Pride and Prejudice revolves around love and marriage in an acquisitive society. While the Bennets are members of the leisure class, the family fortune is entailed upon a male heir. This difficulty causes Mrs. Bennet to act frantically to find husbands for her five daughters. Elizabeth, the heroine, looks toward marriage with her clear sense of self and her ability to judge others accurately. To unite with a worthy husband, however, she must change her perceptions and grow in understanding. The novel is presented in three volumes, the sections mirroring Elizabeth Bennet’s emotional growth through her response to the hero, Fitzwilliam Darcy.
The story begins with Elizabeth, like the other young women in Meryton community, looking forward to a party that introduces two eligible bachelors with fortunes. She sees with pleasure that Charles Bingley is attracted to her older sister Jane. She dismisses the other bachelor, the aristocrat Darcy, as a proud man who considers himself their social superior. Elizabeth painfully recognizes the truth of his assessment as she observes her mother and sister Lydia in unseemly attempts to ensnare any possible suitor. Elizabeth’s sentiments and values are further revealed when she rejects the offer of Mr. Collins, the pompous, condescending gentleman on whom their fortune is entailed and is instead attracted to the handsome Wickham, who beguiles her with his charm and his story of ill-treatment by Darcy. His story evokes her sensitive feelings and increases her resentment toward Darcy.
Elizabeth is reconnected with Darcy when she visits her friend Charlotte, who, in a spirit of expediency, accepts Mr. Collins. Their home is the parsonage on the estate of Lady Catherine de Bough, Darcy’s aunt. After several visits from Darcy, Elizabeth is shocked and angered when he proposes to her, despite what he calls her low family connections. Elizabeth not only refuses but also rebukes him for the part that she suspects he has played in separating Jane and Bingley and for his reprehensible treatment of Wickham. She is later astonished by the long letter from Darcy explaining how he misjudged Jane’s affection and how he and his sister were, in fact, misused by the profligate Wickham. Elizabeth recognizes the error of her judgment.
In the third section, she develops admiration for Darcy, and indeed he too changes. Believing him to be away, she accidentally encounters him at Pemberly, his beautiful and tasteful estate that she tours while traveling with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. Here, she observes his gracious manners with her relatives and learns of the esteem that his servants and tenants have for him. As her regard for Darcy grows, Elizabeth is once again embarrassed by her family when Wickham and Lydia run off together. Darcy makes use of this incident to exhibit his care for Elizabeth by quietly paying off Wickham. He further promotes himself in Elizabeth’s eyes by influencing the renewed connection between Bingley and Jane. With her feelings for Darcy transformed, Elizabeth now hopes that he will repeat his request, which he does, and both couples are united. Elizabeth and Darcy, however, have undergone the trials of love and learned to value each other.