Prior to publication, Jane Austen titled her novel Pride and Prejudice as First Impressions. Interestingly, first impressions are not the most important aspect of this influential piece of literature. Rather, the concept that these first impressions were entirely incorrect, and the damage they caused in the novel, is. Within the lines of Pride and Prejudice, first impressions teach the characters, mainly Elizabeth Bennet, to learn before judging.
The wrongdoings of first impressions are most obvious within the relationships of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, George Wickham and Elizabeth Bennet, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet, and the reader and Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Unlike many other tales of love, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet did not look into each other’s eyes and fall deeply in love. On the contrary, Darcy looked into Elizabeth’s eyes and told Charles Bingley, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me” (Austen, 7). The distaste between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy derived from the ball at Meryton. Without an introduction or conversation, Elizabeth also judged Darcy early and decided “[Darcy] was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world… ” (Austen, 6). Later Elizabeth would find out, though, that Mr. Darcy’s pride was one of the only roadblocks on the path of his ardent love for her.
Nevertheless, both determined early that their “relationship” was not one they particularly sought to continue. Unexpectedly, Elizabeth’s slight dislike for Darcy evolved into a pure hatred due to his “mistreatment” of family friend, Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth’s blood continued to boil when she learned that he kept Bingley from Jane, for what she thought because of pride and social reputation. From the opening, Elizabeth knew, or at least thought she knew Darcy. Her idea of his personality seemed true, but she based it only on her first impression of him. Soon, though, the plot unraveled itself – Mr. Darcy explained his motives for separating Jane Bennet and Charles Bennet, and for alienating Mr. Wickham. He also funded Elizabeth’s sister, Mary, and Mr. Wickham’s marriage, and said he did it only for Elizabeth.
By this point in the novel, Elizabeth was falling madly in love with Darcy. She revoked all superficial opinions of Darcy, and saw him for the man he really was – a compassionate, generous, man who was willing to put his prejudices aside in the name of love. By the end of the novel, matrimony joined Darcy and Elizabeth. This joining provides evidence that initial impressions are not entirely correct, and that it is impractical to know one by merely talking with them. Following the pattern of Mr. Darcy, Mr. Wickham’s opening character fooled Elizabeth.
Unlike Darcy, however, Elizabeth’s initial notion of his personality was much better, and morally sounder than that of the real Wickham. Upon meeting Wickham, Elizabeth thought him to be a gentleman. His charm, good looks, and easy manner fooled many, Elizabeth included. She also believed the lies about Darcy, which Wickham literally spoon-fed her, thus she felt sorrowful for his alienation from the Darcy clan. “‘And of your infliction,’ cried Elizabeth with energy. ‘You have reduced [Wickham] to his present state of poverty, comparative poverty.
You have withheld the advantages, which you must know to have been designed for him. You have deprived him the best years of his life, of that independence which was no less in his due than his desert. You have done all this! and yet you can treat the mention of his misfortunes with contempt and ridicule'” (Austen, 131). Elizabeth fumed at Darcy; she was enraged how nonchalantly Darcy threw Wickham to the streets. In Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, though, the truth once again freed itself from a tangle of lies. Darcy shined light on Wickham’s trickery, and the devastation he brought to the Darcy family.
Shocked, Elizabeth lost all love and respect for the fake Wickham, knowing once again she misjudged. Once more, first impressions fooled Elizabeth – a mistake that nearly jeopardized her and Darcy’s relationship. Similar to the Wickham fiasco, Elizabeth thought too highly of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr. Collins, an asinine, garrulous man of no significant societal status, but a “name-dropper” nevertheless, described Lady de Bourgh as a bighearted, wealthy, generous and compassionate woman who accepted him into her social clique, for which he was extremely grateful.
Upon meeting Lady Catherine de Bourgh, though, Elizabeth decided, “Her air was not conciliating, nor was her manner of receiving them, such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank. She was not rendered formidable by silence; but whatever she said, was spoken in so authoritative a tone, as marked by her self importance… ” (Austen, 110). Her “self-importance” was one of the many qualities Collins seemed to overlook in his interminable descriptions of her. Although Elizabeth had not met Lady de Bourgh until her visits to Rosings, the perceived notion was entirely incorrect. If, while highly unlikely, Mr. Collins depicted Lady de Bourgh as others viewed her – a highbrow, meddlesome, arrogant, snob – Elizabeth may have avoided the trip entirely, or treated Her Ladyship with more respect.
All the same, Elizabeth’s initial impression of Lady de Bourgh took a sour turn; one can only hope Elizabeth learned once more to form her judgments of others after meeting them personally. Finally, the reader often forms his or her own opinions of the characters. The reader usually forms these opinions when the author initially introduces the character, but may change throughout the novel, determined by the character’s decisions.
The relationships most important and often changing are the relationships between the reader and Elizabeth Bennet, as well as with Mr. Darcy. At once, Jane Austen portrayed Elizabeth Bennet as “not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia” but was often preferred by her father over her four sisters (Austen, 2). She is also quick-witted, confidant, and had a “lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous” (Austen, 7). Furthermore, Elizabeth acted as though her opinions were always correct, even though more often than not, these opinions were entirely incorrect.
Regardless, one cannot form their opinions about a character based upon the first few pages. Throughout the novel, not only does Elizabeth’s character grow, but also does the readers’ view of her. By the end of the novel, Elizabeth understood, and accepted the social ladder, and her standing upon it. She also had love and respect for Darcy, her predetermined foe. These outlooks are much different from the beginning Elizabeth, who found social standing frivolous and silly, and Darcy an arrogant pig. Similarly, the relationship between the reader and Darcy changed and grew, as did his character. Mr. Darcy lived up to Elizabeth’s description of him while at the Meryton ball. Up until exclaiming his zealous love for her, Darcy came off as an arrogant and proud snob. However, after realizing the emotional pain he caused Elizabeth, Darcy set their differences aside and did anything and everything in his power to win her over, including risking his social stature to assist in the marriage of Mary Bennet and George Wickham. Clearly, Darcy set his pride and prejudices aside for the woman he loved. From the first page, the characters of Pride and Prejudice judged others based on their first impressions.
This includes Mrs. Bennet, who wanted one of her daughters to marry Charles Bingley purely because of his wealth and social stature. Proven by the relationships Elizabeth Bennet has with Fitzwilliam Darcy, George Wickham, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as well as the relationship the reader has with Elizabeth and Darcy, first impressions are not always, if ever, correct. Essentially, one must base his or her opinions of another based upon that other’s actions. After all, actions speak louder than words.