Humility in Pride and Prejudice
By Ana Schau
The moral development of the principal characters is not only the theme of Pride and Prejudice, but the engine of the whole plot.
Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice depicts several years in the life of Elizabeth Bennet, a young middle-class woman living in England in the early nineteenth century. Being young, single, clever, beautiful, and having very little fortune, Elizabeth strongly feels the need to marry well—a need her mother continually emphasizes to Elizabeth and her four sisters. Elizabeth meets a man named Mr. Darcy early in the book, and the story centers on her relationship with him as it develops from misunderstanding and prejudice to romance and respect.
However, both Elizabeth and Darcy initially display an opinionated pride and self-interest that the author uses to illustrate the deficiencies that pride can create in a person. Through her characters, Austen shows how pride causes even the most intelligent people to err, and consequently, how it causes misery and suffering which can be undone only by a restoration of proper humility.
Elizabeth has well-trained powers of judgment, and she is very proud of her ability to easily read character. She is often able to use her ability to discern the characters of the people around her, which she does effectively with individuals such as Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine. Elizabeth’s abilities are not impeccable, however, and she is sometimes incorrect in her judgments. For example, she believes Wickham to be a good-hearted, pleasant person, while she thinks very little of Darcy because of his apparent ego and self-interest. Thus, when her pride is wounded by Darcy, it is a staggering blow to her. During the ball close to the beginning of the story, Darcy refuses to dance with Elizabeth, declaring that she is “not handsome enough” to make him want to dance with her. This incenses Elizabeth, who begins to think ill of him after this event. Later on, she even begins to feel hatred for him because of the pride that she perceives in him. Elizabeth’s pride is clearly presented throughout the story.
Darcy’s pride is also evident. He behaves in an arrogant manner, and he is described as being “a most forbidding, disagreeable” sort of person, and many people dislike him. Because of his aloof and cold manner, he is usually not welcomed anywhere except when he accompanies Mr. Bingley, his much more agreeable friend. The cause of his pride seems to be his high social rank and his wealth; moreover, his pride has evidently not been curbed by any means whatsoever, which even he admits at the end of the story. Darcy’s inflated self-image is what causes him to be so confident to have Elizabeth’s hand. He can see no reason for her to refuse him; in fact, he believes that the prospect of such a great increase in wealth and rank should be incentive enough for any young lady to accept him. While Darcy is making his offer to Elizabeth, he tries to convince her of his sincerity by enumerating several reasons why choosing to make a match with such a girl as Elizabeth would ordinarily be distasteful to him. He only has the confidence to do this because he has absolutely “no doubt of a favourable answer” from her.
Both Elizabeth and Darcy suffer as a result of this behavior. Elizabeth, blinded by her wounded ego, fails to perceive Darcy’s true character, and she is deprived of the benefit that he could present to her as a valuable friend and worthy lover. When her eyes are finally opened to his true quality, she is distressed by her conviction that it is too late because he probably does not feel the same way about her anymore, especially since she has already rejected him. Darcy suffers because he is abhorred by Elizabeth, whom he considers to be “one of the handsomest women” that he knows, and whom he loves very much. His pride has also caused him to suffer from a lack of friends and acquaintances, because many people see his pride and want nothing to do with him. The negative effect that pride has on both Elizabeth and Darcy is quite evident.
Because of the suffering that Elizabeth and Darcy undergo as a result of their pride, each one begins to develop humility. Darcy, overcoming his pride, is content to be especially kind to Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, despite their lower social rank. He even helps to bring about a marriage between Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia, and Wickham, whom he despises; Darcy does this both out of concern for Lydia herself in her “disgraceful situation,” and because he wishes to show Elizabeth that he still cares for her. Elizabeth, realizing Darcy’s true character, is truly grateful to him for what he has done. While conversing together at the end of the story, Elizabeth and Darcy both acknowledge their pride, and they each apologize for it, promising to do better in the future. Their newfound respect for each other comes as a result of their commitment to humility, and a happy marriage is foreseeable in their future. By conquering their pride and turning to humility, Elizabeth and Darcy are able to rediscover the joy in their lives.
Austen’s presentation of the initial pride of Elizabeth and Darcy indicates that one must be humble in order to live a happy life, because pride can only cause pain and suffering. The trials they undergo as a result are difficult to overcome, but by turning to humility, they are able to restore the happiness in their lives. The lives and experiences of Elizabeth and Darcy effectively provide a valuable reminder of the suffering caused by pride.
Ana Schau is a seventeen-year-old high school senior who lives with her parents, eleven siblings, and one dog in a rambling house in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia. She enjoys making music, acting, and good food, and writes incessantly. She is considering either Wyoming Catholic College or Christendom College for the fall semester of 2021.
If you liked this piece, take a look at some of our other posts, like this author profile of Karl Marx, this “Great Conversation” post about the idea of happiness, this discussion of the #DisruptTexts movement, or this student essay on the work of Edmund Spenser. And be sure to check out our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our CEO and founder Jeremy Tate.