Characters’ First Impressions in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice was originally entitled First Impressions, since the characters in her novel often make judgments on their first impressions of people. These first impressions would then shape the characters’ reputations. Reputation was important to members of English society in the nineteenth century. One’s reputation could be ruined by one false word – or one bad first impression. One’s manner and character was what created his reputation. Jane Austen focuses on reputation in Pride and Prejudice. Her two main male characters, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Charles Bingley, influence their reputations with their very different personalities. Although Darcy and Bingley are both wealthy and overall amiable people, Darcy’s character is more guarded than Bingley’s and their opinions and families are different.
Darcy and Bingley have similar backgrounds and physical characteristics. Both men come from wealthy families. Darcy is much wealthier than Bingley, owning a great estate called Pemberley while Bingley is letting a smaller estate called Netherfield. More information is given about Darcy’s family, such as his long connection to George Wickham’s family as well as his connection with Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The only known family of Bingley are his two sisters. Physically, both men are handsome, Darcy more so than Bingley. Austen points out Darcy’s physical attributes early, saying that he had a “fine, tall person, handsome features, [and] noble mien” (Austen 7); however, with Bingley she focuses on his ease in a crowd: “He had a fine countenance, and easy, unaffected manners” (Austen 7). It is interesting that Austen decides to describe Darcy physically before describing his character, while she introduces Bingley’s at his first introduction to the Bennets. It is probably because Darcy’s character is explored in the rest of the novel, where Bingley’s can easily be described briefly. Aesthetically, Darcy and Bingley are very similar.
While they may be physically and materially similar, Bingley and Darcy’s first impressions in the novel are different. Bingley immediately comes off as affable, extroverted, and agreeable, and pleases everyone at the Meryton ball (Austen 7); however, his friend Darcy, though “much handsomer,” seemed to have a more “forbidding, disagreeable countenance” (Austen 8). Darcy’s character is much more guarded than Bingley’s. Bingley does not hide any aspect of his character since his character does not go as deep as Darcy’s. Darcy’s still waters run deep while Bingley is a shallow bubbling stream; but how can someone so likeable be friends with someone so unlikeable? Austen describes it like this: “Bingley was endeared to Darcy by the easiness, openness, ductility of his temper, though no disposition could offer a greater contrast to his own” (Austen 12). Darcy likes Bingley’s company because they are very different from each other, and because of Bingley’s “ductility of temper,” he will do what Darcy wants him to (“Mr. Bingley”). The respective characters of Darcy and Bingley make them completely compatible for their respective love interests. Jane Bennet says of Bingley: “He is just what a young man ought to be…sensible, good-humoured, lively; and I never saw such happy manners!” (Austen 10) These characteristics are what Jane looks for in a partner, so Bingley is her perfect match. Darcy and Elizabeth are shy in a crowd but outspoken in private (Schmoop Editorial Team) – Darcy even remarks that “we neither of us perform to strangers” (Austen 117). Darcy does not reveal his complete character to Elizabeth until after his first proposal, when she finds out she misjudged him. This misjudgment, however, makes her love him more deeply. Like Bingley and Jane, their characters are actually perfectly suited for each other. While the characters of Bingley and Darcy are vastly different, they share equal compatibility with their love interests.
Other than differences in their characters, Darcy and Bingley are different in their treatment of the opposite sex. Because he is more extroverted than Darcy, Bingley is much more enthusiastic about women and their talents. He is amazed at how women “can have patience to be so very accomplished, as they all are” (Austen 27). At the Meryton Ball he claims he has “never met with so many pleasant girls in [his] life” (Austen 8); in short, he finds fault in very few women. Darcy is much more judgmental and pessimistic when it comes to women and their talents. When Bingley claims all women are accomplished, Darcy replies that he knows only “half a dozen [women]…that are really accomplished” (Austen 27). At the Meryton ball he is very unimpressed by the women, saying that Jane was the “only handsome girl in the room” (Austen 8), and slighting Elizabeth as “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me” (Austen 9). Overall, Bingley admires all women where Darcy is much more particular in his admiration.
Family is important to both Bingley and Darcy, especially their families’ influence on each of them. Bingley has two sisters: one is married, and the other has her sights on Mr. Darcy. Bingley’s sisters are two of his greatest manipulators, especially Caroline, his unmarried sister. They are both a negative influence on him in that they do not want him to marry Jane because of her inferior birth. Both sisters are different from their more gregarious brother. Darcy, on the other hand, has one younger sister named Georgiana, for whom he cares deeply. Where Bingley is more influenced by his sisters, Darcy influences his sister more; and Georgiana is more like her brother than Bingley is like his sisters. Like Darcy, Georgiana is “exceedingly shy” (Austen 169). The differences in their family are influential to the characters of Bingley and Darcy.
While Bingley and Darcy might be similar on the outside, their inner characteristics such as their manners, opinions, and influences are what set them apart. Their first impressions in the novel are important. Bingley’s first impression is much more accurate than Darcy’s, since Darcy does not reveal his full personality to strangers. Elizabeth, though perceptive, does not see this right away, showing how influential these first impressions can be. Austen was making the point that “first impressions” do not always tell the whole story; while they are important, one must explore the character of the man to know the man.
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