Elizabeth has the most developed character of the five sisters and she rises the highest. She is intelligent, attractive, frank, and outspoken. Her strength and courage rise in proportion to the challenge. She is cheerful, able to laugh at herself, unable to sustain sadness, and feels inferior to no one. She receives through the love of her father a wider view of life resulting in vivacious, strong opinions of irrepressible, playful, flowing sweetness that sometimes becomes archness. She is truly a great character.
Elizabeth is her father’s favorite, and inherits his wit and mental acumen. Her mental energy is a product of Mr. Bennet’s developed mind combined with Mrs. Bennet’s physical energies. As a second child, Elizabeth has less of the mother — less of her beauty, less of her physical urges—and more of her father’s tendencies. She inherits from her mother the strong physicality that attracts her to Wickham. She has overcome the timidity of Jane but does not degenerate into the uncontrolled physical expressiveness of Lydia and Kitty. Elizabeth models herself as the opposite to Jane, priding on her frankness and insightful opinions of others, while Jane adopts always a perfect social formality devoid of deeper understanding.
Elizabeth becomes the spearhead of social evolution. In an age in which social status is waning and individual character is rare, Elizabeth is rewarded for her higher endowment by elevation to a high position in life. Had she lived in an earlier period when aristocratic lineage still reigned supreme or in a later age when individual character was more common, her reward might have been marriage to a man of character at her own social level. A century or so earlier, her elevation would have been checked by a society that was intent on keeping everybody in place. She would not have been allowed to rise. And at a later age, when society was starting to lose its hold on people’s minds and Elizabeth’s endowment was becoming more common, she would not been rewarded so greatly.
Elizabeth is fully aware of the limited prospects of her family, deferential to the accepted customs and behaviors of the day, and respectful of the social hierarchy, but not limited by these constraints in her thoughts, feelings, values or behavior. Socially her highest prospect is to marry a reasonably handsome, financially comfortable gentleman’s son for whom she can feel some measure of respect, attraction and affection. Money also had little importance for Elizabeth as an incentive for marriage. She rejected Collins in spite of his property because he was personally unsuitable. She would have accepted Wickham in spite of his poverty for his physical and social attractiveness, had he been able to afford to marry her. She rejected Wickham only when she found out that he was a rogue. Character was more important to her than physical attraction. She rejected Darcy when she thought that his money was accompanied by an arrogant, offensive, mean character. Only when she discovered that Darcy’s character was good did his wealth become attractive.
Elizabeth is offended by Darcy’s pride, because it is at the expense of her own pride. It makes her conscious of the low social behavior and status of her family. She becomes irate when Darcy takes it for granted that she will accept his proposal. Elizabeth lacks the shrewdness of perception that Mrs. Gardiner and Charlotte have. She sees arrogance in Darcy where the Gardiners discover poise and stateliness. Pleased by Wickham’s attention and offended by Darcy’s aloofness, she was prejudiced in favor of one and against the other. She can be attracted to Wickham’s charms but is rational enough to understand it is a poor match for him.
Her honesty and frankness of character are powerfully displayed in her response to Darcy’s letter. She recognizes the vanity, folly and absurdity of her own behavior and feels totally ashamed. She has the mental sincerity to be shocked when she discovers the coarseness of Lydia’s speech about Mary King reflects her own unspoken sentiments. She expresses genuine, unselfish affection for Jane throughout the story. Her admiration of Jane’s sweetness and generous temperament are among the very few instances in the story where goodness of character is valued for its own sake. She is indignant at Darcy for interfering in Bingley’s relationship with Jane.
Elizabeth’s relationship with Wickham is vital. Her relationship with Darcy is mental. Elizabeth is willing to justify Wickham’s pursuit of Mary King for her wealth as necessary for a man in his position. The vital can see only one side of a person, either positive or negative. Only the mind can see that there are two sides. Her vital sees the positive in Wickham, the negative in Darcy. Elizabeth’s response to Wickham is pure vital liking. It is not based on or colored by the mind’s regard. Once the vital finds an object of attraction, the attraction remains. It is the kind of liking that, once extended to close friends and family members, is unchanged by any disclosure or event. Elizabeth has extended that liking to a false, flattering rogue.
