Fiction Relationship Analysis: Pride and Prejudice
Fiction Relationship Analysis: What are Our Favorite Stories Really Telling Us
This Month: Pride and Prejudice
Copyright all imagery used in this post belongs to Focus Features and BBC PBS for their film and miniseries.
Welcome to Mel’s Magnificent Musings’ series: Fiction Relationship Analysis. Popular culture has a huge impact on our social and psychological development. We shape many of our beliefs and perspectives about ourselves based on popular culture and our reaction to it. This can have both positive and negative effects on our development and personal identity. Sometimes, we become stronger because we were inspired, and sometimes we feel weakened because our lives aren’t falling into the normal storytelling arc.
While popular culture can shape many and all aspects of our perception, one of the most significant aspects it shapes is our perception of relationships.
Within literature, film, video games, graphic novels, and all other manners of storytelling, we are exposed to thousands of very toxic relationships. Toxic workplace dynamics, toxic friendships, toxic family relations, and toxic romances. While not all stories romanticize these toxic relationships, our perception and interpretation can. When we see these characters get a resolution (happily ever after or otherwise) we can use that to reason or excuse similar toxic behavior in our own lives. Instead of recognizing the resolution for what it is and what it is meant to be, we make it into more or are disappointed when it isn’t.
This month’s Fiction Relationship Analysis is going to focus on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It is arguably one of the most famous books, miniseries, movies, and plot lines in pop culture and probably Jane Austen’s most famous work. Just about everyone has at least heard of Pride and Prejudice, if not fallen completely in love with it. The characters are classics, and there is a reason their traits are borrowed and reproduced constantly (Bridget Jones’s Diary, anyone?) Most people have strong feelings (one way or another) toward Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Wickham, Mr. Bingley, Jane Bennet, and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The whole cast, really.
Note: This will not discuss which adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is the best (Team Colin and Team Matthew settle down. I think we can all agree there's a whole lot of smolder going on with either option.)
Warning: Spoilers! (It’s a literary classic and is 250 years old, come on. You should know it by now.)
Pride and Prejudice is a literary novel written by Jane Austen during the British Romanticism movement of the 18th century. Jane was writing alongside that prat Lord Byron. At least her leading men weren’t so… pathetic. (Sorry not sorry Lord Byron. Pull yourself together and stop drinking! Have some dignity, man.) The book focuses on the pressure a young woman had to marry well in order to avoid a life in a nunnery or being poor and homeless once her land-bearing father died. The stakes were high and they all depended on a suitable match. Compared to our standards today regarding marriage, a good match had nothing to do with personality compatibility. It didn’t matter if you liked your husband, it mattered if he would pay your bills for you to live out your life above the poverty line.
Quick summary: set in regency England, 1780s-ish, Mr. Bennet and his wife had five daughters of marrying ages that they need to find suitable husbands for. This challenge really grates on Mrs. Bennet’s poor nerves and sends her into over-dramatic fits of being super extra. Jane is the oldest daughter; she is mild mannered, kind, caring, the sweetest, and just the best person ever. Elizabeth is the second oldest and our leading lady; she is intelligent, quick-witted, stubborn, confident, and very determined to live life on her own terms while still honoring her mother and father by doing what is best for the family. Then there is Mary—shy, mousy, and plays a wonderful piano forte; Kitty—she’s a follower, prone to fits of giggling, a little silly, and looks up to her younger sister, Lydia, for her wild nature; lastly, there is Lydia—she’s fifteen, thinks she knows everything, wants adventure, a bit of a spoiled brat, and is really unhappy with her status both financially and as the youngest (and therefore last to get married.)
The Bennet sisters are having their normal day when news comes that Netherfield has let at last! Mrs. Bennet is beside herself to find out that the lovely mansion down the way has been rented, and by a wealthy, eligible bachelor at that. They meet the desirable, kind, and completely adorable Mr. Bingley and convince him to attend a ball so that Mrs. Bennet can work her mad matchmaking skills on him and sweet Jane. At the ball, Mr. Bingley is joined by his best bro, Mr. Darcy. (Cue all the ladies and gents swooning.)
Mr. Darcy is a real jerk. He doesn’t want to dance with anyone, is super socially awkward, and straight up insults Elizabeth when she’s trying to be polite and engage him in conversation. He also, later, calls her ugly or “barely tolerable.” Yeah, not swooning anymore are you? Understandably, Elizabeth writes him off as being a real git and unpleasant jerkface. As matchmaking between Jane and Bingley continues, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s paths keep intersecting. He keeps insulting her, she keeps throwing them right back at him, and a real battle of the wits ensues.
