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The Concept of "Design" and Calculation in in Pride and Prejudice

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The concept of “design” and calculation plays a prominent role in Pride and Prejudice. Design is used as an indicator of values, particularly in marriage, and presents the characters with a challenge in balancing scheming and morality in its use. Already in the opening lines we can see the presence of design in the narrator¹s fervent declaration that “a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” That Bingley is seen as an object to be won from the outset indicates the predatory attitude of society, which will use any means necessary to make things work according to the design of its members. Mr. Bennet also refers to Mr. Bingley¹s “¹design in settling here (5),¹” making it clear from the opening of the novel that design is an influential part of this society.

This propensity for design does have a foundation. The characters live in a static financial situation. As none of them labor, there is no opportunity for the acquisition of money and power outside of design. The decline of accumulated family wealth, as is clearly demonstrated in the novel, is a central concern for individuals of the gentry. Social stigmas against labor keep these families from returning to the workforce to make their own fortunes, and so a different strategy must be adopted. Marriage in this world is by necessity more of a business enterprise than a demonstration of love. Women in particular have no livelihood outside of marriage, as they do not in general inherit their family¹s fortune. We see this dilemma in the relationship of the Bennetts with Mr. Collins, who is inheriting all of the family property, including the house, when Mr. Bennet dies. Women in particular, then, must engage in some design to secure a wealthy husband in order to provide for themselves. The economic dimension to marriage is a key element in the role of design in the world of Pride and Prejudice. Some element of design is considered good prudence, though a prudent woman must take care to avoid the extreme of mercenary behavior. On the other side, a woman must make sure that she gives enough importance to the economic aspect, and avoids a marriage that shows a total lack of sense and regard for her family and future. We see that it is primarily women who design in this novel, as men inherit family wealth and have less concern over which to design.

Charlotte presents the clearest example of someone who acts in accordance with these challenges of financial security. The entire Lucas family, facing a significant decline in their family wealth, has prudent interests in mind, believing “Mr. Collins¹s present circumstances made it a most eligible match for their daughter, to whom they could give little fortune? Lady Lucas began directly to calculate how many years longer Mr. Bennett was likely to live (103).” Driven by these interests for herself and her family, Charlotte schemes to marry Mr. Collins. For this she uses such methods as when she “perceived him from an upper window as he walked towards the house, instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane (102).” This design on Mr. Collins can be regarded as mercenary, but also shows prudence given Charlotte¹s situation.

A more clearly cold and calculating form of design is seen in the dynastic ambitions of Lady Catherine. She has had a long-developed plan for Darcy to marry her daughter in order to create a family dynasty of wealth. She extends this design on the lives of the young people to include Elizabeth, in a scheme of intimidating her away from tempting Darcy with her “¹arts and allurements (which) may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family (285).¹” In order to maintain her family power, she must work to ensure the outcome of Mr. Darcy¹s marriage choice. Much of what Lady Catherine is saying bears some moral weight. A choice about marriage in Pride and Prejudice affects entire families, rather than just the individual. This impact was clearly seen by Lydia¹s transgression and the references made to the shame it would bring on her entire family. Lady Catherine is designing with this idea of family interests in mind, but she goes too far and defines family interests in such a way as to justify her immoral bid for power.

Miss Bingley also displays a cold and calculating design in her attempts to portray Elizabeth in a negative light to Darcy. She hopes that by ensuring Darcy¹s contempt for Elizabeth, she may thus be free to cajole him into a greater affection for herself. This criticism makes plain her design in its frequently desperate tone. She says “¹How very ill Eliza Bennett looks this morning, Mr. Darcy, I never in my life say anyone so much altered as she is since the winter. She is grown so brown and coarse! (220),¹” and later “¹her eyes, which have sometimes been called so fine?They have a sharp, shrewish look? and in her air altogether, there is a self-sufficiency without fashion, which is intolerable (221).¹” Miss Bingley¹s design, in its artlessness, is clearly perceived by all of the characters in the novel. On hearing of Darcy¹s pre-engagement to Miss de Bourgh, Elizabeth gives a “smile, as she thought of poor Miss Bingley. Vain indeed must be all her attentions, vain and useless her affection for his sister and her praise of himself, if he were already self-destined to another (71).”

