In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen proves on the example of the main heroine Elizabeth Bennet that one can miss one’s happiness when relying solely on emotions, feelings, and impressions and foregoing the objections of reason and common sense. American literary critic William Dereciewicz acknowledges that one of Austen’s messages in the book for him is the necessity to follow logic rather than instincts, at least because it provides subjectivity as it “stands outside us and doesn’t care what we want” (69).
Dereciewicz claims that the reason for choosing emotion over reason lies in the romantic tradition which, although brought in many interesting writers, artists, and movement, such as “Wordsworth and Byron, Whitman and Thoreau, modern dance, expressionist painting, Beat poetry, and much, much more” (68), also shifted the focus to the individuality – to “I” and “me,” and to an immediate satisfaction of desires and wants.
The central conflict in Pride and Prejudice lies in the attitudes of Elizabeth Benner and Fitzwilliam Darcy, who began their relationship as antagonists and finish as lovers. Austen’s Elizabeth could be a portrayal of the author herself. “Brilliant, witty, full of fun and laughter – the kind of person who makes you feel more alive just by being around” (Dereciewicz 44). Elizabeth “prided [herself] on [her] discernment” (Austen 230). Therefore, when first meeting Darcy and seeing his snobbish ways, Elizabeth understood that Darcy was prejudiced in the common sense of the word – he believed himself above the people of lower origins. Meanwhile, Elizabeth turned to another type of prejudiced behavior. If Darcy’s feeling of superiority is a prejudice based on class status, then Elizabeth’s prejudice stemmed from understanding that a good person cannot value other people basing on their income and social standing. Other events were interpreted by Elizabeth in accordance with her first impressions from Darcy. To add insult to injury, Darcy dropped an unfavorable remark about Elizabeth’s beauty, or “tolerable” amount of it (12), so in every woman’s eye Elizabeth’s attitude could be quite justified in her dislike of him.
Such heavy critical thinking of another person takes a lot of time to get rid of. In this case, Darcy turned out more open-minded than Elizabeth. He was first to change his not a very plump opinion of her and fall in love with her. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s low regard of Darcy was intensified by George Wickham’s story. His untruthful account of how Darcy left him without financial support promised by his god-father Mr. Darcy did not arouse Elizabeth’s suspicion that he might be lying. Although abominable, Wickham’s lies fell into the general pattern of Elizabeth’s thinking about Darcy. Even her elder sister Jane, who always believed in best in each person, was closer to the truth in her opinion about Darcy and Wickham. She said about their situation:
“They have both been deceived […] in some way or other, of which we can form no idea. Interested people have perhaps misrepresented each to the other. It is, in short, impossible for us to conjecture the causes or circumstances which may have alienated them, without actual blame on either side” (Austen 95).
At least, Jane’s eagerness to defend each and everyone gave a hypothetic chance to Darcy to justify himself while Elizabeth already formed her opinion based on the testimony of one party. On Jane’s cautious remark that in such a difficult and distressing situation “[o]ne does not know what to think” Elizabeth retorted: “I beg your pardon;—one knows exactly what to think” (96).
The same reliance of feelings Elizabeth demonstrated when Mr. Bingley left for London for winter. When Jane becomes worried about Mr. Bingley not returning to his estate and consequently her inability to see him Elizabeth consoles her not with rational explanations but just saying that Mr. Bingley cannot help but love Jane. “No one who has ever seen you together, can doubt his affection” (Austen 133). Using her vision of the situation Elizabeth brushed away any suggestions against the future happiness of Jane and Bingley. Austen concludes: “She [Elizabeth] represented to her sister as forcibly as possible what she felt on the subject, and had soon the pleasure of seeing its happy effect [italics mine]” (134), thus making her own feelings as a basis for her confidence in Mr. Bingley’s tender attitude towards her sister.
In its turn, Bingley left for London, in the first place, because, as we know from Darcy’s letter, Jane’s regard of Bingley was not evident either to him or his friends. Jane was such a delicate and tender girl that her attitude toward Bingley was not vivid enough for others to notice it. Hence Elizabeth knew her sister very well she never seriously treated a notion that something could go wrong. Otherwise, she could correct it, or give a clue to Jane how to make her emotions more visible, or hint at them to Bingley herself. However, Elizabeth never cast a doubt that someone may fail to see the chemistry between her sister and Bingley. Dereciewicz is right about Elizabeth stating, “[s]he thought she was right because she felt she was right” (66).
Another object of Elizabeth’s prejudice was Mr. Collins, or rather Elizabeth’s close friend Charlotte Lucas who accepted a marriage proposal from him. Being close friends with her Elizabeth considered it unimaginable for Charlotte to marry the pompous and ridiculous Mr. Collins. Just as for Elizabeth it was impossible to accept when she turned down his proposal some time earlier. Elizabeth projected her own feelings for Mr. Collins on Charlotte. How her dear friend could agree to marry such a pitiful and ridiculous person was beyond Elizabeth’s understanding, and she felt that her friend was “disgracing herself” and “sunk in her esteem” and that now “it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen” (Austen 141).
Trying to come to grips with such a mismarriage Elizabeth notes that it had not been for the first time when she misjudged a character. When Elizabeth thinks about these “unaccountable” instances when she turned wrong in her judgment, Jane warns her: “You do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper” (Austen 153). It was said regarding the marriage of Mr. Collins and Charlotte, but the same can be applied to all the other cases where Elizabeth was way off the mark in her judgment of characters.
Elizabeth was in thrall to her illusions regarding both Darcy and Wickham. Only the sober voice of Darcy’s logic could have wakened her up. Despite feeling hurt by his low opinion of her family and the overall situation of making a declaration of love and at the same time admitting that her social standing matters, Elizabeth found the strength to reread the letter and to agree to her blindness and preconceived notion against Darcy. Elizabeth could realize that she had some feeling to Darcy, too, only after she recognized that she treated Darcy (and Wickham) on a wrong basis. Behind all these layers of opinions, assumptions, doubting, and ill thinking two people had found love.
Elizabeth was caught in a trap of her high opinion of her intellectual abilities. Being a sensible person who always followed her sound judgment and rational way of thinking, Elizabeth did not notice that she was carried away by her emotions and that her opinions were influenced by them. Unlike her, Darcy proved through his letter that he was capable of “impartial conviction” (Austen 220). Therefore, it is possible even for judgmental and prejudiced people to put aside their premade opinions and try to think partially.
In general, I agree with Dereciewicz that the overall message of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is to give more credit to logic. However, I am not confident that this is a universal truth for everybody. For example, Mr. Collins could use a bit of instincts and intuition. The scene of his proposal to Elizabeth is simply idiotic when upon receiving all kinds of rejections from Elizabeth he continued to repeat that according to his acquired knowledge that was the way for “elegant females” to encourage a suitor (Austen 122). Another example is the less sensible part of the Bennets. The reader sees that Lydia, Kitty, and Mrs. Bennet thrive on emotions only. On the example of Lydia, the reader sees a person who thinks only of entertaining and her own pleasures, never remembering to use her sense and logic and think what her actions bring to her family.
Personally I believe in maintaining balance; the balance of common good and personal good, of ego and society, of mind and heart. Probably, that was the conclusion to which Jane Austin arrived in 1797 when she was as young as 22 years old and when she was writing Pride and Prejudice.
- Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.
- Dereciewicz, William. “Growing Up.” A Jane Austen Education. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. Print.