During this time, Mr. Collins arrives at the Bennets’ house. He is their cousin and, as it stands, is the one who will inherit the estate should Mr. Bennet die before the girls are married off. Mrs. Bennet wants to match Collins with Lizzy (Elizabeth,) but that’s the last thing she wants. Collins is a pathetic, sniveling, kiss-ass who cares more about image than his beloved patron, Lady Catherine. No one wants to marry Collins. Which is why Lizzy rejects him.
The Bennet ladies go into town and come across the Queen’s Army where they meet Mr. Wickham. He’s dashing and charming and recounts a tale of woe depicting how Mr. Darcy denied him the living (job with a promised salary for life) that Darcy’s late father promised him, leaving Wickham destitute and with no other option than to join the army to avoid being penniless. This story only reaffirms Elizabeth’s judgement about Darcy being a real jerkface. Who would do such a thing to an innocent man like Wickham?
Later, Lydia and Mrs. Bennet convince Bingley to host a ball at Netherfield, which he innocently agrees to do because he’s so good-natured. At the ball, Jane and Elizabeth are really the only Bennets who compose themselves well and don’t dissolve into silliness. After the ball, Bingley leaves Netherfield and politely refuses Jane, despite the great steps they made toward an engagement and their mutual interest (Bingley loves Jane, and Jane loves Bingley.) Jane is crushed, but she picks herself up and carries on. She goes to visit her aunt and uncle to recover from her heartache.
Now, having rejected a marriage proposal, Elizabeth is on some thin ice with her mother. Collins ended up marrying Lizzy’s friend, Charlotte, so Lizzy agrees to visit them in an attempt to smooth things over so that Collins won’t evict them the first chance he gets. While visiting the Collins household, she meets Mr. Collins’ patron, Lady Catherine. Lady Catherine also happens to be Mr. Darcy’s aunt, so guess who just happens to be there are the same time. Mr. Darcy. (Cue more swooning.) They quarrel, and she discovers that he is the reason Jane was rejected by Bingley. Darcy had told Bingley that Jane wasn’t a suitable match and advised him to flee Netherfield to find a more suitable family to marry into.
Meanwhile, Darcy finds Elizabeth after church and tells her how unsuitable her family is, how poor she is, that he loves her, and she should marry him despite all her short comings. Ever the romantic, that Darcy. Understandably, Elizabeth rejects his offer of marriage. Hurt, Elizabeth uses her rapier wit to cut Darcy down a peg or two by telling him that he destroyed her sister whom she loves greatly, ruined poor Wickham, and is and all-around jerk who is the last man she would ever consider marrying.
Now, with everything on the table and lots of hurt feelings and pride (ahh, there’s the significance of the title…) taking all that she said to heart, Mr. Darcy writes her a letter of apology and leaves. He explains that he thought Jane indifferent toward Bingley because of her mild mannered and reserved nature. He thought Jane was only interested in Bingley’s money based on the silliness of her mother and other sisters and he wanted to protect his friend from a gold-digger who did not love him. He also explained that Wickham refused the living as a clergyman he was offered and took a money settlement instead. Wickham then gambled it away and when he tried to get more out of Darcy, Darcy refused. In an attempt to get even more money, Wickham tried to elope with Darcy’s fifteen-year-old sister which would have ruined Georgiana’s reputation and life. (mic drop Darcy.)
Shocked by his letter admitting his wrongdoing and apologizing for hurting her sister, Elizabeth starts to rethink her prejudice toward Mr. Darcy (whaaat! The title makes even more sense…)
Months later, Elizabeth goes to visit her aunt and uncle where they run in to Darcy yet again! She is shocked by the kindness that he treats her relatives and he invites all of them to meet his sister and go fishing. Elizabeth is seriously reconsidering her rejection and judgement of Darcy when she gets news that her youngest sister, Lydia, eloped with Wickham.
Devestated, Elizabeth returns home believing that Lydia has ruined the family name and any chance she may have had at making amends with Darcy. However, Wickham was somehow persuaded to marry Lydia and maintain the Bennets’ reputation. Lydia returns home and lets it slip that Darcy was at her wedding, and her uncle divulges that Darcy was the one who arranged for Wickham to marry Lydia.
Darcy and Bingley visit the Bennets once Wickham and Lydia have left. Bingley proposes to Jane and they are engaged to be married with much happiness.
Lady Catherine shows up after Bingley and Jane became engaged and demands that Elizabeth leave Darcy alone and not to accept his proposal of marriage. Elizabeth tells her to shove it (politely) and that she will never make such a promise.
