The Depiction of Moral Hierarchy in Austen’s Novel
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice captures the essence of English Regency society while using unique characterizations to illustrate the effects of society on the individual. The evolution of one of Austen’s most prominent characters, Fitzwilliam Darcy, highlights the difficulty of overcoming society’s rigid class distinctions, proving that any attempt to thwart love is in vain. Over the course of the novel, Darcy undergoes a remarkable transformation. The pressures of the strictly regimented, class-governed society form the foundations of Darcy’s contemptuous character at the start of the novel. As he finds himself challenged by the power of love, however, Darcy begins to abandon his need to maintain superior societal status and allows himself to be persuaded by his natural inclinations. Darcy’s evolution continually challenges our initial perceptions, offering a vivid depiction of the inner struggle between vanity and morality. His character serves to illustrate Austen’s belief that while social forces may hinder love, an individual can be free to experience love’s splendor if he is able to overcome his prejudices. Ultimately, it is Darcy’s decency and integrity that prevail over his need to conform to societal expectations, and this realization finally enables him to surrender to his desire.
In the beginning of the novel, Darcy is a man whose life is dominated by his prejudices. His provincial views make it impossible for him to involve himself with a woman of lower social status. The primary indication of his foolishness occurs when he heartlessly rejects his admirer, Elizabeth, entirely based on her lower social standing. Lacking tenderness and infused with pride, Darcy cannot and will not be seen with a woman who is disdained by other men of his standing. To do so would be suicide to his reputation, and it is his reputation that he values above all else. His pride and refusal to go against the grain of society blind him from recognizing Elizabeth’s charm and radiant beauty.
As the plot develops, it becomes clear that Darcy is falling victim to the powerful pull of love, and it is increasingly more difficult for him to sustain his rigid priorities. His revelation is best described in the narrative: “no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face that he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.” This discovery takes place at the exact moment when Darcy abandons his “critical eye”, and allows his pride to take second place to his passion. Elizabeth’s physical flaws are no longer viewed as failings, but rather as elements that serve only to illuminate her true perfection. Darcy’s sincere appreciation for Elizabeth’s unfashionable manner entirely changes his disposition.
Darcy experiences no small amount of guilt and regret when he ultimately comes to recognize the severity of his prejudices, and desperately attempts to compensate for his earlier ignorance by professing his love for Elizabeth. Nevertheless, he subconsciously stumbles over his pride and dwells on her inferiority rather than expressing his sincere admiration and highlighting her attractive qualities. Elizabeth remains blind to Darcy’s newfound righteousness, viewing his proposition as an insult and holding on tightly to her original skepticism. Though Elizabeth coldly rejects his proposal “with so little endeavor at civility”, the event marks the turning point in the novel, when virtue triumphs over vanity.
It is undoubtable that Darcy’s revelation is responsible for his dramatic character transformation. The elite society in which Darcy was raised instilled within him a hierarchical sense of superiority and a fixed code of conduct that dominated every aspect of his interpersonal relationships. Darcy is, initially, a reflection of the elite population that chooses to remain faithful to this code of conduct even if it flies in the face of true passion. True love, however, reveals itself to be the single most influential force on Darcy’s psyche. Love challenges him to question his need to conform to the dictates of society, and it is the only force powerful enough to alter his judgment. Elizabeth cannot fathom the notion that his transformation has taken place in the name of love, and she doubtfully remarks, “Why is he so altered? From what can it proceed? It cannot be for me, it cannot be for my sake that his manners are thus softened. My reproofs at Hunsford could not work a change such as this.” In truth, however, it is Elizabeth who is chiefly responsible for Darcy’s alteration, and his change eventually prompts her to recognize her own vanity and folly. Until each of the characters casts aside his or her own prejudices, they are unable to admit their love for one another.
Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship stands as evidence that even in a society where love and marriage are ruled by class distinctions, it is not impossible to overstep the bounds of discrimination and find a love that is not permeated by superficiality. While it is unlikely that one will entirely forsake all rudimentary biases for the mere idea of love, it is still possible that these prejudices can be overcome. Although Darcy and Elizabeth are very much aware of the social pressures that surround them, they do not allow these burdens to impede their love. It is their strength of character that allows them to escape the social norms and dictate the course of their own fate.
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