March 4, 2000
The Use of Judgment in Pride and Prejudice
As Tony Tanner states in his introduction to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, “the most important events are the fact that a man changes his manners and a young lady changes her mind” (pg. 7). In the novel, Austen focuses on the nature of judgment: how people judge another person based on first impressions, and that person’s behavior towards others and themselves. Through the whole of the novel, Austen develops the relationship between two of the main characters, Elizabeth Bennett, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, and how their feelings for each other change. In seven key passages, found on pg. 66-67, 123-124, 128-129, 236-237, 273, 284-285 and 374-375, Austen marks Elizabeth’s changing attitude toward Mr. Darcy. One can see how Austen develops these changes by examining the nature of the judgment made in each passage, how each passage fits into the structure of the novel, and by evaluating the kind of prose used in each passage.
Structurally, the first passage, on pg. 66-67, comes very early in the novel, and everyone is giving their first impressions of Darcy and his friend Bingley, who recently began residing at Netherfield, the Bennet’s neighboring property. This passage follows the chapter about the Meryton assembly (ball), where Mr. Darcy turned down Mr. Bingley’s suggestion that he dance with Elizabeth, saying that “she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me, and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men” (pg. 59). In this section, Charlotte Lucas, Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth, and Jane Bennet are discussing Darcy’s mistreatment of Elizabeth, pitying Elizabeth, and agreeing that Darcy is rude. Austen uses the prose technique of conversation to allow everyone to present their opinions, especially Elizabeth. Mrs. Bennet relates that “everybody says that [Darcy] is ate up with pride,” and advises Elizabeth never to dance with him. Charlotte discusses Darcy’s pride, saying that he has an excuse for it. “One cannot wonder that so very a fine young man, with family, fortune, everything in his favor, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud.” Elizabeth, perhaps influenced both by the negative opinions of her companions and by her feeling that she’d been done a wrong at the ball, pronounces her first judgment of Darcy, that she could easily forgive his pride, had he not mortified her own. In this passage, then, Elizabeth is making a character judgment of Mr. Darcy, based on his actions toward her, and also on the judgments of her friends and family.
Another instance of Elizabeth judging Mr. Darcy occurs on pg. 123-124, and pg. 128-129. In both passages, Austen again uses conversation as a means of allowing characters to discuss their thoughts and opinions, and to form judgments about others. The first passage, on pages 123-124, is part of Elizabeth’s conversation with Wickham at her Aunt Philips’ house. Elizabeth and Wickham discuss Darcy’s character, and Wickham tells Elizabeth of Darcy’s poor treatment of him. Wickham blames Darcy for not granting him the living bequeathed to him in the late Mr. Darcy’s will because of an intense dislike and jealousy, and Elizabeth is shocked at Darcy’s behavior. “I had not thought Mr. Darcy so bad as this- though I have never liked him, I had not thought so very ill of him- I had supposed him to be despising his fellow creatures in general, but did not suspect him of descending to such malicious revenge, such injustice, such inhumanity as this!” Wickham makes Darcy appear even worse by saying that Darcy promised his father, when his father was on his deathbed, that he would provide for Wickham. Elizabeth is surprised that Darcy’s pride didn’t make him act justly towards Wickham, and feels that Darcy was dishonest by breaking his promise.
Her bad opinion of Darcy in this situation is confirmed in a later conversation with her sister Jane, on pages 128-129. Elizabeth relates her conversation with Wickham to her sister, who is reluctant to believe that Mr. Darcy behaved so badly. Jane says, “interested people have perhaps misrepresented each to the other. It is…impossible for us to conjecture the causes or circumstances which may have alienated them, without actual blame on either side.” While her sister wishes to give both Darcy and Wickham the benefit of the doubt, Elizabeth already has her mind made up that Darcy is to blame. She cannot believe that Wickham could have concocted such a story, since names, facts, etc. were given. She takes her perception that there was “truth in [Wickham’s] looks” as evidence that a judgment may be pronounced, and she feels that “one knows exactly what to think,” that is, that Wickham told the truth and Mr. Darcy is in the wrong. In these two passages, Austen adds to the rising action of the novel by increasing the tension in Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship through Wickham’s revelation of Darcy’s supposed behavior towards him. Elizabeth makes judgments on Darcy’s morals and emotional values, that he is not only proud but dishonest and unjust as well. She forms her judgments from information she gets from others about Darcy, without allowing Darcy to tell his side of the story.
