Uploaded by Rowan Kemmerly

Elizabeth's Self-Reliance in Pride & Prejudice

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Rowan Kemmerly
Professor Jacobson
English 224
12 November 18
This Above All: To Thine Own Self Be True
Early on in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bingley unknowingly points out the
absurdity in the requirements for a 19th-century woman’s artistic and intellectual proficiency: “It
is amazing to me, how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished, as they all
are…I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed
that she was very accomplished” (Austen 38-9). This observation begs the question of what it
really means to be “accomplished”: if all women clamor to be described this way, and are, how
could anyone truly set themselves apart from the crowd? Darcy is right in his response to
Bingley that on top of the laundry list of typical societal requirements for success, a woman
“must yet add something more substantial” (39). But he does not yet understand that this
supplement cannot be obtained through merely “the improvement of her mind by extensive
reading”. As Elizabeth Bennet will eventually prove to him, personal achievement (and in turn,
attractiveness) needs instead something of independence and confidence. Elizabeth sets her own
standards for “accomplishment”, based around a high regard for self-awareness, and steadfastly
enacts them throughout the entire duration of the novel. She does exhibit moral development,
which her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, helps to guide her through. However, she is more stagnant of a
character than Darcy, beneficially so, and eventually becomes able to use her flaws to her
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In the configuration where Darcy and Elizabeth initially embody the two titular
characteristics, respectively, many of Elizabeth’s attributes can be defined by her own kind of
pride, which I believe has the ability to be just as impactful as her prejudice. Elizabeth obviously
represents the ultimate self-reliant heroine with a mind of her own, but she can sometimes take
this veneration for independence a step too far, unjustly projecting her need for it onto others.
Elizabeth’s relationship with Charlotte is irrevocably damaged when the latter marries Mr.
Collins because Elizabeth cannot be empathetic enough to understand that they have different
but equally respectable intentions in marrying. She sees Charlotte as “disgracing herself” (123)
by marrying Mr. Collins, and selfishly believes that Charlotte would’ve been better off staying
alone (for the rest of her life, inevitably) rather than marrying a man who, however ridiculous,
could provide her with material security. And before Darcy reveals Wickham’s true character,
Elizabeth goes so far as to believe that Wickham is justified in wanting a “mercenary” marriage,
even though that goes against what she thought about Charlotte’s similar situation, saying that
she “did not quarrel with him for his wish of independence” (147). Mr. Bingley also becomes
subject to Elizabeth’s scrutiny when she discusses his ostensible abandonment of Jane with her
aunt. Mrs. Gardiner attributes Jane and Bingley’s separation to mere accident, but Elizabeth
responds to this harshly: “An excellent consolation in its way, but it will not do for us. We do not
suffer by accident” (138). As Bingley is perhaps more free to act as he’d like with his money and
life in general than any other man in the novel, Elizabeth looks down on him for becoming
susceptible to his sisters’ (and as we later realize, also Darcy’s) meddling.
Elizabeth’s confident assertion that she and her favorite sister “do not suffer by accident”
also highlights another one of her flaws. Even though Elizabeth and her cousin Mr. Collins
essentially have nothing in common, they share the trait of often believing themselves to hold
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more importance in the world than they actually do. Mr. Collins’ constant grandstanding about
his connection to Lady Catherine reeks of conceit—he was singled out as more deserving than
anyone else on the planet to serve his near-divine patroness. Obviously Elizabeth’s egotism
manifests itself on a much smaller scale, but it is recognizable nonetheless. Her language when
speaking with her aunt implies a certainty that she and Jane are somehow less deserving of
unfortunate romantic outcomes than anyone else because of their inherent goodness, moral
rectitude, and relatively unprivileged background. Mrs. Gardiner doesn’t try to downplay
Elizabeth’s disappointment, but merely aims to put it in perspective: “I am sorry [Jane’s match
with Bingley] went off. But these things happen so often! A young man, such as you describe
Mr. Bingley, so easily falls in love with a pretty girl for a few weeks, and when accident
separates them, so easily forgets her, that these sort of inconstancies are very frequent” (138).
But this affirmation of normalcy doesn’t impress upon Elizabeth straight away—she maintains
that Bingley’s love for Jane was “violent”, even though Mrs. Gardiner points out how hackneyed
and hyperbolic of a phrase that is. Regarding her relationship with Wickham at the time,
Elizabeth again admits that she sees herself as exceptional. Even though Wickham has shifted his
interest from her to Miss King, she supposes that this is only due to Wickham practically being
attracted to her 10,000 pounds. “Her heart had been but slightly touched, and her vanity was
satisfied with believing that she would have been his only choice, had fortune permitted it”
(147). This observation initially seems to bear a resemblance to Lady Catherine’s boasting that
she knows for a fact her daughter Anne would be incredible at piano if only “her health had
allowed her to learn” (172). But Lady’s Catherine’s assertion comes from a place of entirely
undeserved, blind adulation for her coddled daughter. What is important about Elizabeth’s
admittance of vanity is that she is being candidly open and not trying to hide away her (very
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human) thoughts, however self-indulgent they may be. Elizabeth also describes how she hasn’t
sought attention in this situation with Wickham, professing, “I cannot say that I regret my
comparative insignificance. Importance may sometimes be purchased too dearly” (147). She will
not take his defection to heart and can understand that it’s perfectly okay to not always be the
most important person to everyone she’ll encounter in life.
