Men in Pride and Prejudice

Three kinds (again): men with the trappings of gentlemanliness, men with the appearance of gentlemanliness, and true gentlemen.

In the first category are wealthy or titled men whose wealth or title conceal their indolence, stupidity, or pride. Mr. Bennet’s being a landowner (and an educated, witty, intelligent man) doesn’t prevent him from totally abdicating his responsibilities to protect and care for his family as he retreats to the peace of his library, leaving his wife and daughters to shift for themselves. Mr. Collins’s position as a churchman doesn’t give him common sense — or morality, really; he’s a pathetic, toadying excuse for a man, not just a risible weakling, but an ignorant sycophant. Darcy himself begins the story in this category, thinking that his wealth and privileged upbringing set him apart from others. His pride leads to the arrogance, condescension, and snobbery Lizzy finds so repugnant in his first proposal. (Mr. Hurst bears a mention here as a combination of all the vices of the other poor examples, though he serves less as a real character than as a sharpening-stone for Austen’s most biting witticisms.)

In the second, Wickham is, of course, the prime example. His manners endear him to the whole village, but his character, as the novel goes on, is steadily revealed as more corrupt than anyone could have imagined — he is a seducer, a swindler, a gambler, a liar, a cheat. One of the themes of the novel is that things are often not as they seem, but Wickham’s is a particularly shocking deception.

In the third category, Austen curiously places men from almost every social class: Mr. Gardiner, a hardworking and gentleman-like commoner, displays his nobility of spirit as he searches tirelessly for the prodigal Lydia, though she is not his daughter. Cols. Forster and Fitzwilliam, gentlemanly officers who demonstrate goodness in manners and morals, are similarly held up as examples of chivalry and kindness. Mr. Bingley (whose sisters vainly struggle to hide their nouveau riche status by urging their brother to buy an estate) is the consummate good-natured gent — outdoorsy, unselfish, humble to a fault, easygoing, unfailingly polite. And, of course, at last, Mr. Darcy, one of the wealthiest men in England, who becomes a paragon of self-sacrifice, humility, and graciousness.

Again: NOT. A. ROMANCE. NOVEL. Got it?

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6 thoughts on “Men in Pride and Prejudice

  1. I do wonder how much of Darcy’s “thinking that his wealth and privileged upbringing set him apart from others” was really there, and how much was simply Lizzy’s misinterpretation of his shyness.

    Elizabeth … listened with increasing astonishment as the housekeeper added, ‘I have never known a cross word from him in my life, and I have known him ever since he was four years old… There is not one of his tenants or servants but will give him a good name. Some people call him proud; but I am sure I never saw anything of it. To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men.’ ” — Chapter 43

    Neither Lizzy nor Darcy seemed to be particularly good at recognising the qualities of the other, of course, but Lizzy’s errors of judgement were, it seems to me, far more serious. One can’t blame Darcy for being put off a little by Mrs Bennet, but Wickham was the kind of man every woman really should avoid. Then again, I may simply be taking Darcy’s side because I’m a guy.

    And might “character-driven novel” be a better tag than “romance novel” for this little gem of Austen’s?

  2. Oh, sorry! This slipped through without my notice so I just now am reading it! Yes, I’ll grant that he was shy and that Lizzy misjudged him — that’s half the title, after all! — but he admits himself that he was spoiled and arrogant. I’ll let him take over from here:

    “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child, I was taught what was right; but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately, an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing — to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight-and-twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled.”

    The fantastic thing about all the main characters is that they’re really never all right OR all wrong until the very last. Lizzy was right to refuse Darcy’s first proposal and right about his pomposity, selfishness, and presumption. Darcy was right about Mrs. Bennett, about Wickham, about Kitty and Lydia, even about Mr. Bennet — and Lizzie (reluctantly) admitted that to herself upon reading his letter. They were both in the wrong, but the opinion of each had at least some merit. Yet another evidence of Austen’s incredibly sharp eye for the minutiae of human frailty. It just occurred to me that they each accuse the other of their own faults — Darcy accuses Lizzy of pride after she first refuses him, and Lizzy all but accuses him of prejudice when she’s interrogating him during the Netherfield ball.

  3. Yes he does say “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle… Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you!” But he says that as a man deeply in love, and willing to paint himself black as the devil and Lizzy as an angel of light. I’m not sure that his flaws, real as they may be, are quite as bad as he makes out (by the standard of the average man, that is, not by the standards of Jesus), and I don’t think Jane Austen intends us to take overblown emotional rhetoric all that seriously – in any of her novels.

    The best judges of Darcy’s character are probably those characters able to exercise some objectivity. In need of tempering he may have been, but he was always quality metal, just as Wickham was always dross. It is through their actions that the distinction is made known, not through their words. By their fruits ye shall know them.

    I think you may be right about each accusing the other of their own weaknesses, though.

  4. I think he would have, as he said, continued in his path of arrogance had he not met Lizzy. I don’t think he was a “quality” guy at the start (though I’m perfectly willing to agree that Wickham was never good) — not at all. I think he was rather horrible, and then realized how horrible he was which led him to repair himself. Another theme, perhaps? The revelation of truth and its effects?

  5. Pingback: 2011: The Blog In Review | A Wilderness Life

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