We have all been in the situation where our judgment is clouded by the “intimacy” we experience with another. How often do we read of the female attempting to tame the bad boy? How often have you had a friend who chose another you knew from the beginning was all wrong for him or her? How often have you attended a wedding and thought, “I’ll give it a year”? Why is it that when we hold a close relationship with another romantically do our opinions become clouded? Jane Austen exploits this idea in Pride and Prejudice.
When we look at Austen’s favorite heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, we find a woman of intelligence and of shrewd insights. For example, after her first meeting with the Bingley sisters, Elizabeth thinks them, “… had not been calculated to please in general; and with more quickness of observation and less pliancy of temper than her sister, and with a judgment, too, unassailed by any attention to herself, she was very little disposed to approve them. They were, in fact, very fine ladies; not deficient in good humor when they were pleased, nor in the power of being agreeable when they chose it; but proud and conceited.” (Chapter 4) Of Miss Bingley specifically, she thinks: This information made Elizabeth smile, as she thought of poor Miss Bingley. Vain indeed must be all her expectations, vain and useless her affection for his [Mr. Darcy] sister and her praise of himself, if he were already self-destined to another. (Chapter 16)
Of Bingley Elizabeth tells us that he “… was a good-looking and gentleman-like; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. … Mr. Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room; he was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that the ball closed so early, and talked of giving one himself at Netherfield. Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves.” (Chapter 3)
Mr. Bennet shared the letter from his cousin Mr. Collins with his family, afterwards, Elizabeth makes this observation: Elizabeth was chiefly struck with his extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine, and his kind intention of christening, marrying, and burying his parishioners whenever it were required.
“He must be an oddity, I think,” said she. “I cannot make him out. There is something very pompous in his style. And what can he mean by apologizing for being next in the entail? We cannot suppose he would help it if he could. Can he be a sensible man, sir?” (Chapter 13)
Elizabeth’s first impression of Anne De Bourgh includes these insights: “She is abominably rude to keep Charlotte out of doors in all this wind. Why does she not come in?” to which she adds, “I like her appearance,” said Elizabeth, struck with other ideas. “She looks sickly and cross. Yes, she will do for him [Mr. Darcy] very well. She will make him a very proper wife.” Later at Rosings Park, Elizabeth observes Miss De Bourgh further. “… she turned her eyes on the daughter, she could almost have joined in Maria’s astonishment at her being so thin and so small. There was neigh in figure nor face any likeness between the ladies. Miss De Bourgh was pale and sickly; her features, though not plain were insignificant; and she spoke very little, except in a low voice ….” (Chapter 28)
Of the grand dame herself, Elizabeth has heard something of Lady Catherine De Bourgh from Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth’s courage did not fail her. She had heard nothing of Lady Catherine that spoke her awful from any extraordinary talents or miraculous virtue, and the mere stateliness of money and rank she thought she could witness without trepidation. … Lady Catherine was a tall, large woman, with strongly marked features, which might once have been handsome. Her air was not conciliating, nor was her manner of receiving them such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank. She was not rendered formidable by silence; but whatever she said was spoken in so authoritative a tone as marked her self-importance, and brought Mr. Wickham immediately to Elizabeth’s mind, and from the observation of the day altogether, she believed Lady Catherine to be exactly what he represented. (Chapter 29)
Elizabeth evaluation of the character of each of these individuals proves accurate. So, if she is so intuitive to the nature of others, why does she make so many poor judgments? The answer is the “intimacy” with which she operates in her interactions with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham, and to a certain extent with her best friend, Charlotte Lucas.
Elizabeth’s first observations of Mr. Wickham tells the reader: This was exactly as it should be; for the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming. His appearance was greatly in his favor; he had all the best part of beauty – a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address. The introduction was followed up on his side by a happy readiness of conversation – a readiness at the time perfectly correct and unassuming ….” After Wickham tells Elizabeth of Darcy’s abuse, we learn: Elizabeth honored him for such feelings, and though him handsomer than ever as he expressed them, as well as, Elizabeth allowed that he had given a very rational account of it. (Chapter 16)
Even when Mrs. Gardiner attempts to warn Elizabeth away from Wickham, Elizabeth still defends the man. “At present I am not in love with Mr. Wickham; no, I certainly am not. But he is, beyond all comparison, the most agreeable man I ever saw; and if he becomes really attached to me – I believe it will be better than he should not – I see the imprudence of it. Oh, that abominable Mr. Darcy! … but since we see every day that where there is affection young people are seldom withheld by immediate want of fortune from entring into engagements with each other, 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 wisdom to resist? All that I can promise you, therefore, is not to be in a hurry. I will not be in a hurry myself to believe his first object. When I am in company with him, I will not be wishing. In short, I will do my best.” (Chapter 26)
Elizabeth thinks her friend Charlotte Lucas is “… a sensible, intelligent young woman, about twenty-sever, was Elizabeth’s intimate friend.” (Chapter 5) Because Elizabeth believes that Charlotte sees the world as does she, Elizabeth ignores the differences in their opinions and does not listen to Charlotte’s sage warnings. Charlotte honestly professes her opinions of marriage. “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterward to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.” To which, Elizabeth responds: “You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself.” (Chapter 6)
Later, when Charlotte announces her engagement with Mr. Collins, the news stuns Elizabeth. The possibility of Mr. Collins’ fancying himself in love with friend had not once occurred to Elizabeth within the last day or two; but that Charlotte could encourage him seemed almost as far from possibility as that she could encourage him herself; and her astonishment was consequently so great as to overcome at first the bounds of decorum, and she could not help crying out: “Engaged to Mr. Collins! my dear Charlotte – impossible!“
To which Charlotte replies, “I see what you are feeling…. You must be surprised, very much surprised, so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it all over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic, you know – I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and, considering Mr. Collins’ character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.” Yet, even though Elizabeth wished her friend happy, she reflects poorly upon the match: It was a long time before she became at all reconciled to the idea of so unsuitable a match…. She had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own; but she could not have supposed it possible that, when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. Charlotte, the wife of Mr. Collins, was a most humiliating picture! And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself, and sunk in her esteem, was added the distressing conviction that it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen. (Chapter 22)
In Chapter 24, Elizabeth and Jane discuss Bingley’s desertion and Charlotte’s marriage. “To oblige you I would try to believe almost anything, but no one else could be benefited by such a belief as this: for were I persuaded that Charlotte had any regard for him, I should only think worse of her understanding than I now do of her heart. My dear Jane, Mr. Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man; you know he is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well as I do, that the woman who marries him cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavor to persuade yourself or me that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of ranger security for happiness.”
