Elizabeth Bennet: Character Analysis in Pride and Prejudice

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      “I must confess,” wrote Jane Austen about Elizabeth, “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.” This comment of the creator of Elizabeth on her is richly deserved by her. She is the moving spirit of the novel and the centre of it just as Portia is the moving spirit of The Merchant of Venice and is its central character.

      Elizabeth might be said to be a “full personality,” in spite of one defect, namely prejudice. She has a soundly developed mind as well as heart. She is neither a shrew because she is more intelligent than almost any other character in the novel, nor weakly sentimental, because she has a sensitive heart. There is the right balance between sense and sensibility in her. Mr. Bennet who is a shrewd judge of character does not speak out of mere partiality when he says that he would like to “throw in a word for my little Lizzy” - while his wife is urging on him to visit Mr. Bingley as early as possible in order to win the eligible bachelor for one of her daughters. That such an intelligent man as Mr. Bennet should have confidence only in Elizabeth is an eloquent tribute to her judgment. She has a mind that is alert and a heart that is responsive. These two aspects summarize her character and are revealed in all her actions and speeches.

      Elizabeth stands out from the rest of the girls of the village and her own sisters. She is not so beautiful as Jane and Darcy feels that the latter is the only beautiful girl in the assembly. In fact, he refuses to dance with Elizabeth when Bingley suggests it to him. She is tolerable, “but not handsome enough to tempt him.” These words contain delightful irony. For, the same man is prepared to take any trouble to gain the hand of one whom he has offended unwittingly. That is to come later and meanwhile, the lady shows a characteristic reaction to the remarks overheard by her and makes fun of the pride of the man. “For she had a lively, playful disposition which delighted in anything ridiculous.” Her later relationship with Darcy shows her independence of spirit and her capacity to deal with, persons who think too high of themselves. Darcy’s attitude towards her is changed soon after and he seeks her hand in dance on the very next occasion. But she refuses and her lively reply raises her in his esteem. Darcy finds that she is not what others are. The same impression is created in her during her stay at Netherfield also. She does not court Darcy as Miss Bingley does and shows that she does not stand in awe of him. She goes to the length of making fun of him. She holds her own in argument and Darcy’s admiration for her grows hour by hour. He finds himself fascinated by her and his objections to her connections make him feel that he must be on his guard against falling in love with her. Like Miss Bingley he too is partly relieved when Elizabeth departs for Longbourn. He had at first ignored her, and then looked at her only to find fault. Later, one who had come to scoff could not but be attracted by the intelligent and beautiful expression in her dark eyes and her easy playfulness. He does not mind telling Miss Bingley that he was meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow and later, that her eyes had improved by the exercise of walking to Mery ton. Still, he tries to control his heart and decides that there must be nothing more than admiration for her liveliness on his part. That Elizabeth should have been able to captivate the heart of Darcy is the greatest tribute to her merits of head and heart.

