“Oh! That abominable Mr. Darcy!”

Humans rate their own ideas too highly. They hold on to them stubbornly. They defend them valiantly. They stand by them faithfully, even when powerful evidence is brought to bear against them. They do this because these ideas are “theirs” and not because these ideas are correct or even plausible.

But here’s the thing. Humans don’t admit that they do this. They act like they are just following the evidence. In this way, self-deception walks hand-in-hand with pride.

Jane Austen paints a humorous yet tragic picture of how pride and self-deception go together in the character of Elizabeth Bennett in her classic work, Pride and Prejudice. Her description of it contains powerful lessons that can help us think through how our own prejudices keep us from seeing the truth, all the while deceiving ourselves that this is not happening.

The object of Elizabeth’s prejudice is Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy’s friend, Mr. Bingley, seeks to get Mr. Darcy to dance with one of the girls at a ball, and he suggests Elizabeth. Mr. Darcy says, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men” (emphasis hers, Chapter 5, p. 211 [hereafter annotated with chapter and page as follows: 5.211]). Upon learning of Mr. Darcy’s opinion, Elizabeth’s prejudice is set against Mr. Darcy. She does not like him, and she views him as an unbearably prideful man.

It does not take long for Mr. Darcy to change his opinion. He begins to fall in love with Elizabeth. Elizabeth begins to notice that he is paying more attention to her, but she does not know whether he is mocking her or actually likes her. However, her prejudice remains. She “liked him too little to care for his approbation” (10.233).

While having no interest in Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth meets Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth has a strong prejudice in favor of Mr. Wickham and is smitten by him. “[H]is manners recommended him to everybody” (16, 251). As a result, “Elizabeth went away with her head full of him” (ibid.).

In chapter 15, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham meet each other at a social event and recognize each other. They actually both turn white at this moment. Something is obviously going on. At a dinner, Mr. Wickham tells his story of Mr. Darcy. He tells her that his father was a steward of Mr. Darcy’s father. Mr. Darcy’s father loved Mr. Wickham’s father and Mr. Wickham himself. Mr. Darcy’s father had wanted to give him a good living after his death, but he put it all in the care of Mr. Darcy. When Mr. Darcy’s father died, Mr. Darcy refused to give it to him. Mr. Wickham says that he does not bring this up to anyone because he loved Mr. Darcy’s father too much: “Till I can forget his father, I can never defy or expose him” (emphasis hers, 16.249).

Elizabeth departs from this conversation confirmed in her opinion that Mr. Darcy is a dastardly fellow. Elizabeth speaks to her elder sister, Jane, about it. Jane is incredulous: “It is impossible. No man of common humanity, no man who had any value for his character, could be capable of it. Can his most intimate friends be so excessively deceived in him? Oh! No” (17.252). She cannot imagine that such a despicable character could have friends that regard him so highly (including Mr. Bingley whom she favors). Jane tends to see everyone in the best light possible, so Elizabeth dismisses this apparent conflict in Mr. Wickham’s story.

Jane is not satisfied. With subtlety, she checks on the story with Mr. Bingley. Bingley’s response is “Mr. Wickham is by no means a respectable young man” (18.258). Jane reports on this to Elizabeth. However, Elizabeth says that Mr. Bingley’s opinion is derived solely from Mr. Darcy. Consequently, she says, “I shall venture to still think of both gentlemen as I did before” (18.258). In the meantime, Elizabeth is further confirmed in her view of Mr. Darcy by the general disapprobation of the town. Everyone was disgusted by his pride, and Elizabeth was not the only stranger with whom Mr. Wickham shared his perspective on Mr. Darcy. In Austen’s words, “[E]verybody was pleased to know how much they had always disliked Mr. Darcy before they had known anything of the matter” (25.280).

Several weeks later, we find Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth alone in the home of Elizabeth’s cousin. There, Mr. Darcy proposed. “Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression” (34.307). She is stunned and perhaps a little flattered that a man of such high social standing, who would generally never entertain the idea of such a marriage, had proposed to her. However, her disdain for Mr. Darcy is so strong that she immediately rejects him and explains how and why she dislikes him so much. She tells him that she never could marry a man who treated people so terribly as he had done with Mr. Wickham. Mr. Darcy leaves flabbergasted that she refused his offer and visibly flustered.

In chapter 36 (the key chapter and the most powerful chapter in the book, in my mind), Mr. Darcy delivers a letter to Elizabeth to explain his relationship with Mr. Wickham. “With a strong prejudice against everything he might say, she began his account of what had happened at Netherfield” (36.315). Mr. Darcy explains that Mr. Wickham had received money and help from Mr. Darcy and had wasted it. Then, he had attempted to seduce Mr. Darcy’s sister and elope with her in order to gain her fortune.

Elizabeth does not want to believe it. “Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her. She wished to discredit it entirely . . .” (36.316). However, different thoughts begin to enter. She asks herself, why did she find Mr. Wickham so credible? “His countenance, voice, and manner had established him at once in the possession of every virtue” (36.316). She then begin to re-think her interactions with him and how he shared such a negative report of Mr. Darcy with a complete stranger. “She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before” (36.317). He had done this not only with her but with the whole town.

The more she considers it, the more she is driven to the conclusion that Mr. Darcy is correct and Mr. Wickham is in the wrong.

“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! Who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery!” (36.318).

All this time, she was filled with pride and prejudice, but she had deceived herself into thinking that she was acting with impartiality according to the dictates of reason. It is a shock to Elizabeth to find such pride and prejudice within herself. “Till this moment I never knew myself” (ibid.).


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