Self-knowledge in Jane Austen’s 'Pride and Prejudice': Speaking of the Heroine, Elizabeth Bennet


"I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses."
Charlotte Brontë (1816 - 1855)

The attainment of self-knowledge on the part of the central figures is always Jane Austen’s theme, and self-knowledge results in goodness. Thus, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth gradually discovers the truth and sheds her prejudices en route a love journey both humorous and deeply serious moods. She has been proud of her discernment but she finds that she has been wrong in judging both Darcy and Wickham. By the end, she realizes her folly and her prejudice. Life for her is thus a continuous process of increasing self-knowledge.

Pride and Prejudice portrays two remarkable characters with which generations of readers have fallen in love: Elizabeth Bennet, the talented, independent second daughter, and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, a haughty aristocrat who sees through Mrs. Bennet's manipulations and believes the Bennet family to be beneath him. In turn, Elizabeth develops a blinding prejudice against Darcy and puts him down as no one has dared before. Their relationship—a combination of attraction and contempt—is certainly one of the most exciting in all literature. 

Experience teaches us how to live wisely and temperately and so also through harmony with the rest of the world. Jane Austen was a religious woman, but religion is not an active element in the life she portrays. Her morality is not transcendental; she is an idealist but a practical idealist. In her view human beings have a duty to perform to themselves and to others, and it is only by performing this duty that true happiness can be achieved. 

Jane Austen
All of Jane Austen novels, even Pride and Prejudice, are educational novels. She is concerned with the achievement of a perfect marriage as essential for happiness, for it is the chief of the human relations. It is necessary for happiness, as well as for the development of personality. By the end of Jane Austen’s novels, there is always the achievement of self-knowledge, self-control, and self-respect, and the principal means of such an achievement is a league of perfect sympathy with another who is one’s spiritual counterpart. Thus, “Elizabeth and Darcy is each other’s counterpart and they achieve perfect happiness in their marriage”. A perfect marriage, in short, is fundamentally a perfect friendship. Each of her novels is built round a theme and each expresses some aspect of her view of life. Thus Pride and Prejudice exhibits the folly of trusting to first impressions uncorrected by mature observation. 

Through Elizabeth’s vivid character, Pride and Prejudice contrasts many human qualities: depth and superficiality; honesty and dishonesty; pride and humility; independence and dependence. Elizabeth does not sentimentalize love, she does not glorify it like earlier heroine, but her conception of a genuine union is a loftier one than theirs. She is a practical idealist. She realizes the value of money and comfortable living for a happy marriage, she has no illusions about, “love ma cottage” but she also realizes that married happiness depends not so much on worldly circumstances as on mutual harmony between the marriage partners. Similarly, she recognizes the presence of evil, and tolerates it. Wickham is not even reformed by the end of the novel, and Lydia remains as silly and irresponsible as ever. The novelist is reputed to have considered Elizabeth Bennet her favorite creation. Indeed, the twenty-year-old possesses brains, beauty, musical talent, confidence, and—for the era—rare independence. At every turn Elizabeth displays the latter trait: she walks several miles alone to visit her ailing sister Jane at Netherfield; she declines Mr. Collins's marriage offer despite her mother's outrage; she angrily rejects Darcy's condescending proposal in the novel's most stunning scene. But this independence—perhaps inherited from her mother—leads her to make mistakes: she judges Wickham, Darcy, and others too soon, and then clings stubbornly to her prejudices.
Charlotte Bronte criticized Jane Austen for not knowing the passions at all. Jane Austen was, no doubt, untouched by the romantic movement and the “stormy sisterhood,” is absent from her novels. But this does not proves her devoid of love and motto of living. 

Ardhendu De


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