Jane Austen is a keen observer of human behavior. She shows that while men and women often think too highly of themselves, deceive or flatter others, and act stupidly, they are also capable of love, kindness, and moral growth. With this mingling of positive and negative traits, her heroes and heroines seem deeply human.
The novelist is reputed to have considered Elizabeth Bennet her favorite creation. Indeed, the twenty-year-old possesses brains, beauty, musical talent, confidence, and-for the era-rare independence. At every turn Elizabeth displays the latter trait: she walks several miles alone to visit her ailing sister Jane at Netherfield; she declines Mr. Collins’s marriage offer despite her mother’s outrage; she angrily rejects Darcy’s condescending proposal in the novel’s most stunning scene. But this independence-perhaps inherited from her mother-leads her to make mistakes: she judges Wickham, Darcy, and others too soon, and then clings stubbornly to her prejudices.
Fitzwilliam Darcy first appears as an exceedingly self-impressed figure. Early in the novel, as he rudely refrains from dancing at a ball, Elizabeth overhears him talking derogatorily about her and the other women. At the next dance, he “must” admit to himself, although he still considers himself superior, that Elizabeth’s intelligent expression is “beautiful.” He falls in love with her against his wishes-despite detesting her bumptious mother, despite erroneously distrusting her older sister Jane, despite disdaining her family’s modest means, and despite detecting Elizabeth’s thinly veiled hostility. Darcy’s attempts to approach Elizabeth succeed only in offending her more, and to complicate matters, his arrogant Aunt Catherine expects him to marry within the aristocracy.
Pride and Prejudice develops other characters skillfully if less fully. Charles Bingley and Jane Bennet fall in love quickly and tastefully at the novel’s outset. Both respect social form and refuse to write or visit the other improperly. Bingley’s intrusive sisters and Darcy remove him to London in an attempt to break up their relationship. The sisters believe that their brother should marry someone of his wealth, while Darcy believes that Jane, like her mother, favors Charles only for his money. Jane, a thoughtful, self-denying woman-the opposite of Mrs. Bennet-tries to hide her heartbreak and humiliation from her family, particularly her mother, for whom their engagement had been a certainty.
Meanwhile, the youngest Bennet, Lydia, whose shallowness points to her parents’ deficiencies, rushes into an ill-advised romance with Wickham, an officer who at first appears charming and trustworthy. Wickham recounts-to Elizabeth’s satisfaction-how Darcy unjustly kept him from receiving the large inheritance Darcy’s father had left for him. Later, after this lie is exposed by Darcy, Wickham fails in a ruthless attempt to marry a rich northern woman and impulsively elopes with the naive Lydia. The sixteen-year-old girl speaks recklessly, acts offensively, and must gratify her impulses instantly. Lydia fails to see that running off with Wickham scandalizes her family.
Pride and Prejudice depicts a leadership crisis in the Bennet family and in the community as a whole. Mrs. Bennet’s tactless meddling in Jane’s affairs creates the appearance that her daughter is hunting Bingley’s fortune. Mrs. Bennet also fails to anticipate the disastrous possibilities of her young daughter’s flirting with militiamen. Her hunger for attention damages the family reputation at every public occasion. Meanwhile, as likeable as her husband may seem, he has no stomach for disciplining his children. He is not seriously engaged in their lives except when Lydia’s flight jeopardizes the family. Then he reluctantly assumes his paternal duties and makes for London to reclaim his daughter, only to return in failure.
Several memorable minor characters also contribute to this leadership void. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt, is a rich, domineering woman who stifles others’ spirits at every social gathering and considers Elizabeth a poor match for her nephew. Sir William Lucas, Charlotte’s “empty-headed” father, lives inconsequentially, overly concerned with his own importance. Mr. Collins, the young clergyman, strives for no role of substance in his community, instead considering his only urgent duty to follow Lady Catherine’s orders quickly and precisely.
Pride and Prejudice shows the Bennet family-and by inference the country life that Austen loved-to be in a state of crisis. With no strong adult influences, the best young people step forward. Darcy shows his true mettle by secretly helping Charles return to Jane, by ensuring that Wickham and Lydia return to Longbourn as a married couple with an income, and by proposing again to Elizabeth with new humility. Shamed, Elizabeth recognizes many of her misjudgments and accepts Darcy’s proposal. Their personalities soften and blend beautifully.
Like any moralist, Austen shows that foolish or evil actions do have adverse consequences. Although Jane ends up happily married to Bingley, the scheming of her mother and Bingley’s sisters causes her real pain. More severely, Lydia ends up living joylessly with her indifferent husband, always moving about and never financially secure. Darcy’s intervention preserves her reputation, but her life amounts to little.
The novel ends on the hopeful note of two Christmas-time weddings for the eldest Bennet daughters. Elizabeth builds a friendship with Darcy’s sister Georgiana, occasionally sends money to Lydia, and gradually moves her husband to reconcile with his aunt. By their actions and their shared sense of duty, Elizabeth and Darcy-a union of the gentry and the aristocracy-show themselves to have become leaders in their society.