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In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen creates her protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, to be a strikingly unconventional female with respect to her time. Elizabeth tends to relate less to her female companions, and instead needs to define herself by her surrounding males. Therefore, her relationships with the men in the novel reflect her continual search for an ideal figure of social respectability. Elizabeth begins the novel feeling a close affinity to her father who is, in comparison, more civilized than her ignorant, materialistic mother. But when higher society, namely Mr. Darcy, enters her life, revealing the impropriety of her family and slighting her as well, Elizabeth is forced to look for a hero who is not only refined, but who will also redeem her dignity. She thinks she finds such a person in Wickham. Mr. Darcy, the most well-bred of all, only becomes Elizabeth’s final hero when he exposes Wickham’s deceit and ceases to patronize her and exposes his love and respect for her. Consequently, while propriety may seem to be the basis of Elizabeth’s pursuit for a hero, the underlying determinant of her search is her own pride.
Mr. Bennet’s role as Elizabeth’s hero appears to stem from Elizabeth’s desire to stray from her loutish mother and several frivolous sisters from which he offers a seemingly decorous alternative. However, more importantly, he favors Elizabeth, which lifts her self-esteem and strengthens her attachment to him. In comparison to Mrs. Bennet who has but a “mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” (Austen 4), all of which are demeaning and socially undesirable characteristics, Mr. Bennet’s “quick parts,…reserve, and caprice” are quite an improvement on the propriety scale. For instance, while Mrs. Bennet comically dwells on the shallow details of her daughters’ prospective marriages, Mr. Bennet watches, amused, which Elizabeth finds less embarrassing than the forwardness of her mother. Still, the strongest influence is Mr. Bennet’s favoritism toward Elizabeth. When he and his wife discuss visiting Mr. Bingley as a promising son-in-law, Mr. Bennet insists that he “must throw in a good word for [his] little Lizzy” (Austen 44). By only taking special notice of Elizabeth, not only does he think Elizabeth is most qualified to be Mr. Bingley’s wife, but he also shows the endearment with which he regards her by calling her “my little Lizzy.” Mr. Bennet may be the most civil of Elizabeth’s family, but his preference towards Elizabeth is what really establishes him as Elizabeth’s hero at the beginning of the novel.
However, when Darcy offends Elizabeth and indicates that her family lacks refinery, she needs to find an alternative hero whom she perceives is at the same level of social mannerism as Darcy in order to counteract the damage that Darcy has done to her ego. Elizabeth finds such a man in Wickham. At the Meryton ball, when Bingley suggests that Darcy dance with Elizabeth, he condescendingly says that Elizabeth “is not handsome enough to temp [him]” (Austen 9). Furthermore, Darcy obviously makes her feel conscious and subordinate because of the misdemeanors of her family, on occasion causing “Elizabeth [to] tremble lest her mother should be exposing herself again” (Austen 31). In turn, Elizabeth is eager to accept and idolize Wickham because they are united by a common dislike for Mr. Darcy, making her also quick to ignore any of his suspicious faults that she later identifies. She readily believes in Wickham’s refinement and dwells longer on the ideas he feeds to her to reassure her pride. Wickham portrays Darcy as the improper one of the two, calling him an “ill-tempered man” with “high and imposing manners” (Austen 53). Wickham continues by telling an extremely personal story that makes him seem like he has “a countenance [that] may vouch for [his] being amiable” (Austen 54), which she accepts without a doubt. Because of her extreme need for self-assurance after Darcy injures her pride, Elizabeth is quick to insert Wickham as her hero. She leaves her first real encounter with Wickham “with her head full of him” (Austen 56) not because he feigns an air of respectability that surpasses her father’s and supposedly equals Darcy’s, but mostly because he restores her dignity in their first real interaction.
For Elizabeth, who has already established Wickham as her hero, the contents of Darcy’s letter come as a complete shock. They contradict all the values she thinks Wickham has that make him her hero, and instead attribute them to Darcy, whom she despises. However, Darcy’s letter does not just deride Elizabeth and destroy her expectations of Wickham; it actually paves the road for Darcy to become Elizabeth’s hero, for in the letter he shows his extreme regard for her. The only reason for Elizabeth’s animosity towards Darcy in the first place was his display of disrespect towards her upon their first meeting. In his letter, Darcy makes it clear that while he can find “defects in [Elizabeth’s] nearest relations” (Austen 131), he esteems her by considerately saying that “it pains [him] to offend [her]” (Austen 131). Afterwards, the letter reveals the real story of Mr. Darcy and Wickham, proving Mr. Darcy to be the giving and generous man. She is much more willing to accept this idea because her pride is no longer in the way of her possible amiable feelings for him. After reading the letter and knowing Darcy’s admiration and love for her, their further encounters only strengthen Elizabeth’s reverence of Mr. Darcy as her hero. Elizabeth is pleasantly surprised by the way Darcy treats her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners with “manners so little dignified” (Austen 164), modest “gentleness” (Austen 164), and the “greatest civility” (Austen 165). In addition, Darcy further solidifies his position as Elizabeth’s hero later on in the novel when he generously bribes Wickham to marry Lydia. Even though Darcy is of the highest class and therefore highest social respectability, he only becomes Elizabeth’s hero when she can maintain her sense of pride with him.
To a certain extent, Elizabeth’s search for a hero throughout Pride and Prejudice is based upon her quest for the epitome of social respectability with whom she can associate and identify herself. However, Darcy has been of the highest social class from the beginning of the novel, and Elizabeth’s original dislike of him because of his disparaging behavior shows how her pride is the final determinant of whom she considers her hero. Her father starts off as her hero because he is most civil of her family, but also because he elevates Elizabeth, believing her to be the smartest of all his daughters. Elizabeth’s hero shifts to Mr. Wickham once she needs to uplift her ego from the damage Darcy does to it by demeaning both her and her family. Yet, once Darcy shows Elizabeth the good qualities of his character, and most importantly his love and respect for her, she does not hesitate to make him her final hero. Even though Elizabeth appears to be an individualistic woman, her independence is only in comparison to the other women of the novel. Her constant pursuit for a hero attests to her need for a male figure to attach herself to in order to define herself in a social context. Most importantly however, Elizabeth has a desire for the respect and approval of her male companion as well, making her pride an important factor in her search for her hero. Darcy fulfills Elizabeth’s two needs with his social standing as well as his love and adoration for her. Therefore, Elizabeth is, in conclusion, not as much individualistic as she is eccentric, for instead of being molded by the social ideals of a woman, she seeks out the ideal male influence to identify her.
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