The conflict of deviation from society’s traditional norms proves exceedingly controversial, especially in nineteenth-century England, a setting in which social and behavioral norms dictate the lives of individuals. However, author Jane Austen tackles this conflict by conveying the impact of individuals’ surroundings on their personal and social development in her novel, Pride and Prejudice. The lives of the Bennet family are highly dependent on their environmental standards since, from the very start of the novel, the conflict of Mrs. Bennet resides in her duty to marry off her daughters.
The opening “mock” aphorism describes the “truth universally acknowledged”, which, in fact, is less a universally followed generalization than it is communally respected opinion by high-ranking individuals, depicting the extreme relevance and significance held in societal standards during this time period. A continued focus of the novel lies on Elizabeth Bennet and her struggle for individuality amid the pressures of her community. Austen introduces Elizabeth as witty, intelligent, and sensible, receiving the approbation of her father, Mr. Bennet, due to their shared beliefs of a realistic outlook on life. However, while her attractive nature draws the attention of readers as the quintessential protagonist, her character contains flaws; specifically, her prideful and judgemental first impressions, caused by the societal norms she follows, influence her attitudes and relationship with other significant characters, such as Mr. Darcy. Throughout the story, Elizabeth learns to develop her individuality by not allowing her environment to impose principles of behavior on her character. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice illustrates the effect of social norms, in nineteenth-century England, on individuality through Elizabeth Bennet’s character and her relationship with Mr. Darcy. From the beginning of the novel, while Elizabeth may pride herself with singularity in her personality, it is evident that her freedom of behavior faces hindrance by her surroundings, as witnessed through dialogue. When Jane and Elizabeth discuss the traits of Mr. Bingley upon meeting him, Jane comments on his liveliness and good-humored nature, while Elizabeth focuses on the aspects most significant according to societal values. Elizabeth observes his wealth and physical characteristics, “which a young man ought likewise to be . . . [for] his character [to be] complete” (Austen 16). She views the situation through a lens that highlights the traditionally respected elements, instead of what her own beliefs as an individual may comprise, and she is essentially tied down by her prejudices. When first introduced, her personality is one lacking originality but rather demonstrating conformity, where the distinction of “individual” and “society” is blurred.
As noted by Dorothy Van Ghent in her essay on The English Novel: Form and Function (1953), Elizabeth’s internal conflicts, her extreme prejudice and lack of expressional freedom, illuminate “ the deficient reconciliation of the sensitively developed individual with the terms of [her] social existence” (Ghent 100). The bylaws of what society demands, when it comes to expectations, act as a barrier to her supposed independent personality. It is through this perspective that Austen conveys Elizabeth’s story, not as an exercise of individual freedom, but “as an effort to achieve freedom and separate herself from the community she is embedded in” (Bloom 114). Austen emphasizes Elizabeth’s constrained beliefs through the incorporation of dramatic irony. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth criticizes Jane Bennet’s blindness to others’ faults and attitudes, when she herself exemplifies this same blindness to the people in her life due to her prejudice. What she believes to be her most positive aspect, her perceptive capabilities, is what she lacks in certain circumstances.
Upon meeting George Wickham, her attitude towards him is one of approval due to his unreserved and agreeable behavior, his “most gentlemanlike appearance”, and all the components of his physical beauty, including “a fine countenance, a good figure, and pleasing address” (Austen 71). Her prejudiced beliefs, no doubt originating from societal views, makes her prioritize exterior aspects that portrayed Wickham as the ideal suitor in her eyes. Her perception of individual character when analyzing it in others is deceived, as she later discovers his true intentions of monetary goals and abandons her respect for him. Elizabeth’s important judgement in the early stages of the novel, especially her “delighted approval” of Wickham, is a prime example of unconscious mental conformity. As noted by literary critic William Deresiewicz, the conformity taking place is not one of common opinion, but to “the very way the community makes and maintains its opinions” (Deresiewicz 508). Here, Elizabeth’s true beliefs are masked by the upheld qualities dictated by those around her, and ironically, her own guard of perception is let down.