Encouraged, Darcy proposes to Elizabeth again and she accepts. He then goes to her home to ask Mr. Bennet for her hand in marriage. Mr. Bennet is uncertain and it is only after Elizabeth tells him of Darcy’s real character, her feelings for him and his for her, and the kind things he has done for their family that Mr. Bennet gives his consent and is happy for their marriage.
There are a lot of relationships in this book and many of them have complicated dynamics. Many people might consider the relationships in Pride and Prejudice to be more in the realm of fantasy rather than reality but they would be wrong. While, yes, there is a happily ever after and things managed to work out when all seemed lost, it wasn’t because of a magic fix. No, all the characters worked really hard to right the wrongs they committed, improve their communication, and adjust the flaws in their perception and behavior that led them to muck things up in the first place.
Bingley and Jane = healthy. Bingley and Jane are both relatively shy, innocent, and kind people. They are interested in each other, and they both understand the other to be interested as well. It is because of their kind and trusting nature that they are convinced otherwise. Darcy fears that Bingley is being taken advantage of and perceives Jane’s shyness and reservation to be an indication that she doesn’t have feelings for Bingley. Bingley and Jane were on the same page, it wasn’t until an outside force interfered that their relationship got derailed. They were both so trusting, timid, and kind that it didn’t occur to them to stand up for their own perception or clarify it. While that is a flaw in their characters and something they need to work on, their relationship is very healthy from beginning to end. They express interest; maintain appropriate and comfortable boundaries with each other; and don’t take advantage of each other’s good nature, trust, and kindness. They don’t exploit each other to get what they want. Instead, they give each other confidence and support. They need to work on being a little firmer in their own beliefs and they need to communicate better, but shyness is difficult when it comes to social situations and matters of the heart so they get a bit of a pass.
Darcy and Elizabeth = healthy. They are both stubborn as a mule, but don’t mistake being stubborn for being toxic. Yes, Darcy was a jerk and said some really not chill stuff, but he did apologize. However, don’t think that an apology makes all the jerkface things he did just go away. No, it is critical to understand what happened that led to his apology and what makes this a healthy relationship. Darcy was totally oblivious to how his actions were hurting others and how his words were inappropriate. He was so focused on his own situation and the fact that he was in love with a woman whose station was below his that it didn’t occur to him that telling her that would be hurtful. And super insulting. Really it was a massive social fail on his part. Foot, meet mouth.
Elizabeth stood up for herself and confronted him on his behavior and how his words and actions had been hurtful. She didn’t just let him say awful things about her and her family because he was rich and dreamy. She wasn’t going to allow him to treat her as less than an equal and she made that explicitly clear. Did she hurt his feelings in the moment of anger? Yes. That was a mistake but one we have all made at one time or another. Emotions have a way of breaking down the filters that logic tries to create.
Now, instead of just going on his way and continuing to be a self-centered jerkface, Darcy actually listens to her. He doesn’t just brush her off and chalk it up to her being a crazy, silly woman. He doesn’t joke with his bros that she must have been on her period. No, he listens to her when she says that he hurt her and treated people she cared about unfairly. Then, not only does he listen to her, but he addresses her claims in a calm, understanding, and respectful way. He writes her a letter apologizing for his misguided advice that led to Bingley and Jane breaking up when they both truly cared for each other. He defended and explained why he did what he did, but admitted that, based on the information Elizabeth provided, he had been wrong. He also explained the whole Wickham situation. He didn’t have to. He could have told her that it was none of her business and left it at that. Instead, he respects her, her intelligence, and her opinion enough to explain the situation to her so that she could come to her own conclusion now that she had both sides of the story. (NOW you can swoon.)
Oh, he doesn’t stop there. Taking responsibility and explaining himself in a respectful way that acknowledged and treated Lizzy as an equal is HUGE but Darcy proves himself worthy of leading man even more when he takes actionable steps to correct his mistakes. He invited her and her relatives over, opening up his home and intimate parts of himself to prove that he was wrong about her family and that he wants her to get to know the real him. No more emotional unavailability! Then, he uses his own money and means to arrange a marriage for her younger sister so that her reputation, and those of her other sisters, would remain intact so that they all could find suitable husbands and not be cast out of society in disgrace. THEN, Darcy admits his mistake to Bingley and helps his friend propose to Jane so that they can have their mutually-loving happily ever after.
Darcy has character flaws, just like everyone. He’s self-centered, socially awkward, conceited, prejudiced, arrogant, and proud. He’s also honorable, caring, loyal, loving toward his close group of friends and family, and able to admit when he was wrong and take action to remedy it. THAT’S what you should love about him. THAT’S what makes him a leading man worthy of being borrowed and reused again and again in storytelling. Swoon! Swoon away!