This eventual recognition of “insignificance” is a crucial aspect of Elizabeth’s
personality. She sets herself apart from other women by being extremely conscious of the fact
that in many ways, she is actually the same as other women. For one, she can comfortably
divulge her own shortcomings. After Mrs. Gardiner keenly is “rendered suspicious by
Elizabeth’s warm commendation of [Wickham]” (140), Elizabeth heeds her caution to not fall in
love with a man who would not be able to support her financially, but only conditionally. “How
can I promise to be wiser than so many of my fellow-creatures if I am tempted, or how am I even
to know that it would be wisdom to resist? All that I can promise you, therefore, is not to be in a
hurry…in short, I will do my best” (143). “Doing our best” is all anyone can strive for, in the
end, and Elizabeth is no different. And although she often ends up enumerating her faults more
so than her merits, she still doesn’t ever undervalue her own worth and capacity. A passage from
the middle of the novel, in which she describes her ability to play piano, illuminates this
particularly well:
“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner
which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not
produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—
because I would not take the trouble of practicing. It is not that I do not believe my
fingers as capable as any woman’s of superior execution.” (171)
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She says “to be my own fault” with such calm assurance that it doesn’t feel like she’s admitting
failure. And she isn’t—Darcy even agrees that she doesn’t sound bad at all, yet has spent her
time cultivating her personality and skills in ways that are truer to herself than obsessing over
piano practice. On the whole, Elizabeth embraces mediocrity as a means to achieve selfawareness, which in turn rewards her with happiness and personal success. She goes against the
circumscriptions society has laid out for her, but not just for the sake of being recalcitrant, and
never wholly selfishly.
The aforementioned passage is what Elizabeth offers up as an analogy to Darcy
explaining that he does not have the talent of “conversing easily with those I have never met
before” (171). This is not exactly a confession of social anxiety, however—what Darcy describes
is a lack of motivation to please and flatter people in a fake manner. Here, some very telling
similarities can be drawn between the two protagonists. Darcy observes, “We neither of us
perform to strangers”, effectively describing an integral part of their mutual attraction. Both
Elizabeth and Darcy follow their own moral compasses, which prove malleable in positive ways,
and aren’t overly influenced by the expectations of their families and friends. Darcy is attracted
to Elizabeth in large part due to how she presents herself to the world as unabashedly imperfect,
and Elizabeth is attracted to the prospect of marrying Mr. Darcy because she sees him as
indefinitely improvable. If Elizabeth were perfect and fully accomplished, she would have no
need to or room to grow in a married relationship, and no incentive to help her partner grow as
Elizabeth proves again and again that it’s possible to simultaneously possess a strong
sense of self-worth and the ability to self-deprecate to a healthy degree. And the self-worth she
feels is different from Mr. Darcy’s “pride”—it comes from a place of respect, not a sense of
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societal superiority and entitlement engrained since birth. Beyond working past her proclivity for
prejudice, which is definitively marked by her reading Mr. Darcy’s letter and realizing, “Till this
moment, I never knew myself” (202), Elizabeth’s fundamental character remains essentially the
same from the beginning of the novel to its end. It is her determined persona that ultimately leads
her and Darcy to matrimonial happiness, specifically through her interactions with Lady
Catherine at the end of the novel. Lady Catherine asks, “You are then resolved to have him?” to
which Elizabeth responds, “I have said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner,
which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or any person
so wholly unconnected with me…neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude have any possible claim
on me, in the present instance.” Elizabeth’s speech here is a powerful testament to her
commendable self-reliance. I don’t believe that Darcy would’ve necessarily had a strong enough
will to propose a second time if Lady Catherine had not inevitably complained to him about
(what she saw as) Elizabeth’s reprehensible behavior. He eventually explains, “I knew enough of
your disposition to be certain, that, had you been absolutely, irrevocably decided against me, you
would have acknowledged it to Lady Catherine, frankly and openly” (347). Elizabeth is notably
stronger than Darcy in this relationship, and she ultimately achieves happiness not exclusively
through marrying him, but rather through the process of self-discovery and commitment to her
own values that gets her there.
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Works Cited
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Edited by Vivien Jones, Penguin Books, 1813.