Self and Society                                                                               
by
Heidi Veal

An author will often give his or her work a title that reflects the overall theme or meaning of the piece—this is certainly the case in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. A title may set the mood or describe a situation which otherwise might require several paragraphs to develop. Pride and Prejudice is a combination of humor, irony, and twists of events. Austen entitles her work Pride and Prejudice to emphasize subtly the fact that most characters in the work have a certain degree of pride or prejudice. Among the characters who display these traits are Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Miss Bingley, and, of course, Darcy and Elizabeth.

Although Darcy and Elizabeth are the two central characters, and are the ones who are proud and prejudiced respectively, there are several others who are plagued with character flaws. At the opening of the story, Mr. Collins is introduced as the cousin of the Bennets who is coming to Longbourn for a visit. Mr. George Wickham is an officer introduced toward the beginning of the novel. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the rich influential aunt of Mr. Darcy who tries to sabotage his engagement to Elizabeth. Miss Bingley is the person who thinks ill of the Bennets from their first meeting. These characters all have the problem of being either proud or prejudiced.

Elizabeth most aptly describes Mr. Collins when she says he is "conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, [and] silly" (Austen 129). Austen says of Collins:

the respect which he [feels] for [Lady Catherine’s] high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his rights as a rector, [make] him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility. (66)

He is all too eager to tell anyone and everyone about his relationship with the prestigious de Bourgh family. Mr. Collins greatly esteems himself and his position in society. He also revels in the fact that the Bennet’s estate is entailed on him. At one point he even proposes to Lizzy and is shocked when she is not won over simply by his social status. Elizabeth goes on to say that "the woman who marries [Mr. Collins] cannot have a proper way of thinking" (129). Indeed, the sole reason for Charlotte’s marrying him is to secure for herself a comfortable position in life. Elizabeth finds difficulty in understanding how anyone could love a proud man such as Mr. Collins.

On the other hand, the man who nearly wins Elizabeth’s heart is Mr. Wickham. He appears one day and immediately captures the hearts of all the young ladies in the neighborhood. Wickham’s description of the dealings he has had with Darcy leaves Elizabeth feeling pity and compassion toward him but a stronger degree of dislike for Mr. Darcy. Wickham is obviously proud of the fact that his father was highly esteemed by the late Mr. Darcy. George Wickham thinks that Mr. Darcy owes him something for all that his father did for the Darcys at Pemberley and will stop at nothing to see that he is justly compensated. "Slyly but shrewdly, Wickham encourages Elizabeth to believe that the younger Darcy has been remiss in his social duties" (Kliger 54). Wickham deceives Lizzy by omitting details of his encounters with the Darcys. Elizabeth, in her eagerness to condemn Mr. Darcy, believes everything that prideful Mr. Wickham tells her.

The character who displays the most arrogance and prejudice toward others is Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She "represents what Darcy might have become, [. . .] had he not learned from [Elizabeth] to soften his astringent class idealism with human kindness for people" (57). Darcy’s aunt is so bold as to go to Elizabeth and discuss with her the subject of Elizabeth’s marriage to him. Lady Catherine, feeling she is in the right, acts in a very forceful, rude, and presumptuous manner. The basis for Lady Catherine’s objection to the union of Darcy and Elizabeth is that she feels that her daughter, because of fortune and status, is better qualified to marry Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine is adamant when reminding Elizabeth that she is "a young woman without family, connections, or fortune" (Austen

337). "Lady Catherine [. . .] show[s] snobbery in its most contemptible form" (Pinion 96). Darcy’s arrogant aunt considers only position in society and wealth to be the determining factors in a marriage; she forgets that her nephew may not feel the same way about his prospective wife’s status.

Caroline Bingley is another character who is violently prejudiced, specifically against the Bennet family. She develops this dislike for the family on their first meeting. Miss Bingley finds Mrs. Bennet "to be intolerable and [Jane and Elizabeth’s] younger sisters not worth speaking to" (Austen 19). Miss Bingley’s prejudice is most evident in her behavior toward Lizzy. The two occasionally share each other’s company, and Lizzy is the one with whom Miss Bingley must compete for Mr. Darcy’s attention. The feelings Caroline Bingley holds toward the Bennets are not wholly unjustified. Mrs. Bennet, as well as most of the rest of the Bennet household, is superficial and deserves most of Miss Bingley’s ill will. Miss Bingley’s extreme prejudice is clearly evident in her resolve to keep a distance between herself and the Bennets.

