Elizabeth Bennet as Heroine in Pride and Prejudice

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Elizabeth - a Charming Heroine

      To create an entirely charming girl is one of the rarest achievements in fiction. Heroines who are noble or good or tragic or pathetic abound but Jane Austen has created in Elizabeth Bennet a girl of charming wit, sense, honesty and warm heart.

      Elizabeth Bennet captivates us by the sparkling freshness of a girl-next-door. Of all her heroines Jane Austen herself, liked Elizabeth the most and in a letter to her niece Cassandra she wrote: “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.” And Jane Austen’s liking is borne out by countless other readers who have fallen in love with her for more than a hundred and thirty years. A.C. Bradley wrote, “I am meant to fall in love with her, and I do.” R.L. Stevenson was so enthusiastic about her that he said he wanted to ‘go down on his knees’ whenever she spoke.

      Elizabeth Bennet is ‘not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humored as Lydia’ and yet she is charming. The real charm of the heroine is something elusive and indefinable. It is intrinsic. She has sobriety and depth — the beautiful expression of her dark eyes render her face uncommonly intelligent and Darcy who at the first meeting has dismissed her as merely “tolerable” at a later stage says, “it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest woman of my acquaintance.”

Elizabeth Intricacy and Intellectual Complexity

      Elizabeth's charm arises to a great extent from her intricacy, her intellectual complexity. She is profound and perceptive with the ability to discern people and situations extraordinarily well: she comprehends the merits and deficiencies of the Bingley's almost at once; she knows Mr. Collins to be an affected fool from the first letter he writes and judges Lady Catherine de Bourgh correctly at the first meeting. She understands her family and is conscious of the vulgarity of her mother, the pleasant ingenuity of Jane, the listless pedantry of Mary, the empty-headedness of Kitty and impending dangers of Lydia's flirtations. There is a rare touch of vivacity and ebullience too about her. Witty and humorous she has the ready gift of repartee and a perfect command of epigrammatic expression. Her encounters with other characters give ample evidence of her quickness of mind. She is not intimidated by Lady Catherine and to her inquiry whether Darcy had made a proposal to Elizabeth she answers, “Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible”. She laughs always at follies and nonsense, at whims and inconsistencies but her wit is refined and subtle and never outruns discretion and she never ridicules what is wise and good. She is above all capable of laughing as much at herself as at others. She can humorously relate to everyone Darcy’s refusal to dance with her, and to Jane’s incredulity about her being happy in marrying Darcy she can coolly and with delightful irony reply, “There can be no doubt of that. It is settled between us already that we are to be the happiest couple in the world.” She can amusingly think that Mr. Bingley is a delightful friend precisely because he is easily guided and influenced by Darcy but she is intelligent enough to check herself on time and does not voice her thoughts as Darcy has yet to learn to be laughed at. Thus, with her charming wit and intelligence, she combines a sense of propriety and refinement.

Elizabeth Affability and Moral Courage

      Affable, warmhearted and selfless, Elizabeth can walk all the way to Netherfield to care for her sick sister, Jane. She feels concerned at Bingley’s removal from the neighbourhood and much of her anger against Darcy is because of his role in causing the separation of Bingley and Jane. She constantly tries to raise Jane’s spirits and is genuinely happy when Jane is engaged to him.

      Equally admirable is her moral courage in declining two marriage proposals. She is a young unprovided girl. Her father’s estate is entailed on Mr. Collins. Her connections are very low and vulgar and it is not certain that any other attractive offers of marriage will be made to her ever in future. And in her society, ageing maids were faced with a bleak future full of privations and humiliations. Mr. Collins’ proposal offers comforts and security of a home — by all means an attractive incentive. Mr. Darcy’s proposal is even more attractive, for even she realizes that to have been the mistress of Pemberley would be something. But with rare strength of character and moral courage she rejects these proposals. Her strength of character and independent spirit assert themselves at various places in the novel and she is able to hold her own against Darcy’s haughtiness, against Miss. Bingley’s conceit and insults and is calm and unruffled even in the face of Lady Catherine’s pride, refusing to be browbeaten by anyone of them.

Elizabeth—not an Idealised Romantic Heroine

      But Elizabeth is no perfect heroine of a romantic novel. She is a complex, intricate, living and breathing character and Jane Austen achieves this depth by endowing Elizabeth with very human faults. Elizabeth has a pride and a vanity in her own perception, in her own intelligence and since her pride is mortified by Darcy’s refusal to dance with her, she is prejudiced against him. Her prejudice clouds her judgement and she is ready to believe Wickham’s slanderous information about Darcy. She allows herself to succumb to Wickham’s charms because he is attentive to her and fails to discern his true nature. She is similarly, blind to Charlotte Lucas’ demerits and is surprised and dissatisfied at her readiness to marry Collins. Thus, while, Elizabeth is generally perceptive, she fails with the ‘intricate’ people who stand in a relationship of great intimacy to her.

Elizabeth—A Dynamic Character

      However, Elizabeth Bennet is capable of learning from her mistakes. We see her change and this flux, this dynamism in her character is also responsible for the life-like charm she holds for us. The process of her self-awakening begins on receiving Darcy’s letters, after his proposal was rejected by her. She begins reading it, “with a strong prejudice against anything he might say”. But gradually she realizes the truth about his statements and now feels mortified at her own blindness: “she grew absolutely ashamed of herself—of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, prejudiced, absurd.” This dramatic moment of self-revelation gradually brings about a total awareness of reality. She is quick to acknowledge her mistakes and feels guilty. She sees Wickham for what he is — a charming, dissembling and unprincipled villain. She realizes too, that Darcy is exactly, ‘the man, who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her.’ Her prejudice was wrong, but there was an element of honesty about it and we appreciate and love Elizabeth for this honesty.

      It is true that Elizabeth blinds herself absurdly because of prejudice. Her mortified pride leads her to a prejudice of Darcy and her prejudice clouds her judgement so that she deceives herself. She wilfully misinterprets all of Darcy’s actions attributing it to his pride and lets herself be taken in by the surface charm of Wickham. She misjudges people who are close to her — Charlotte Lucas, Wickham and Darcy. But on the whole she is very perceptive and discerning of character — as in the case of Lady Catherine or Mr. Collins and even where her own family is concerned she is not blind to their faults recognizing and feeling frequently ashamed of the vulgarity and ill-bred behaviour of her mother and younger sisters. She also is able to change and overcome her prejudice when Darcy presents the facts before her. She recognizes her own error in misjudging Darcy and Wickham on mere first impressions and is also able to see some justification in Darcy’s objection to the Bingley-Jane affair because of her vulgar family. All these prove that Elizabeth is not merely blind, partial and prejudiced. She has blinded herself but is able to change and overcome her prejudice.


      Thus, Elizabeth good sense and right feeling, her gaiety, high spirit and courage, wit and readiness, her warmheartedness, her artistic temperament, her ability to laugh good-humouredly at herself, her intelligence and her zest for life all make her a charming and delightful heroine. Indeed the popularity of Pride and Prejudice as a novel rests on the brilliant portrayal of its charming and captivating heroine — Elizabeth Bennet.

University Questions

Jane Austen said of tier heroine Elizabeth “I must confess that I think her us delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.” - Discuss.
‘The most popular of June Austen’s novels has always been Pride and Prejudice because of the brilliant creation of Elizabeth Bennet, a heroine as witty as she is charming.’ - Elucidate.
Discuss the novel as a story of the heroine’s self-deception arising out of her pride and prejudice and her subsequent change.
How far is it true to say that Elizabeth was “blind, partially prejudiced, absurd.”?

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