Darcy’s artless frank behavior is offensive to Elizabeth, whereas Wickham’s artful flattery is beguiling. Both men and women love to be flattered by the opposite sex. Real flattery requires a streak of falsehood. The greater the falsehood, the more pleasing the experience. Mr. Bennet can see through Wickham’s charm to some degree (‘he makes love to us all’), not Elizabeth. Despite her formed character, Elizabeth is attracted to Wickham as the other ladies are and equally taken in by his false words and behavior. She persists in believing Wickham even after receiving contrary information about him from Caroline, Bingley and Fitzwilliam. She believes in him because she wants to believe. The capacity of the mind to believe what the vital wants is a capacity for falsehood. Even after Wickham’s lies and outrageous behavior toward Darcy are exposed, she is unable to convert her liking into true anger or scorn. Elizabeth cannot bring herself to expose his character to the public of Meryton. Wickham’s continued self-justification, which she knows to be false, is not revolting to her. Even after Wickham’s elopement and marriage to Lydia, when he interrupts her reading of Mrs. Gardiner’s letter in the garden, she is unable to refrain an initial pleasant response to him. This is the response of the biological female human being.
Elizabeth never feels or expresses an intense heart-felt emotion for Darcy. Her mind comes to recognize, respect and esteem his noble character. Her heart feels grateful for the deep and constant affection he feels for her, but her emotions never flow to him the way they naturally flowed to Wickham. Her emotions naturally flow to one at her own level or below, not above. As a person, Darcy is not fully real to her feelings because of his high status. What is real and tangible to Elizabeth about Darcy is Pemberley. Her physical delight in visiting it rivals the sense of charm she felt in meeting Wickham for the first time. As a developed person, she values character not money. Her motives are not mercenary in any normal sense of the word. However, her physical consciousness is that of her mother, which feels uncomfortable in the lofty atmosphere of Darcy’s family. What it can relate to is only the most physical aspect of Darcy’s life, the magnificent beauty and splendor of the estate and house at Pemberley. Conversely, Darcy is unable to relate either to Elizabeth’s lowly physical or social context. What he comes to admire and cherish is the highest point of her formed individual character, the light in her eyes. That enlivening light is what Darcy most needs to revitalize his family and his class. Once accepted, Elizabeth comes not as a submissive or conforming inferior, but as a breath of fresh air to energize and elevate the family. This is a story of two planes of social life drawing toward each other and forging an intimate relationship. It reflects the nature of the relationship between people separated by great distance in a social hierarchy. The one above feels drawn to the highest point in the one below. The one below feels drawn to the lowest point in the one above.
Elizabeth is disappointed and angry with herself when Darcy returns after Lydia’s marriage but does not say anything to her. She hopes Darcy will speak out his feelings at a time when life requires her to take the initiative to withdraw the offense she gave him at Rosings. It is the trait of bargaining. Even when everything she wants is coming to her, she wants to it come fully on her own terms without her initiative, unconditionally in the most desirable form. That is the capacity of the human ego to assert even after it being humbled and when it has greatest cause to be grateful and submissive. Finally, on Darcy’s second visit after Bingley’s proposal, Elizabeth does speak out and then he proposes again.
- “This is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.” (P&P, p.155)
- “It was not in her nature to increase her vexations by dwelling on them.” P&P, p.206
- P&P, p.143
- P&P, p. 185
- "How despicably I have acted!" she cried; "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candor of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blamable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself." P&P, p.185
- P&P, p.195
- P&P, p.206
- P&P, p.208
- P&P, p.297,300
P&P refers to the Oxford World's Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1980