Mr. Darcy is the reason for the first half of Austen’s title: "pride." Elizabeth Bennet once pointed out that one of Darcy’s defects is his tendency to hate (54). Her opinion is certainly shared by several others who do not know him intimately. Darcy is simply a person who does not make a favorable first impression. He always seems cold, proud, conceited and arrogant; only after knowing him for a while could one say that he is not necessarily so. Darcy says of himself:

I have been a selfish being all my life in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. [. . .] I was spoilt by my parents, [. . .] allowed, encouraged, almost taught [. . .] to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, [and] of their sense and worth compared with my own. (349)

What finally brings a change in his character is his love for Elizabeth and his desire to please her in every way possible. He learns to modify his thinking and behavior when he realizes that Elizabeth is not even remotely attracted to him. His love for her induces him to veer from his former ways and to be the kind of man she wishes to marry. In the end, he succeeds in transforming himself into a true gentleman.

Elizabeth Bennet is "prejudiced." When compared to her older sister, Lizzy is spontaneous, judgmental, and strong-willed. "Evidence-gathering and judgment-making are dependent upon the subject or perceiver" (Satz 173), but the evidence that Elizabeth gathers is not always to be trusted. Lizzy is proud of the fact that she is able to discern what others may not notice and that she is superior to most of her family members. This pride leads her to be prejudiced and to judge everything outside of herself in the way that suits her best (Mansell 88). Elizabeth places herself above her acquaintances because she feels she is objective in judging the character of others. Elizabeth’s dislike for Darcy begins when she "experience[s] [his] pride and insolence toward her at the Netherfield ball" (Joseph). From then on, her hostility toward Mr. Darcy only escalates upon hearing of Wickham’s dealings with him. "She [is] proud of her discernment" but later is humiliated to discover that she has misjudged Mr. Darcy (Pinion 96). In the end, she realizes she too is fallible and does not always have the right to judge others.

Pride and prejudice are two aspects of human character that must be eliminated if one is to love or be loved. Perhaps Austen entitles her masterpiece Pride and Prejudice because she realizes that Darcy and Elizabeth must overcome their character flaws to be truly happy together. Throughout the story, Darcy and Elizabeth are at odds with themselves and the society around them. At first, Darcy is more in conflict with society than himself; however, when he falls in love with Elizabeth, he must wrestle with himself to change in order to win her love. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is more in conflict with herself and her opinions about people when they turn out to be false. "Realization of their errors taught each hard lessons; pride gave way to humility, and each took ‘the trouble of practising’ to be worthy of the other" (98).

Most characters in Pride and Prejudice are either proud or prejudiced, but Elizabeth and Darcy are the only two who come to a change by the end of the story. In hindsight they agree that Darcy’s behavior toward Elizabeth was unpardonable but that she also behaved poorly when criticizing him (98). Mr. and Mrs. Darcy realized that without changing something within themselves, they would have never found true love and happiness together. All the other characters in the story remain themselves, never learning the important lesson of Pride and Prejudice.

Works Cited

           Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Franklin Center, PA: The Franklin Library, 1980.

           Joseph, Gerhard. "Prejudice in Jane Austen, Emma Tennant, Charles Dickens–and
               Us." Studies in English Literature 40.4 (Autumn 2000): 679-694. Online:
               <
http://triton.libs.uga.edu/cgi-bin/galileo.cgi>

           Kliger, Samuel. "Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the Eighteenth-Century Mode."
               Twentieth-Century Interpretations of
Pride and Prejudice. Ed. E. Rubinstein.
               Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 54-57.

           Mansell, Darel. The Novels of Jane Austen: An Interpretation. New York: Harper & Row,
               1973.

           Pinion, F. B. A Jane Austen Companion. London: Macmillan St. Martin’s, 1973.

           Satz, Martha. "An Epistemological Understanding of Pride and Prejudice: Humility and
                Objectivity." Jane Austen: New Perspectives. Ed. Janet Todd. New York: Holmes &
                Meier, 1983.

This essay is by Heidi Veal, at the time of this writing a junior majoring in Business Administration in Management.  It was written for Dr. Barbara Murray's ENGL 1102 class during Spring 2001 semester.  Veal has been honored on the Dalton State College Dean's List.