Fitzwilliam Darcy is a major, but minor, character in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Although he plays a major role in the story’s outcome, after all, Mr. Darcy is the romantic hero of the piece, he is not in every scene. The story is told from Elizabeth Bennet’s perspective, and Darcy is absent throughout extended periods of the book. However, he is far from being “out of sight…out of mind.” Darcy’s presence overshadows all of Elizabeth’s interactions with other characters, even though Miss Elizabeth would never admit an interest in the man.
Darcy had walked away to another point of the room. She followed him with her eyes, envied everyone to whom he spoke, had scarcely patience enough to help anybody to coffee, and then was enraged against herself for being so silly.
“A man who has once been refused! How can I ever be foolish enough to expect a renewal of his love? Is there one among the sex who would not protest against such a weakness as a second proposal to the same woman? There is no indignity so abhorrent to their feelings.” (Chapter 54)
Elizabeth is a strong, sympathetic, and independent character, and the two men with whom she associates romantically must be equally intricate. Despite Mrs. Reynolds’s explanation of Darcy’s “bumbling social manners” being the result of his shyness, there remains plenty of proof of his excessive pride. Yet, we do learn much of the man’s “softer” side through his interactions with Charles Bingley. Darcy serves as Bingley’s mentor, and he accepts the role with good-natured diligence.
Between him and Darcy there was a very steady friendship, in spite of a great opposition of character. Bingley was endeared to Darcy by the easiness, openness, and ductility of his temper, though no disposition could offer a greater contrast to his own, and though with his own he never appeared satisfied. On the strength of Darcy’s regard, Bingley had the firmest reliance, and of his judgment the highest opinion. In understanding, Darcy was the superior. Bingley was by no means deficient, but Darcy was clever. He was at the same time haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well-bred, were not inviting. In that respect his friend had greatly the advantage. Bingley was sure of being liked wherever he appeared; Darcy was continually giving offense. (Chapter 4)
As a Cit and the “new rich,” Bingley lacks a proper ticket into Society. Darcy is willing to lead the man through the stages of setting up a proper estate, the nuances of proper behavior, etc. I have always wished to know how Bingley and Darcy became friends. Would it not be delightful if Austen had provided her readers a glimpse of how the friendship began?
Elizabeth’s disdain for Darcy’s earliest snubs captivates the man. He recognizes the “danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention,” but Darcy cannot resist her charms. After he reluctantly leaves Elizabeth after the Netherfield Ball, Darcy is not seen again until she meets him at Hunsford Cottage; yet, the man if rarely from her thoughts, especially as Mr. Wickham spends the intervening months in speaking poorly of his former friend.
Mrs. Gardiner had seen Pemberley and known the late Mr. Darcy by character perfectly well. Here, consequently, was an inexhaustible subject of discourse. In comparing her recollection of Pemberley with the minute description which Wickham could give, and in bestowing her tribute of praise on the character of its late possessor she was delighting both him and herself. On being made acquainted with the present Mr. Darcy’s treatment of him, she tried to remember something of that gentleman’s reputed disposition, when quite a lad, which might agree with it, and was confident, at last, that she recollected having heard Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy formerly spoken of as a very proud, ill-natured boy. (Chapter 25)
When Elizabeth meets Darcy at Rosings Park, she is full of the tales Wickham has shared. In Elizabeth’s estimation, Wickham’s half-truths are proof of Darcy’s true character. She cannot comprehend Darcy’s repeated calls upon Mr. Collins’s household nor his unexpected proposal.
Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit. (Chapter 34)
With Elizabeth’s refusal, Darcy is humbled. After his letter explaining his interference in Bingley’s and Jane Bennet’s life and his dealings with Mr. Wickham, Darcy again disappears from the story. Elizabeth does not encounter Darcy again for four months. By the time she meets him again at Pemberley, Elizabeth’s harsh opinion of Darcy has softened, and when he behaves heroically by rushing off to save Lydia’s reputation (as well as her own and her sisters), Elizabeth recognizes Darcy is the man who would most completed her.
As for Elizabeth, her thoughts were at Pemberley this evening more than the last; and the evening, though as it passed it seemed long, was not long enough to determine her feelings toward one in that mansion, and she lay awake two whole hours endeavoring to make them out. She certainly did not hate him. No; hatred had vanished long ago, and she had almost as long been ashamed of ever feeling a dislike against him that could so be called. The respect created by the conviction of his valuable qualities, though at first unwillingly admitted, had for some time ceased to be repugnant to her feelings, and it was now heightened into somewhat of a friendlier nature by the testimony so highly in his favor, and bringing forward his disposition in so amiable a light, which yesterday had produced. But above all, above respect and esteem, there was a motive within her of goodwill which could not be overlooked. It was gratitude – gratitude, not merely for having once loved her, but for loving her still well enough to forgive all the petulance and acrimony of her manner in rejecting him, and all the unjust accusations accompany her rejection. (Chapter 44)
Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship is the perfect nucleus for Austen’s theme of “First Impressions,” which are often flawed impressions. Elizabeth’s early disdain comes from how Darcy’s “tolerable” remark had pricked her pride. And despite what we assume in hindsight was her early interest in Darcy, she overemphasizes his pride in order to protect her bruised heart. With George Wickham, she ignores her earlier doubts about his being “too perfect.” Wickham’s lies about Darcy only serve to prove her opinions of Pemberley’s master was correct. Elizabeth accepts Wickham’s story because she does not want to face her buried interest in Fitzwilliam Darcy. However, she is easily disillusioned by Mr. Wickham because, in reality, he is not a man worth knowing. Elizabeth’s myopic view of the world lies not in her lack of eyesight but in her protection of her own pride.