Mr. Darcy’s Epiphany
Darcy is the great unexplored territory of Pride and Prejudice. Through most of the novel he is seen through the eyes of other people, principally Elizabeth, who invariably misconstrues him, and only on rare occasions is he allowed to express his own thoughts and feelings. The letter he puts into Elizabeth’s hand in the middle of the novel mainly concerns his actions and, understandably, given the circumstances, has very little to say about his inner life. It is only at the end of the novel, during their walk together and after Elizabeth has accepted his second proposal, that we hear Darcy, in his own voice, describing his character and how it was formed in childhood and then reformed by his experiences with Elizabeth. What he has to say there is perhaps a good place to start:
I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child) I was spoilt by my parents, who though good themselves, (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable,) allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared to my own. (Volume III, Chapter 16)
This is harsh indeed. In his own judgment Darcy is guilty of selfishness and pride, but does this judgment square with the evidence of the novel? I think not. Remember what the housekeeper at Pemberley has to say about Darcy: “But I have always observed, that they who are good-natured when children are good-natured when they grow up; and he was always the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted boy in the world.” (III, 1) How does this square with Darcy’s observation that “I was not taught to correct my temper”?
Darcy’s summary approaches the truth but is not itself the truth. I think he is being too hard on himself, and I think the novel supports this conclusion. Still, it is useful information.
What else do we know about his childhood? We know from Darcy’s letter that he and Wickham grew up together:
My father supported him at school, and afterwards at Cambridge;—most important assistance, as his own father, always poor from the extravagance of his wife, would have been unable to give him a gentleman’s education. My father was not only fond of this young man’s society, whose manners were always engaging; he had also the highest opinion of him, and hoping the church would be his profession, intended to provide for him in it. As for myself, it is many, many years since I first began to think of him in a very different manner. (II, 12)
From all this, let’s try to imagine what Darcy was like in youth and early adolescence. I know we’re not supposed to do this, since Darcy is merely a character in a novel rather than a real person—and also since Jane Austen lived in an age that viewed human behavior in moral rather than psychological terms—but let’s do it anyway.
The first thing that occurs to one is that Darcy the child was probably lonely. For the first ten years of his life there would have been only he and his parents on a huge estate, near “a small market-town, where the family did not visit.” (III, 2) Pride and Prejudice was written in the late 18th Century, before the great age of the English public schools, so it was likely that Darcy was privately tutored, possibly even up to his entrance to one of the universities. His society, in other words, would have consisted almost entirely of adults, and thus he would have been largely denied the opportunity that most children have of learning to negotiate their relationships with equals. With no one but adults to emulate, he would himself at an early age have grown into a small version of an adult.
Of course the one possible exception might have been his relationship with Wickham, but, as he says himself, it had been “many, many years” since he had decided that the estate manager’s son was a villain.
And what would have been his reaction, witnessing his father’s fondness for a young person he himself could neither like nor respect? Would this not have increased his own, doubtless already highly developed, sense of isolation?
All of this is a recipe for a socially inept adult, and that is precisely what Darcy appears to be. Notice the sharp contrast with his friend:
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 offence. (I, 4)
Notice his reaction when, at the ball in Meryton where he is first introduced, Bingley tries to get him to dance: “I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner.” (I, 3) This is not a man who can be at his ease among strangers.
There are a number of instances in the book where we see Darcy’s reaction to uncomfortable social situations. I offer two, which are more or less typical. The first is at the Netherfield ball, where Darcy is sitting near enough to Mrs. Bennett to hear her rattling on about the inevitability of Bingley proposing to Jane: “The expression of his face changed gradually from indignant contempt to a composed and steady gravity.” (I, 18)
The second is a sample of his general behavior toward Elizabeth during her visit to Mrs. Collins—and bear in mind that he is by now in love with Elizabeth: “But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips, and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice—a sacrifice of propriety, not a pleasure to himself.” This is followed by the interesting observation, “Colonel Fitzwilliam’s occasionally laughing at his stupidity, proved that he was generally different.” (II, 9)
Further, in conversation with Elizabeth at Rosings, Darcy makes two interesting observations about himself. The first is his answer to Elizabeth when she quizzes him about not dancing that the Meryton ball: “‘Perhaps,’ said Darcy, ‘I should have judged better, had I sought an introduction, but I am ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers.’” The second is in the context of Elizabeth’s performance at the piano: “We neither of us perform to strangers.” (II, 8)
All in all, this is the picture of a man who is perfectly animated and charming in a small circle of people he knows well but who withdraws into himself under the pressure of unfamiliar society.
So how do we explain his account of himself to Elizabeth after they become acknowledged lovers? Darcy’s verdict on himself is harsher than the one suggested by the instances above, so how do we explain the disparity?
It’s actually quite simple. Darcy has done what all of us do. We are all the heroes and heroines of our own inner narrative, and we all adopt a view of life which both explains our own experience and allows us to think well of ourselves.
Then the question becomes, what is Darcy’s view of life?
It seems to consist of three assumptions: 1) he personally is more intelligent than other people, 2) the members of the upper tier of the English aristocracy, to which he belongs, exhibit more virtue—in the shape of better manners, better principles, greater intelligence and better behavior—than do the lesser members of society, and 3) that, to the degree possible, he should confine himself to his own social set, i.e. to his relatives and friends who roughly correspond to him in rank.
