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The Role of Parents in Pride and Prejudice

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Eighteenth-century American humorist and lecturer Henry Wheeler Shaw once said, “To bring up a child in the way he should go, travel that way yourself once in a while.” This wise, candid statement highlights the fact that parents play a significant role in a child’s formation because of the examples they set with their actions. In Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, the witty protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, is greatly affected by her parents’ words and actions, as is demonstrated by her improper judgment of – and prejudice towards – the wealthy aristocrat, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Jane Austen’s portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet’s character suggests that her prejudice originates from her parent’s faults and their inability to communicate.

After two decades of being the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth is keenly aware of their failings. Mr. Bennet, the father and only male figure in the Bennet family, is at first portrayed sympathetically because of his imperturbable composure and sense of humor in the face of Mrs. Bennet’s hysterical anxiety spells. As his character is revealed more fully, however, his particular failing – a propensity to withdraw from family problems rather than confront them – becomes more evident. In fact, Mr. Bennet frequently separates himself from his family, retiring to his study early to read books, drink port, or bitterly amuse himself with his wife’s or daughters’ foolishness. This tendency towards critical judgments and his blatant favoritism towards Elizabeth are revealed in his statement:

They [his children with the exception of Elizabeth] have none of them much to recommend them…They are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.

If this is the opinion of the “proud” father, his daughters are most likely glad that he spends most of his time in his study.

Mrs. Bennet often displays a similarly poor character. Her failings include a quick temper and a hasty spirit. The narrator describes Mrs. Bennet as “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.” Indeed, Mrs. Bennet is frequently anxious, upset, and grieved at the slightest provocation (such as a neighbor owning a new bonnet); similarly, a wealthy, single man in the vicinity of Longbourne can excite her temperament to giddiness and put her into a frenzy. Furthermore, Mrs. Bennet is prone to hold grudges against anyone who contradicts her own ideas. For example, Mrs. Bennet impugns Darcy’s name when he prefers not to dance with any of the local girls – or Elizabeth, in particular, who happens to be sitting nearby. This one slight causes Mrs. Bennet to avow hatred of Darcy for the rest of her days. Elizabeth’s quickness of temper, obdurate opinions, and hasty decision-making mirror her mother’s character, while her overly critical analyses of others and inclination to brood parallel her father’s behavior.

Another factor that influences Elizabeth Bennet’s quick – and on many occasions rash – judgments is her parents’ inability to communicate with one another. The Bennets married because Mrs. Bennet was young and beautiful and Mr. Bennet was charming; these traits, however, were eclipsed as their more pronounced differences emerged. The emotional distance between the parents is so prevalent that the narrator states that even after “the experience of three and twenty years,” Mrs. Bennet is still unaware of her husband’s true character. Between Mr. Bennet’s subtly cynical nature and Mrs. Bennet’s obstreperous determination, this married couple never carries on a true conversation. Mrs. Bennet talks and Mr. Bennet responds with witty non sequiters, but neither listens to the other. Mr. Bennet sardonically reflects on the differences between him and his marriage partner when he is told by Mrs. Bennet that his children are “very clever.” He states coolly:

This is the only point, I flatter myself, on which we do not agree. I had hoped our sentiments coincided in every particular, but I must so far differ from you as to think our two youngest daughters uncommonly foolish.

In truth, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s “sentiments” differ in almost every regard. Because her parents are always at odds, Elizabeth learns both to press her opinions on others like her mother, and to deliver the judgmental witticisms that are her father’s specialty. Thus, Elizabeth’s upbringing by her parents contributes to “Lizzy’s” aptness to prejudice.

Although Elizabeth Bennet is a witty, vivacious, and beautiful girl, she also possesses a tendency to jump to conclusions and make prejudicial judgments, as is exemplified by her meetings with Darcy. When Elizabeth first comes into contact with Darcy, she encounters a personality similar to that of her father. Just as Mr. Bennet and Darcy are quiet, reticent, and shy, they can also both be strikingly subtle and sarcastic. Elizabeth does not know how to interact with Darcy, because she does not have a model to follow; she is unable to treat Darcy as she would her father because Darcy is not on an intimate level with the Bennet family, and because eighteenth-century society dictates the strictest decorum in all interactions between young people of the opposite gender. Furthermore, Elizabeth is unable to treat Darcy as her mother treats Mr. Bennet because Elizabeth is averse to her mother’s social flightiness. Consequently, Elizabeth is confronted with a personal dilemma, and on her first encounter with Darcy she is prejudiced against him because of his sharp language and her resultant hurt feelings. Darcy’s statement that “[Elizabeth Bennet] is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” excites in Elizabeth a flood of emotion so strong that she has no “very cordial feelings toward [Darcy].” Elizabeth hastily spreads the story, and adds that she would “never…dance with him.” This level of overreaction speaks to Elizabeth’s narrow-mindedness, and her quickness to judge. Elizabeth Bennet’s need to repeat Darcy’s slight to others reveals her prejudicial nature and desire to force others to hold the same views as she herself does.

Jane Austen’s portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet’s character suggests that Elizabeth’s prejudice, which is underscored by her treatment of Mr. Darcy, is the result of her long-term exposure to her parent’s shortcomings, and their inability to communicate with one another. Perhaps Austen offers this information to readers in an effort to highlight the need for a proper family environment and careful parenting. One can claim with certainty, however, that all of the prejudicial judgments, misunderstandings, and acrimony evident in Elizabeth’s relationship with Darcy could have been prevented by sincerity, impartiality, and broad-mindedness.

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The Role of Parents in Pride and Prejudice. (2018, April 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 23, 2023, from
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