Jane Austen used the pairing of two key words for the titles of both
The meanings of pride and prejudice were slightly different at the time Austen was writing. Pride or being proud was usually not a positive trait. Whereas today people tend to speak of being proud of hard work or some sort of accomplishment, in Austen’s time, being proud usually meant someone thought he or she was better than other people or was not open to interacting with different kinds of people. Prejudice tended to mean having a set idea about someone that was based on assumptions or preconceptions, rather than a person’s actual actions and characters. Today, prejudice may mean making judgments about someone based on, for example, their race or religion. But in Austen’s time, prejudice was usually more about basing judgments on reputation, gossip, or misunderstood actions.
Austen’s novel shows that almost anyone is capable of being prideful and prejudiced. While these qualities are more or less universal, individuals who are able to rethink their initial judgments are the ones who are most likely to lead happy lives. For example, Mr. Darcy is the character who is most obviously proud and prejudiced. On the one hand, his pride is understandable due to his wealth and high social position. He is used to being treated as a social superior and an authority figure, and social codes of behavior ensure that he is treated with respect by characters of lower social position. However, Darcy’s pride is conspicuous, and he makes it clear that he sees himself as superior to the other characters he interacts with. When he says, for example, “There is not another woman in the room, whom it would not be a punishment for me to stand up [dance] with,” he indicates that he does not find the women at the ball attractive or sophisticated enough to meet his high standards. Bingley, on the other hand, while also very wealthy and in a good social position, is much more warm and open when he meets new people.
Darcy also shows prejudice and is very quick to make judgments about the people he meets. He does not keep these judgments to himself and is willing to influence those around him. For example, he admits to Elizabeth that he has tried to end the relationship between Jane and Bingley, stating, “I have done everything in my power to separate my friend from your sister.” He later explains in his letter that he did not think Jane actually loved Bingley. This shows that he assumes his observation of Jane was accurate and that he did not consider whether the assumptions he was making about her feelings were accurate.
As a result of Darcy’s display of pride early in the novel, the Bennet families and their neighbors become prejudiced against him. Although he behaves badly by refusing to dance with Elizabeth and not being friendlier, he does not actually harm anyone. This single interaction is not enough to truly reveal his character. Nonetheless, the bad impression he makes leads many other characters to make up their minds about who he is. For example, Mrs. Bennet calls him “a most disagreeable, horrid man.” Even much more intelligent characters like Elizabeth are shown to put too much emphasis on the ideas they first formed. When Wickham later tells Elizabeth the story of how he has been mistreated by Darcy, she believes him because he describes Darcy in a way that agrees with her prejudiced opinion of him.
Elizabeth’s misplaced trust in Wickham shows how prejudice influences her in two ways. By the time Wickham tells her the story of his past, she is already negatively prejudiced against Darcy. Elizabeth is also prejudiced in favor of Wickham. Wickham is handsome, charming, and easy to get along with. Even though she is intelligent and not easily fooled, Elizabeth gets distracted by his external qualities and does not show good judgment in understanding who Wickham truly is. This kind of positive prejudice occurs throughout the novel. For example, Mr. Collins assumes that everything Lady Catherine does is intelligent and in good taste because he is prejudiced by her wealth and social position. He cannot form a clear assessment of what her behavior is actually like.
Both Elizabeth and Darcy must overcome feelings of pride and prejudice to realize their love for one another. Darcy actually does this first, and it is not an easy process for him. When he first proposes to Elizabeth, he makes it clear that his pride led him to struggle against his attraction to her. He did not want to fall in love with her because he was embarrassed by her family. However, he cannot help it. As he explains, “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed.” He lets go of being prideful and prejudiced in order to propose to her.
Elizabeth is much more stubborn in overcoming her prejudice. Because she is also proud, and does not like to be treated as inferior, she is offended when Darcy says insulting things about her family when he proposes to her. She is also still prejudiced by the way she believes Darcy has treated Jane and Wickham. Elizabeth does not start to rethink her assumptions until Darcy explains what actually happened between himself and Wickham. Once her prejudice has been challenged, she becomes more open to wondering if she might have been wrong about Darcy. When she visits Pemberley, she hears different perspectives about who Darcy is and sees a new side of him. This change in her understanding is completed when Darcy helps her family after Lydia’s elopement. By bribing Wickham to marry Lydia and protect her reputation, Darcy shows his integrity and generosity. Elizabeth realizes that her prideful and prejudiced attitude has led her to be totally mistaken about the characters of both men.