The first of these assumptions is simply true. As noted above, Jane Austen tells us directly that Darcy is “clever”. He knows it himself and believes it protects him against the folly he sees in others. Witness the following conversation between him and Elizabeth (Elizabeth is the first speaker):
“Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.—But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.”
“Perhaps that is not possible for any one. But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule.”
“Such as vanity and pride.”
“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride—where there is real superiority of mind, pride will always be under good regulation.” (I, 9)
At this point, Elizabeth is forced to turn away “to hide a smile.” But she rather misses the point, because the crucial statement is not Darcy’s second but his first. “It has been the study of my life,” he says—an indication of a considerable psychological investment—“to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule.” Why would he state the matter in those terms, if he himself had not been subject to such ridicule? We do not go to such great lengths to protect ourselves from a remote threat
The second of Darcy’s three assumptions about life is harder to defend but perfectly understandable in someone living in the late 18th Century. The novel gives us several examples of its currency, if usually among people, like Mr. Collins and his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whom we are not invited to admire.
At the same time, however, the novel gives us several instances of the people who form Darcy’s social set behaving as witlessly and indecently—if perhaps less flagrantly so—as anyone in the Bennet family. There is, of course, Lady Catherine, who is insufferable by any standard, and there is Bingley’s brother-in-law Mr. Hurst, whom Jane Austen tells us is “an indolent man, who lived only to eat, drink, and play at cards” (I, 8), but the prime example is Miss Bingley, who is a snide, manipulative snob and who in her pursuit of Mr. Darcy demeans herself even more, if that is possible, than does Lydia chasing after the militia officers.
And Mr. Darcy is hardly blind to all this, as if made clear by the following exchange:
“Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her, “is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex, by undervaluing their own, and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art.”
“Undoubtedly,” replied Darcy, to whom this remark was chiefly addressed, “there is a meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.”
Miss Bingley was not so entirely satisfied with this reply as to continue the subject. (I, 8)
The point is that Darcy sees through Miss Bingley like a CAT scan. He is well aware that she aspires to be his wife—or, more accurately, to be the mistress of Pemberley—but he is in a difficult position because Miss Bingley’s brother is his close friend. So he must discourage her by indirection, without tearing the fabric of the relationship, and this in the face of Miss Bingley’s almost ferocious tenacity.
With Miss Bingley, Darcy’s almost impenetrable reserve serves him well. Witness the conversation between them while Darcy writes a letter to his sister:
“How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter.”
He made no answer.
“You write uncommonly fast.”
“You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.”
“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of the year! Letters of business too! How odious I should think them!”
“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours.”
“Pray tell your sister that I long to see her.”
“I have already told her so once, by your desire.”
“I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.”
“Thank you—but I always mend my own.”
“How can you contrive to write so even?”
He was silent. (I, 10)
Elizabeth, of course, misunderstands the entire conversation, disregarding the difficulty of Darcy’s situation, but that is the pattern of their relationship throughout most of the novel.
In summary, Mr. Darcy has built up an elaborate system of what, in the parlance of our own time, could accurately be described as defense mechanisms. They serve him well with the likes of Miss Bingley but disastrously with Elizabeth, and in order to win her he must shed them, along with the assumptions upon which they are based.
Here, I am afraid, Jane Austen and I part company. Being the child of my age, I believe that would be difficult almost to the point of impossibility for someone like Darcy to simply throw aside his world view and overcome patterns of behavior that were probably formed in childhood, but that is because my age understands human nature in psychological terms. Jane Austen, being the child of her age, conceives of human nature in moral terms, and to her it seems perfectly possible that a highly intelligent and essentially decent man like Darcy, once he has witnessed the collapse of his assumptions, will have the strength of character to change. He won’t have to go through two or three years of therapy. He will simply see his mistakes and correct them.
And he begins seeing his mistakes at an early stage, at his second encounter with Elizabeth:
“Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her [Elizabeth] to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.” (I, 6)
But we are allowed to witness directly hardly another instance of Darcy’s reeducation, of his recognizing a disparity between his assumptions and reality, and I am inclined to regard Jane Austen’s silence on this point as just about the only serious flaw in what otherwise has to be considered one of the most perfectly plotted novels in the English language. Between the moment when he hands Elizabeth the letter in which he answers her charges against him and his encounter with her at Pemberley, Darcy disappears from the story. He is thought about and talked about, but he is never present. And it is during this period that he undergoes the transformation that so astonishes both Elizabeth and the reader at the beginning of Volume III. We have only Darcy’s account of it at the end of the book, but, as we have noted, that account doesn’t quite square.
However, I suppose one is bound to remember that Pride and Prejudice was written in the late 18th Century by a woman with assumptions very different from our own, assumptions that would have rendered my criticism unintelligible. And also there is the little detail that Darcy is not a real person but a rhetorical construct—as an English professor acquaintance of mine used to be fond of saying, “There are no characters in fiction, only words.”
Perfectly true in a purely literal sense, but where is the fun in reading novels that way?