Elizabeth shouldn’t be overlooked, either. She was prejudiced toward Darcy and very proud, allowing her pride to get the best of her and influencing her to hurt Darcy the way he had hurt her, but she stood up for herself. She didn’t allow her mother’s pressure to find a suitable match to compromise her self-respect and how she deserved to be treated. Importantly, she allows room for error and forgiveness. She could have torn up Darcy’s letter and never seen him again. She would have been within her right to do so. Instead, she reads his letter and allows him the opportunity to explain himself and apologize. Then, she takes what he said into consideration and allows the new information to change her mind. It is very difficult to change your mind about someone, so it is no small feat that she manages to take all of Darcy’s actions into consideration and reach a new conclusion based on the new and old information.
She, too, doesn’t stop there. She could have simply reached the conclusion that he wasn’t such an awful prat and that he did have good, albeit misguided, intentions and left it at that. No, she accepts his invitation to his home and makes herself emotionally available to him as well. She could have allowed Lady Catherine to bully her and frighten her into rejecting his proposal again, but she stands up for herself and her happiness. She does what Jane and Bingley couldn’t and denies the outside forces that want to tear her away from the man she loves.
Elizabeth respects herself and she refuses to compromise her self-worth for anyone. Not for Lady Catherine, not for her mother, and not for Darcy. When he finally sees her and treats her with respect and as an equal, only then does she accept his proposal.
Wickham and Lydia = toxic. OBVIOUSLY. Neither wanted to be in the relationship and both were using the other for selfish gain. Lydia wanted adventure and money. Wickham wanted to get laid and get money from Darcy. Both won. Both lost. It’s not a relationship, it’s a con.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet= It’s really hard to say. We don’t get a lot with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, other than they are opposites. Mrs. Bennet is very dramatic and complains about her poor nerves all the time. She’s very concerned with society and what people think, mainly because she wants to secure the best future she can for her daughters. Mr. Bennet is reserved (like Jane) and cares a lot less about any of it. He wants his daughters to be happy, which is why he follows the social customs and calls upon Bingley, etc. They seem mismatched, but they team up well enough to provide for their daughters. Some interpretations are that they are indifferent toward each other. Some interpret that Mr. Bennet can’t stand Mrs. Bennet’s silliness. Others interpret them as a loving couple that have opposite personalities. They don’t do anything explicitly toxic toward each other. They don’t belittle each other, neglect, exhibit physical or emotional abuse. They seem perfectly content with their marriage and life, which would lead the reader to believe that it probably is a healthy relationship between them.
Pride and Prejudice might seem like a fantasy, but it is actually pretty realistic. Yes, there is a best-case scenario, but if you take the money and titles away, the relationship conclusion is incredibly plausible.
A relationship isn’t about a quick fix. It takes hard work, setting aside your pride to admit when you made a mistake, and taking action to fix that mistake (Darcy.) It takes standing up for yourself, not allowing yourself to be treated poorly by someone you love, and allowing new information to change your mind (Elizabeth.) It takes compromise, balance, and trust. You can’t exploit your partner’s good nature, kindness, and trust, and any relationship that is based on an exchange of services and “taking” is toxic and won’t last (Wickham/Lydia.)
What the story is NOT telling you: all jerkfaces really love you and if you’re stubborn, and enough coincidences happen, everything will work out.
What the story IS telling you: don’t allow yourself to be treated as anything less than an equal, admit when you’re wrong, take action to fix your mistakes, and love without respect will never be enough.
It’s totally okay to love Mr. Darcy, and Elizabeth Bennet is a great role-model. They are both very human characters, complete with strengths and flaws just like the rest of us. Most importantly, they grow and learn from their mistakes and allow that growth to change their minds, behaviors, and strengthen who they are as individuals so that when they do get together it is as equals who are the best versions of themselves. They don’t change to be better as a couple. They could still do all the same actions but not end up together and they would still have become better versions of themselves because they saw, through the other person, that how they were acting needed improvement. Darcy and Elizabeth are an excellent example of a healthy relationship, just make sure you understand why and not make the mistake of thinking that all jerkfaces are Mr. Darcys.
Their story may seem like a fantasy, but if we all take a page form their book (pun intended) and learn to take responsibility for our actions (especially by listening to others when they say we hurt them,) take action to correct our mistakes, be open to changing our mind when new information is presented to us that shows our first impression might have been wrong, and not compromise our self-respect and/or how we deserve to be treated by a partner, then we can all have our own version of Darcy and Elizabeth.