The Singular Intolerances of Elizabeth and Darcy

One of the interpretations of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice is that both Darcy and Elizabeth exhibit pride and prejudice (better known to us 21st century folks as "snottiness" and "intolerance"). I think this is true, but I think their prejudices, or intolerances, take separate and distinct forms.

The A&E version of P&P, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, captures this very well. (And yes, I have read the book too.) At the beginning of the movie/book, Elizabeth goes to Bingley's house to care for her sister Jane. While there, she joins the house party, and she and Darcy have a quasi-argument. Elizabeth takes Darcy to task for being such an absolutist to which Darcy quickly responds, "And yours [your fault] is to willfully misunderstand [others]."

Elizabeth is disconcerted and rightfully so. It isn't the last time Darcy will correctly size up Elizabeth. In fact, Darcy is a remarkably good judge of people. Later, when Bingley confesses how badly he writes letters (this scene is not in the A&E version), Darcy perceives that Bingley is indirectly bragging since the upshot of Bingley's "confession" is that his ideas flow so rapidly, he can't convert them to text.

In the A&E version, Darcy's understanding of Bingley is humorously expressed in the scene where Bingley tells Mrs. Bennett that he loves the country. Darcy, startled, turns to him and says, "You do?" It's such a patently inaccurate statement--Bingley would die of boredom in the country if Jane wasn't there--that Darcy is thrown, as they say, for a loop.

Darcy's intolerance then lies not in his perception. He sees clearly and accurately. Unfortunately, this accuracy of perception has increased his self-pride. Since he is invariably right, he cannot bear to be deceived or in any way humiliated. Once his good opinion is lost, it "is lost forever."

"I really cannot laugh at [that fault]," Elizabeth informs him. Elizabeth, although tart and sometimes excessively witty, is alive to the ambiguities of human nature, the non-absoluteness of behavior. People are not consistent wholes who are wonderful and good until they turn horrible and bad. In understanding this, Elizabeth is more perceptive than Darcy.

Her prejudice (intolerance) stems from her pre-assessment of people. That is, while Darcy waits to judge and then may judge harshly, Elizabeth decides, even before she meets people, how she will react to them. Her father exhibits a similar flaw when he anticipates Mr. Collins' foolishness even before he meets Mr. Collins. (In this case, both Elizabeth and her father are right.) Likewise, Elizabeth decides to think well of Wickham and does, despite gathering evidence to the contrary.

Darcy would never have made the latter mistake. On the other hand, he cannot help but admire Elizabeth for her loyalty. He blames Wickham and himself for Elizabeth's culpability. This is kind of Darcy and reveals his attraction to Elizabeth, but it doesn't alter Elizabeth's obtuseness. She is clever enough to have seen through Wickham if she had not decided, before she knew anything about Wickham, that he could do no wrong.

Both Elizabeth and Darcy rethink their positions of course. Elizabeth is brought forcibly to the knowledge that she has misjudged (and pre-misjudged) Wickham. Darcy realizes his lack of flexibility has led him to behave in an ungentleman-like manner. (An absolute honor is no good if, in order to follow it, you end up lying and concealing the truth from people, not to mention seriously ticking off the woman you love.)

It is doubtful, however, that Darcy and Elizabeth really changed. I imagine that for the rest of their lives, Elizabeth will be prone to disliking people who haven't truly offended her and liking people who may not be worth her effort (but still enjoyable company) and that Darcy will wish them all out of his house on a continual basis. Sometimes he'll get his way.


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