When Elizabeth finally learns of Darcy’s role in Wickham’s situation, she realizes that she has behaved unjustly herself, by being prejudiced towards Darcy, and making judgments when it would have been better, as Jane had said, to suspend judgment until she knew all. Elizabeth finds out the true nature of Darcy’s relationship with Wickham in the form of a letter from Darcy. At this point in the book, the climax has just occurred, in which Darcy made a proposal of marriage to Elizabeth, which she refused, accusing him of purposely keeping Bingley and Jane apart, which made her sister miserable, and of mistreating Wickham. It is because of these accusations that Darcy feels compelled to write Elizabeth a letter explaining his actions. Upon his admission that he did try to keep Bingley from becoming involved with Jane, Elizabeth is upset with Darcy, but when she learns of Wickham’s reckless, foolish behavior in wasting the money for schooling that Darcy supplied him with, she feels upset not with Darcy, but with herself. In the passage on pg. 236-237, as the truth of Darcy’s words sinks in, Elizabeth grows ashamed of herself, as she realizes the prejudice with which she has judged Darcy from the beginning. “How despicably have I acted!…How humiliating a discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly…I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.” Austen uses Elizabeth’s monologue as the turning point in her feelings towards Darcy. Though she does not love him yet, she no longer hates him. It marks a change in Elizabeth herself as well, as she realizes that the way she has been judging others is unjust, prejudiced, and vain.
When Elizabeth sees Darcy again, it is some time later, when she is visiting his estate, called Pemberley, with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. On pg. 273, Elizabeth is trying to recollect her senses after unexpectedly encountering Mr. Darcy. Austen uses the voice of the third person narrator to reveal to the reader Elizabeth’s thoughts in this moment. First, Elizabeth feels ashamed of herself for coming there, and wonders what Darcy thinks of her. “And his behavior, so strikingly altered, - what could it mean? That he should even speak to her was amazing! – but to speak with such civility, to inquire after her family!” Elizabeth is struck by his kindness and apparently altered conduct, since he actually invites her uncle, who is of the middle class, to fish on his property. Before, Darcy had been very class-conscious, and Elizabeth finds it hard to believe that it must be on her account that he is being so generous (pg. 276). In this passage, Elizabeth makes no direct judgment of Darcy, because she does not know what to think.
While she is staying in Derbyshire, Darcy comes to visit her and her relatives, bringing with him his sister and Bingley. In the bottom paragraph on pg. 282, Elizabeth examines Darcy’s behavior during the visit, and finds him, instead of haughty, courting the good opinion of her middle class relations, whom he had openly disdained before. In the passage on pg. 284-285, Austen again uses a third person narrator to share with the reader a scene in which Elizabeth is exploring her feelings for Darcy. Beginning with the bottom paragraph on pg. 284, Elizabeth lays awake for over two hours, trying to make out her feelings. She discovers that, because of his recent behavior, she feels respect and esteem for him, and above all, 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 accompanying her rejection.” In this passage, Elizabeth is using her reason to make out her feelings, and is basing her judgment of them on his conduct both towards herself and her relatives. The passage marks another turning point, as Elizabeth teeters on the brink of love for Darcy, questioning for the first time whether she should employ the power she assumes she still possesses, to bring on the renewal of his addresses (his proposal of marriage). The reader has a clear sense of the novel being in the stage of falling action, as they begin to see that Darcy and Elizabeth may end up together after all. Elizabeth judges not only her feelings, but also reassesses Darcy’s character as one more generous and kind than she had previously given him credit for.
At the moment when it seems that there is hope for Elizabeth and Darcy, tragedy strikes. Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia, runs away with Wickham, and Elizabeth mourns the event on pg. 295, where the narrator tells the reader that Elizabeth feels her power over Darcy is sinking, since the weakness of her family is again showing itself as disgrace. Elizabeth also admits to herself that she has love for Darcy: “never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be vain.”
The resolution of the novel comes when Elizabeth and Darcy come together again after the recovery of Lydia, thanks to Darcy’s knowledge and financial assistance. The final passage, on pg. 374-375, traces Elizabeth’s love for Darcy, and his for her, at last to fruition. Elizabeth ventures to thank Darcy for his intervention on behalf of her sister, to which he replies that it was really for her that he acted. He then courageously tells her that he still cares for her, but wants to know how she feels. This is Elizabeth’s chance to win Darcy as a husband, and Austen changes style from the form of conversation to the third person narrator. “Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak;…and gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change…as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances.” By using the narrator in this situation, Austen allows the reader to know what Elizabeth is feeling, rather than what she says. Elizabeth’s wise, accurate judgment of her own feelings and those of Darcy have led to happy consequences, a reverse of their encounter at the climax of the novel when her prejudiced judgments led to unhappiness for them both.
In Pride and Prejudice, one of the main subjects presented is that of judgment. The novel presents the changing relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, resulting at last in their marriage. At the beginning, Elizabeth makes judgments of Darcy’s character and values based on his treatment of herself and others. However, her prejudice towards Darcy, due to his pride and her partiality towards Wickham, blind these judgments. Austen presents Elizabeth’s judgments in situations of conversation and third person narrative throughout the structure of the novel. Examining key passages traces a change in Elizabeth. By the end of the book, Elizabeth has learned the error of her ways, and is able to make accurate, sensible judgments of her feelings and attitudes.