Elizabeth most errs in her opinions of Mr. Darcy. It is quite clear she as interested in the gentleman as are all the ladies at the Meryton assembly, and his insensitive remarks set the stage for their relationship. “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” Afterwards, Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings toward him. She told the story, however, with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous. (Chapter 3)
She misjudges Darcy’s growing interest: “… how frequently Mr. Darcy’s eyes were fixed on her. She hardly knew how to suppose that she could be an object of admiration to so great a man, and yet that he should look at her because he disliked her was still more strange. She could only imagine, however, at last, that she drew his notice because there ws a something about her more wrong and reprehensible, according to his ideas of right, than in any other person present. This supposition did not pain her. She liked him too little to care for his approbation.” (Chapter 10)
In Chapter 11, we find this exchange. “That is a failing, indeed!” cried Elizabeth. “Implacable resentment is a shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well. I cannot laugh at it. You are safe from me.” To which Darcy replies, “There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.” Elizabeth jumps on the opportunity to criticize Darcy: “And your defect is a propensity to hate everyone,” while he replies with a smile, “And yours is willfully to misunderstand them.”
After the disastrous first proposal and Elizabeth’s initial refusal of Mr. Darcy, his letter of explanation make inroads into her feelings for the gentleman. Mr. Darcy’s letter she was in a fair way of soon knowing by heart. She studied every sentence; and her feelings toward its writer were at times widely different. When she remembered the style of his address, she was still full of indignation; but when she considered how unjustly she had condemned and upbraided him, her anger was turned against herself, and his disappointed feelings became the object of compassion. His attachment excited gratitude, his general character respect; but she could not approve him: nor could she for a moment repent her refusal, or feel the slightest inclination ever to see him again. (Chapter 37)
By the time she visits Pemberley, Elizabeth’s feelings have evolved. There was certainly at this moment in Elizabeth’s mind a more gentle sensation toward the original [Mr. Darcy] than had ever felt at the height of their acquaintance. The commendation bestowed on him by Mrs. Reynolds was of not trifling nature. What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant? As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship; how much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow; how much of good or evil must be done by him. Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favorable to his character; and as she stood before the canvas on which he was presented and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before; she remembered its warmth, and soften its impropriety of expression. (Chapter 43)
After receiving Mrs. Gardiner’s letter, which described Darcy’s involvement in Lydia’s “rescue,” Elizabeth experiences both elation and regret. The contents of this letter threw Elizabeth into a flutter of spirits, in which it was difficult to determine whether pleasure or pain bore the greatest share. The vague and unsettled suspicions which uncertainty had produced of what Mr. Darcy might have been doing to forward her sister’s match, which she had feared to encourage as an exertion of goodness too great to be probably, and at the same time dreaded to be just, from the pain of obligation, were proved beyond their greatest extent to be true…. He had done all this for a girl whom he could neither regard nor esteem. Her heart did whisper that he had done it for her. But it was a hope shortly checked by other considerations; and she soon felt that even her vanity was insufficient, when required to depend on his affection for her, for a woman who had already refused him, as able to overcome a sentiment so natural as abhorrence against relationship with Wickham. … but he had given a reason for his interference; … and though she would not place herself as his principal inducement, she could perhaps believe that remaining partiality for her might assist his endeavors in a cause where her peace of mind must be materially concerned. It was painful, exceedingly painful, to know that they were under obligations to a person who could never receive a return They owed the restoration of Lydia, her character, everything, to him. Oh how heartily did she grieve over every ungracious sensation she had ever encouraged, every saucy speech she had ever directed, toward him! For herself, she was humbled; but she was proud of him – proud that in a cad of compassion and honor he had been able to get the better of himself. (Chapter 52)
So where do all these misconceptions lead us in our analysis of Pride and Prejudice. Obviously, “first impressions” are often faulty, a lesson Elizabeth is slow to learn. We realize that Darcy’s “prideful” demeanor leads him to be “prejudiced” against the possibility of Elizabeth being a suitable match. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s “prejudice” against all who do not conform to her way of thinking proves her “proud” and unrelenting. The problems are exasperated by Elizabeth’s emotional connection to those within her life. She views the Bingley sisters, Mr. Collins, and the De Bourghs quite accurately for they are only passing through her life. There is no true “connection.” But with Charlotte, Mr. Wickham, and Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth finds a vested interest. Her opinions of each prove faulty, and those opinions come from the close intimacy she cultivates with the person. Therefore, “intimacy” becomes part of the plot Austen carves out for the reader.