“My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
Elizabeth encounters Darcy and his cousin frequently in her walks through the countryside. During one conversation, Colonel Fitzwilliam mentions that Darcy claims to have recently saved a friend from an imprudent marriage. Elizabeth conjectures that the “friend” was Bingley and the “imprudent marriage” a marriage to Jane. She views Darcy as the agent of her sister’s unhappiness.
Alone at the parsonage, Elizabeth is still mulling over what Fitzwilliam has told her when Darcy enters and abruptly declares his love for her. His proposal of marriage dwells at length upon her social inferiority, and Elizabeth’s initially polite rejection turns into an angry accusation. She demands to know if he sabotaged Jane’s romance with Bingley; he admits that he did. She then repeats Wickham’s accusations and declares that she thinks Darcy to be proud and selfish and that marriage to him is utterly unthinkable. Darcy grimly departs.
Mrs. Gardiner tends to function as the voice of reason in the novel, and her criticism of Wickham counters Elizabeth’s unwillingness to question his purposes. Mrs. Gardiner ascribes a mercenary motive to Wickham’s interest in Miss King, whereas Elizabeth defends him by asking her aunt “what . . . the difference [is] in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive.” This does seem a fine question, and not one her aunt can readily answer. But in asking the question, Elizabeth seems to violate her own principles—she herself has already refused to marry Mr. Collins for social advantage, and she does so again when Darcy proposes. It appears that sympathy for Wickham leads Elizabeth to betray her conscience.
The visit to Rosings introduces Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who serves as another vehicle for Austen’s criticism of snobbery. Lady Catherine’s favorite pastime is ordering everyone else about (“Elizabeth found that nothing was beneath this great Lady’s attention, which could furnish her with an occasion of dictating to others”). The only individual who dares to stand up to the haughty Lady Catherine is Elizabeth (unsurprisingly, as elsewhere she sees through the pretensions of pompous and arrogant people like Mr. Collins and Miss Bingley). When Lady Catherine criticizes the Bennet sisters’ upbringing, Elizabeth defends her family, “suspect[ing] herself to be the first creature who had ever dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence.” The same dignified impertinence with which Elizabeth combats Lady Catherine’s preconceptions reappears later in her refusal to let Lady Catherine prevent her from marrying Darcy.
Darcy’s proposal is the turning point of Pride and Prejudice. Until he asks her to marry him, Elizabeth’s main preoccupation with Darcy centers around dislike; after the proposal, the novel chronicles the slow, steady growth of her love. At the moment, however, Elizabeth’s attitude toward Darcy corresponds to the judgments she has already made about him. She refuses him because she thinks that he is too arrogant, part of her first impression of him at the Meryton ball, and because of the role she believes he played in disinheriting Wickham and his admitted role in disrupting the romance between Jane and Bingley.
Just as Elizabeth yields to her prejudices (she has not yet heard Darcy’s side of the story), Darcy allows his pride to guide him. In his proposal to Elizabeth, he spends more time emphasizing Elizabeth’s lower rank than actually asking her to marry him (“he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride”). This turning point thus occurs with the two central characters occupying seemingly irreconcilable emotional locations, leaving the reader, in the words of critic Douglas Bush, “almost exactly in the middle of the book, wondering if and how the chasm . . . can be bridged.”