During the 19th century and earlier, the practice of entering a marriage solely for the purpose of moving up in social standing and choosing someone based on their financial status was a customary behavior. Women of that time sought a wealthy family to marry into, in order to secure a safe lifestyle after marriage. However, in the 19th century, a conflict arose as many people started to question the basis and purpose of authentic and successful marriages. Women like Jane Austen publicly criticized and satirized the marriage tradition of her time and set examples of what she believed to be a perfect couple through her characters, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, in her novel Pride & Prejudice.
Elizabeth Bennet was the second daughter of the Bennet family—a reasonably well-off family—and the most intelligent and quick-witted amongst her family, whereas Fitzwilliam Darcy was the son of a wealthy, well-established family and the master of the great estate of Pemberley. Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship is neither wholly based on a quest for money on Elizabeth’s part or emotions that blind the couple from all other important aspects of life, depicting a balance, thus becoming the model for Austen’s image of a perfect couple and for true love. Although their relationship didn’t start off as an ideal relationship, they still found love for each other, which helped them build their characters for the better.
Elizabeth and Darcy began their relationship by judging one another harshly based on first impressions. Mr. Darcy’s initial contempt of Elizabeth is evident when he forms an immediate impression of Elizabeth the first time he sees her at a ball. Mr. Bingley suggests that Darcy takes Elizabeth as a dance partner, but Darcy declines on the grounds that she lacks beauty and “is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt [Mr. Darcy] (Austen, 8)’, and persists in criticizing her and will not allow himself to see her as pretty. However, his attitude toward her takes a turn fairly rapidly, when he himself notices her manners, expressive eyes, intelligence, and nice figure pleases him. To his own astonishment, he “wishes to know more of her (Austen, 15)’. Thus, the gradual development of Mr. Darcy commences.
Elizabeth similarly starts out with a negative first impression of Mr. Darcy. She including others judge him to be too proud not long after he arrives at the dance at Meryton, but when she overhears his reasons for not asking her to dance, she “remains with no very cordial feelings toward him (Austen, 8)’. Following the dance, Mrs. Bennet comments on Darcy’s pride and rudeness, to which Elizabeth replies that she “safely promises never to dance with him (Austen, 15)’, clearly demonstrating her initial disdain. Even after Mr. Darcy begins to warm up to Elizabeth, she tells Mr. Wickham that she finds Darcy to be very disagreeable. Upon hearing Mr. Wickham’s woeful tale, in which Mr. Darcy is the villain, she further judges Mr. Darcy’s character as despicable. Elizabeth requires a little more time than Mr. Darcy to be persuaded and convinced to perceive beyond her prejudice of Mr. Darcy.
When Mr. Darcy pays a visit to the Collins’ abode during Elizabeth’s stay at Charlotte Lucas’ new home (Elizabeth’s best friend), Charlotte observes Mr. Darcy’s presence to be unusual as he wouldn’t “come so soon to wait upon [Charlottle] (Austen, 147)’ and reasons that it is due to Elizabeth’s presence. This observation attests to Darcy’s growing affection for Elizabeth. Later, Elizabeth attends Rosings, the home of Lady Catherine, with Charlotte and her husband and Elizabeth’s cousin, Mr. Collins. Mr. Darcy visits Rosings at the same time and engages in a very civil, at times even playful, conversation with Elizabeth regarding the misfortunes of prejudgment. He reveals that he regrets having made such hasty judgment of Elizabeth, exhibiting that he has grown beyond his pride and now can perceive his own feelings and their fundamental compatibility. His feelings of fondness for Elizabeth continue to grow until he can no longer repress them, and calls on her at Charlotte’s to tell her “how ardently [he] admires and loves (Austen, 162)’ her and asks for her hand in marriage. Unfortunately, though he has come to love her, he still sees her as below him because of her financial and social situation. He makes no effort to hide his feelings of superiority from Elizabeth, causing her to turn him down. Darcy’s arrogant marriage proposal infuriates her and her attitude toward Darcy corresponds to the judgments she has previously made about him as being too arrogant. She informs him that she cannot express gratitude for the offer because she has “never desired [Darcy’s] good opinion”, and he has “certainly bestowed it unwillingly (Austen, 163)’. She recognizes that he still sees her as beneath him and that he views this prejudice as something merely to deal with rather than to expel. Also, she refuses him because of the role she believes Mr. Darcy played in disinheriting Wickham and his admitted role in disrupting the romance between Jane and Bingley, still acting according to her own biases and misunderstandings.