      It is said that love reveals the essence of a woman’s character and Elizabeth is no exception. Her excellences as well as her defects are found in the development of her attitude towards Darcy and Wickham. For all her penetrating judgment, Elizabeth’s one defect is ‘prejudice’ as Darcy’s is ‘pride.’ She judges Collins from his first letter and her early opinion of Lady Catherine is justified by her personal experience of the old lady. She understands Miss Bingley’s nature too, very well. But she fails woefully in understanding Darcy, Wickham, and chiefly her own heart. She is prejudiced against Darcy by his offensive remark made by him about her in the beginning. Though she moves with him on polite terms she never ‘takes to’ him. Her impression about him is confirmed about his habitual reserve. But she does not realize that ‘pride’ is only a superficial defect in him and that there are worthy qualities in him which will come to the surface on proper occasions. In a similar manner, she is utterly deceived about Wickham. To a certain extent, she is carried away by his appearance and winning manners. She does not realize that manners do not form character. She is predisposed in his favour and even falls in love with him to an extent. She is ready to believe all that he says against Darcy and her prejudice against the latter is increased by her prejudice in favour of Wickham. When she finds from Colonel Fitzwilliam that Darcy had said that he had prevented an intimate friend of his from contracting a most imprudent marriage, she is utterly misled about him and her dislike turns into positive hatred. It is, therefore, not a surprise that she should turn down the offer of Darcy completely. She is not wrong in taking him to be proud. But this impression makes her blind to all his good qualities. She accuses him of want of manners and charges him openly with ill-treatment of Wickham and malicious interference in his sister’s affairs. She fails to appreciate that Darcy is frank, if nothing else, in speaking out his reasons for loving her. She bums with anger when he refers to the want of manners of her relatives. His letter of defence too increases her anger at first. So prejudiced is she that she does not believe even his defence of himself regarding his treatment of Wickham. It is indeed surprising that such an intelligent woman should be blind to the real character of Darcy as well as Wickham. This is because of her blind admiration for Wickham and the equally blind dislike of the other. It is only after reading Darcy’s letter many a time that her good sense asserts itself. She realizes that Darcy could not have told a lie about his own sister and that he was not wrong in referring to the bad manners of her relatives and the undemonstrative nature of the love of Jane for Bingley. It is a tribute to her sense of fairness that she discovers her mistake at least after receiving Darcy’s letter. She blames herself for having been blind to the merits of Darcy and the defects of Wickham. The change becomes particularly pronounced when Wickham transfers his attentions to Miss King. Warned by Aunt Gardiner, she realizes that she had been partial to Wickham and is sorry that she had been hasty in her judgment of the two men. She grows ashamed of herself and exclaims that she could not have been more wretchedly blind if she had been in love. The change of attitude becomes complete when she meets Darcy by chance at Pemberley and notes his altered behaviour. She understands that He is extremely courteous and has been cured of his serious defect. She wishes that he would pay his addresses again, though she sees little possibility of it. Her hopes are dashed thoroughly when Lydia’s elopement takes place. But she discovers soon after that Darcy had risen to the height of generosity over that very matter. She surrenders her heart absolutely to him, though she feels more desperate than ever about his asking her hand again. Darcy springs yet another surprise on her by asking her in marriage and Elizabeth is grateful to him. The character of both is thus revealed best in their love for each other. Elizabeth comes out as a woman with a warm and sound heart.

      Elizabeth commits a similar mistake in the judgment of the character of Charlotte also. It is a surprise to her that her dearest friend should marry a man who had proposed twice in three days. She had absolute confidence in the character of her friend and had not expected her to take nothing but material advantages into consideration in marriage. She feels humiliated by the action of Charlotte. But here again, her judgment seems to have erred because of affection. In all other respects, she behaves with dignity and with sound judgment. Her rejection of Collins shows that she is remarkably capable in dealing with others. Her last interview with Lady Catherine is equally a tribute to her spirited nature and ready wit. She gives the most brilliant though polite retorts to the foolish old lady. If the other does not know her place even after the interview, it is not Elizabeth’s fault. Similarly, she deals in the proper manner with the impertinent remarks of Miss Bingley too.

      Elizabeth spirited replies and telling remarks sometimes produce the impression that Elizabeth is ‘impertinent.’ But this is a wrong view. She shows people their proper place, it is true. But she is impertinent only to impertinent persons. Lady Catherine and Miss Bingley deserve no better treatment. To an extent, Darcy too deserves her cutting remarks, though she had partly misunderstood him. After all, it is she who cures him of the defect in him for which he is himself thankful to her. Elizabeth herself is aware that others might take her to be impertinent and asks Darcy whether it washer ‘impertinence’ that attracted him in contrast with the servile attitude of all other ladies towards him. He remarks that it was not impertinence but the liveliness of her mind. Darcy uses the right word here to describe the flash of her wit. When he does not complain against her, there is no reason for others to accuse Elizabeth of this defect. Even granting that in Darcy’s case at least she goes too far, it is the necessary adjunct of her wit. As she says “she dearly loves a laugh” and this capacity might be revealed now and then in a way which others might not like. But as she puts it herself again, she never ridicules what is wise and good. Her affection for Jane alone would suffice to show that her heart is tender enough and that she would be incapable of offending against good taste. Her gratitude to Darcy after she learns the truth about him is also indicative of a sensitive heart, though she is not so soft as Jane. We fully agree with Bradley, who exclaims, “I was meant to fall in love with her, and I do.” We love her, in spite of her prejudice, rather because of her few failings. For, they are themselves attractive.