Design in Pride and Prejudice is not only used in the name of prudence, but also for sentiment. Darcy shows this when he designs to keep Bingley away from Jane. He does this by following him when he leaves the town on business, and convincing him to stay there, “congratulating himself on having lately saved a friend from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage (153).” While this has negative results and is an interference in another¹s life, the intentions were noble and he engages in no deceit of his character and fully admits his role, saying “¹I do not suppose that it (the Bennett family) would ultimately have prevented the marriage, had it not been seconded by the assurance which I hesitated not in giving, of your sister¹s indifference?To persuade him against returning into Hertfordshire (164).¹”

We see throughout this novel that design can have a good side, or at least result from good intentions. As mentioned before, it IS necessary for women to design in order to ensure their futures; this is a social reality in the world in which the characters live. Social structure makes it difficult to meet eligible husbands without some element of design, so a set of social strategies for securing a husband develops, including balls and strategic visits. We see this when the female Bennetts are pressuring Mr. Bennett to visit Bingley in the beginning of the novel. As a young woman is unlikely to meet eligible men without these social tools, this is an acceptable form of design, the general idea being that if good things are going to happen, an individual must arrange the world to make it so. The challenge, however, is employing these strategies without allowing oneself to become overly immersed in the scheming, and then the deception, elements of design. This is a distinction that Austen¹s characters struggle to make; securing their futures without falling into the trap of mercenary plotting, and the true character of each individual may be judged by their ability and determination to avoid this trap.

The existence of so much design makes it difficult to truly assess the character and feelings of people that are presented in the novel. Characters live in uncertainty of the true nature and intentions of their acquaintances, particularly in regard to marriage. Those with wealth must be careful to ascertain their suitor¹s motives. The characters in the novel depend largely on appearance to judge character, but appearance can be used to mask the design underneath. Lizzy is suspicious of Darcy designing against her, and using his appearance and manner to disguise his character. Wickham is the most deceptive character in the novel, using the advantage of his appearance to advance a scheme to besmirch the name of Mr. Darcy. Wickham also displays this mercenary design in his interest in Miss King, whom he “¹paid (her) not the smallest attention, till her grandfather¹s death made her mistress of this fortune (128).¹”

Design may also demonstrate the quality of character of the designers themselves. Darcy uses good scheming to attempt to save his friend, and thus through design proves his own good character. Charlotte uses schemes, but no deception of her character. Wickham, however, regularly uses deception for mercenary purposes. The type of design engaged in by individuals shows their true “character” in a society in which everyone must design.

This raises a key question; does Lizzy herself design? We are given some hint of this when she sees Pemberly and says “¹I might have been mistress! With these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted (202)!¹” and immediately afterwards “thought of his (Darcy¹s) regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before?She longed to know? in what manner he thought of her (205-207).” Her behavior towards Darcy changes as well when she is confronted with his wealth; she acts less sarcastic and friendlier towards him. The narrator¹s closeness with Lizzy, however, gives weight to the interpretation that her reversal of feelings is genuine, and that she is not merely giving in to her mercenary desires and altering her behavior in a design to marry him. The idea that Darcy¹s property and its management reflect a greater moral significance is highlighted here to release her from suspicions of calculation. She is credited with thinking “As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people¹s happiness were in his guardianship?she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before (205).” This may still be seen as an expression of mercenary design in securing a man with such considerable power, but it seems clear that the purpose of this elaboration on Darcy¹s “noblesse oblige” is instead to credit Elizabeth with deeper sentiments founding her transition.

Speculation about design demonstrates the moral and social challenges in courtship. The fact that some design is necessary in order to preserve oneself raises a social challenge in securing a prudent marriage, and a moral dilemma about the place of sentiment in marriage, and how much design is acceptable. Lizzy asks of us “what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive? Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?” The central position of these questions in the Victorian world leads to the prominence of design in Pride and Prejudice.


  1. Ashton-James, C. E., & Tracy, J. L. (2012). Pride and prejudice: How feelings about the self influence judgments of others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(4), 466-476. (
  2. McMaster, J., McMaster, R., McMaster, J., & McMaster, R. (1981). Pride and Prejudice:“Acting by Design”. The Novel from Sterne to James: Essays on the Relation of Literature to Life, 19-36. ( )
  3. Lorenz, M. (2017). Pride and Prejudice and social identity theory. In Jane Austen and Sciences of the Mind (pp. 115-135). Routledge. (
  4. Thuesen, C. (2000). Pride and Prejudice–Identity and Collaboration in Construction. In TWENTY-NINTH ANNUAL CONFERENCE 2013 September 2-4 (Vol. 457, p. 457). (
  5. Weinsheimer, J. (1972). Chance and the Hierarchy of Marriages in Pride and Prejudice. ELH, 39(3), 404-419. (

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