After his rejection by Elizabeth, Darcy writes her a letter in which he assures her that he will not reiterate his marriage proposal but writes to amend her misconceptions of the situation with Wickham. When Elizabeth receives Darcy’s letter, she at first wants to disregard it, “protesting…that she would never look in it again (Austen, 139)’. Then she recalls Wickham’s behavior when he told her of all of Mr. Darcy’s misdeeds. As much as she wants to believe the best about Wickham and the worst about Darcy, she can no longer deny that Wickham is evidently the false one while Mr. Darcy is telling the truth. The letter reveals the truth about Wickham’s relationship to Darcy and consequently shifts sympathy from Wickham to Darcy. Darcy’s letter begins a humbling process for both Elizabeth and him, which results in the maturation of each of their attitudes toward the other. In Darcy’s case, the rejection of his proposal strikes a blow to his pride and compels him to respond to Elizabeth’s anger. The resulting letter reveals to Elizabeth how she misjudged both him and Wickham. With the extent of her mistaken prejudice suddenly apparent, she is humbled enough to begin to look at Darcy in a new light.
Visiting Pemberley further depicts the development of Elizabeth’s character and demonstrates the slow, steady growth of her love for Mr. Darcy. A beautiful and natural landscape surrounds Darcy’s home. His elegant furnishings demonstrate exquisite, but not ostentatious, taste. His housekeeper has nothing but wonderful things to say about him and confirms Darcy’s version of Wickham’s story. As Elizabeth stands in his home, she thinks of his home as a place she “might have been mistress (Austen, 208)’ of. Darcy’s unexpected arrival surprises and embarrasses Elizabeth, but he treats her kindly, which left her “amazed at the alteration in his manner since they last parted (Austen, 213)’. Darcy has changed his conduct toward her and become a perfect gentleman. This courteous behavior illustrates his love for her and compels the growth of her evaluation of him. His ability to overcome his pride in much the same way that Elizabeth overcomes her prejudice gives Elizabeth hope that her rejection of him has not caused him to give up and that he may propose again under different terms.
Moreover, when Elizabeth finds out that her sister, Lydia, has run off with Wickham, amid all the turmoil she turns to Darcy and exposes her emotions in front of him potraying the closeness she feels with him. Darcy immediately sets out to find them, and when he does find them, he uses his own financial means to settle a marriage between them. He keeps it a secret, but Lydia lets it slip to Elizabeth. This hints that Darcy’s feelings for Elizabeth have not altered and Elizabeth’s secret hope of obtaining Darcy’s love will soon come true. The happy conclusion to Bingley’s courtship of Jane suggests that Darcy no longer cares about the Bennet sisters’ low social status. Whereas Darcy previously disrupted the romance between Bingley and Jane in order to protect his friend’s social status, he now allows their love to triumph over their class differences and Lydia’s scandal, further illustrating his character development. Ultimately, Elizabeth’s denial to promise Lady Catherine to not marry Mr. Darcy and conveying the impression that if Mr. Darcy were to propose again, she would accept it, confirms that her feelings toward Mr. Darcy are now what his were towards her earlier.
Because Elizabeth and Darcy allow their impressions of one another to continually change throughout the novel as more truths are revealed to them, they fall in love. If both of them had clung to that first judgment of the other, Elizabeth and Darcy would never have seen in each other the person they were meant to love for the rest of their lives, and their characters would not have grown to become more mature and unbiased. Their marriage proves how genuine love for one another in a relationship can help improve each other.