“That’s just like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. She was too proud! Or was she too prejudiced and Mr. Darcy was too proud? I can’t remember.”
Do you remember these words from the movie “You’ve Got Mail”? Joe Fox says them to Kathleen Kelly as they play out their own private drama that’s reminiscent of the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth. He raises a very natural question: in our favorite Jane Austen novel, which main character takes on each fault in the eponymous title?
Austen used character traits as titles in three of her main novels: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. But the subjects of those traits are clear in two of those novels. Anne Elliott allows herself to be turned away from the man she loves by a friend’s persuasion. And in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor is clearly the sister with sense, while Marianne embodies an excess of sensibility.
The answer in Pride and Prejudice seems just as obvious at first glance: Darcy is proud and Elizabeth is prejudiced. We know this because the very first time we meet Darcy, at the Meryton assembly, we read that “he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased.” Presumably his pride comes from owning a large estate, having the bluest of blue blood, and being generally thought superior wherever he goes.. “He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped that he would never come there again.’
Elizabeth just as easily demonstrates prejudice when she listens to Wickham’s tales about Darcy and believes him without question. After that, nothing Darcy says or does can please her, because her mind is already made up. After she reads Darcy’s letter and discovers the truth she acknowledges, “I have courted prepossession [prejudice] and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. ‘Til this moment i never knew myself.” Later she tells Jane, “The misfortune of speaking with bitterness is a most natural consequence of the prejudices I had been encouraging.”
But there is more going on than just Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice. Darcy also has a fair amount of prejudice in his character, at least until his love for Elizabeth drives it out of him. “I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves . . . allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to . . . think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own.” It is his prejudice against the lower classes that initially keeps him from pursuing Elizabeth, because no matter how pleasing he finds her, he remembers that her uncle is in trade, and that her mother is not the daughter of a gentleman.
Elizabeth also has a lot of pride to deal with. She knows that Darcy looks down on her and her family and it is her offended pride that often drives her to say impertinent things to him in return. She burns in humiliation when her family exposes their follies for all the world to see, especially in front of Darcy. Her pride in herself takes a hit when she learns how badly she misjudged both Darcy and Wickham. She can barely bring herself to admit that Darcy was right about her family’s faults, and she reaches her lowest point when Lydia’s folly is exposed to the man she has started to care for.
What do we make of all this? I think Austen uses this story to bring home two important points: First, pride and prejudice usually go hand in hand. It’s almost impossible to feel prejudiced against someone else without feeling that you are, in some ways, superior to them. The two vices are different sides of the same coin, so to speak; one would not work without the other.
Secondly, love has a way of breaking through these things. Darcy’s pride begins to crack when he spends more time with Elizabeth and becomes more and more attracted to her. He can’t keep his distance even though he “knows” she is totally unsuitable for someone like him. Eventually he will throw his pride and prejudice aside to win her heart (and ours!) And Elizabeth, of course, learns valuable lessons about herself when she can swallow her pride, set aside her prejudice, and see Darcy as he really is. In the end, love conquers all!