      Elizabeth Bennet, shares with her creator Jane Austen a humorous interest in the people around her. Despite her youth and the limitations of a rural society, Elizabeth is a busy “studier of character” and she tells Bingley that “intricate characters are the most amusing”. Ironically, the comedy of errors arises out of the fact that though Elizabeth is confident of her ability to read character, she fails in understanding the characters and motives of intricate people.

      As far as the simple characters are concerned Elizabeth has good reason to credit herself with the ability to discern people and situations extraordinarily well. The simple characters have no surprises for Elizabeth, and consequently none for us.

      She understands her family perfectly. She is aware and embarrassed by the vulgarity of her mother, the listless pedantry of Mary, the frivolity and empty-headedness of Kitty and the dangers of Lydia’s flirtations. She becomes conscious even of the cynical irresponsibility of her father. She comprehends the conceit and pretentiousness of the Bingley sisters beneath their mask of affability. She knows Mr. Collins to be an affected fool from the first letter he writes to them and is not cowed down by the formidable Lady Catherine. She is aware, too of the pleasant ingenuity of Jane.

      Indeed, her failures are with the intricate people who stand in a relationship of great intimacy to her: Charlotte Lucas, George Wickham, Darcy. Elizabeth makes these errors because ‘intimacy blurs perception, intelligence fails if there is insufficient distance between mind and object’.

      Elizabeth fails in understanding Charlotte because she is her intimate friend even though Charlotte has given enough indications of her opinions on marriage. Discussing the Jane-Bingley attachment Charlotte says, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” and dismisses totally the need to know or even like the person one is to marry. But Elizabeth does not believe this statement and even tells her, “you would never act in this way yourself” and hence is shocked when Charlotte accepts Collins’s proposal. Now for the first time she begins to see Charlotte as she really is: “and felt persuaded that no real confidence could ever subsist between them again” and confides in Jane her firm belief of the ‘inconsistency of all human characters’. Elizabeth fails in understanding the intricate Charlotte, who is sensible and intelligent and yet ready to overlook love and settle for economic security in marriage. Elizabeth’s affection for Charlotte obscures her usual clarity and depth of understanding and blinds her to the demerits of her friend.

      With Darcy of course, Elizabeth fails completely. She does not give herself a chance to know how she really feels about him. Their first encounter is comically disastrous. Darcy refuses to dance with her commenting that she is “not handsome enough to tempt me”. Despite her apparently light hearted dismissal of the incident, Darcy’s slight has hurt Elizabeth’s vanity and initiated the prejudice she will nourish against him. Thus, at Netherfield Park, when she finds Darcy staring at her with apparent fascination, she misinterprets it totally, imagining that she drew his notice because there was something wrong and reprehensible about her.

      It is her prejudice against Darcy infact which leads her to be taken in by another intricate character — George Wickham. With his pleasing manners and charm, Wickham fools Elizabeth totally. She fails to see him as the rouge that he is and given her prejudice, she is only too ready to believe Wickham’s tale of being wronged by Darcy. The reader, if he is careful enough can see that Wickham cautiously tries out the ground before he slanders Darcy’s character. He asks Elizabeth whether she is acquainted with Darcy and she in her blind prejudice indiscreetly reveals, “I think him very disagreeable” and this is what prompts Wickham to tell her of Darcy’s cruelty to him. Yet Elizabeth is not aware of his deception and totally deceives herself, allowing herself to be charmed by his smooth social facade. The incongruities inherent in Wickham’s account of the injustice he has suffered at Darcy’s hands and the gross impropriety of his revelation are quite obvious and had the episode involved any two persons except Darcy and Wickham, she would have noticed them. Being intimately involved as she is, she errs and errs fatally.

      It is only on receiving Darcy’s letter that she realizes she has been “blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” and this dramatic moment of self-revelation gradually brings about a total awareness of reality. She comes to know Wickham for what he is — a charming, dissembling, unprincipled flirt. And she begins to comprehend Darcy as exactly “the man, who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her.”

      Elizabeth, coming from a background which has little moral standards — her mother is stupid and her father has ironically withdrawn from his natural responsibility for his family’s moral welfare — has to rely on her own taste and commonsense and decision, and she is too sure of herself. Generally, her opinions of people are proved right in the case of simple characters but she fails in understanding the intricate characters and it is from this that the comedy of errors arises.

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