father, that ‘he has no improper pride’, says everything.
Although he represents pride in the novel, he is not without prejudice. He sees beyond superficial appearance more quickly than Elizabeth but nevertheless dismisses her at first glance on her looks alone. He soon changes his mind but is still put off by her inferior connections and does not consider her on her true merits. He learns to recognise his priorities after she has rejected his first proposal, and on his return to Longbourn is not disheartened by his reception, also seeing clearly now what he before judged wrongly – Jane’s true feelings for Bingley.
Darcy is, however, generally more clear-sighted than Elizabeth, and points out to her that she is prejudiced. This is the point of self-awareness for her and completes the circle whereby both hero and heroine are responsible for the other’s maturity. It is evident that as Darcy develops and matures so too does his love for Elizabeth. He is, from the start, Elizabeth’s obvious match; the story of their relationship is the story of the novel. At first, he dismisses her, then is attracted by her ‘playfulness’ and her kindness to Jane. His love is immature, though, and after her refusal of his proposal, he is forced to reconsider and reassess what she thinks of him and act on it. Gradually he develops a genuine regard for her. During the elopement crisis, his awareness and practical help both reflect and develop the growing affection he feels. One thing is certain; only when Darcy overcomes his faults and infatuation and acts truly for Elizabeth’s sake can he hope to win her. When he does, also righting the wrong he has done, by persuading Bingley after all to marry Jane, he proposes again. He is now in a position to receive the ‘happiness’ he deserves.
Darcy and Elizabeth are the one true model union in the novel. He is good for her; his pride shows her her own and through him, she learns how prejudiced she is. He alone can stand up to her, balancing her uncontrolled emotion with his controlled rationality. He ‘answers’ her totally, as no one else can. Darcy is thus the hero. He stands head and shoulders above all the other male characters in the novel. His personality also contrasts with Elizabeth’s, complementing it, as has been said, and forming a true unity. As her partner, he is as much the centre of the novel as Elizabeth is, though it is not seen through his eyes. He represents the male ideal: intelligent, rational, shows good judgement and right action, has a handsome, moneyed appearance but is nevertheless valued for his true inner qualities. He is indeed the ideal partner for our heroine; he is mature and unlike the New Man (Our 21st. Century Model!) he always considers her before himself!