The key word to understanding the character of Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, it seems to me, is the word "gentleman." This is what Darcy thinks he is in the beginning of the novel, what he reveals himself to be to some people in the middle of the novel, and what he has become at the end of the novel.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, being a gentleman meant more than just being a rich landowner born into the position or title of gentleman. Once people could get rich on their own, the term began to change and exemplified the characteristics which money could not buy, such as generosity (both of both spirit and material things), civility, wisdom, and loyalty.
At the beginning of the novel, Darcy certainly qualifies as a gentleman by the standard definition. In chapter 3 we read that at Bingley's party both men and women admired him. Unfortunately for Darcy, that admiration only lasted "for about half the evening," as Darcy proves himself to be snobbish and disdainful of those he deems to be unworthy peasants, far beneath his social class and quality.
In chapter 11, Darcy is being teased about being too vain and prideful, and he answers with a directness born of true vanity and pride:
"[w]here there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."
He really does not see that he has routinely displayed arrogant and distinctly un-gentlemanly behavior in his dealings with Elizabeth, her family, and all the others he so obviously considers to be inferior to him. This would, of course, include his bumbled marriage proposal in which he spends more time listing Elizabeth's shortcomings as the wife of a "gentleman" than he does telling her why he loves her--which he obviously does.
By chapter 43, however, we see something more gentlemanly in Darcy, and it is something which has been there all along but we (and Elizabeth) are only now seeing it. Elizabeth hears the servants at Pemberley talk about him and begins to rethink her assessment of Darcy.
What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant? As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people's happiness were in his guardianship!—how much of pleasure or pain was it in his power to bestow!—how much of good or evil must be done by him! Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favourable to his character.
He is obviously a gentleman in this setting, and the unsolicited praise by a servant suggests that Darcy is, indeed, a gentleman because he treats his servants as well as he treats his sister.
Another example is what he does to mitigate the disastrous elopement of Elizabeth's flighty sister. He asks for nothing in return, not even recognition, making this a distinctly gentlemanly act.
By the end of the novel, Darcy has learned that he must ever be the gentleman, not just in certain company or when it suits him. In chapter 58 he admits that
my conduct, my manners, my expressions... is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: 'had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.' Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me;—though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice.
What changed in Darcy's character was that he became a gentleman in all things and at all times, not just when it suited him. It is a lesson we would all do well to emulate.
Elizabeth Bennet is one of Austen’s most likeable and admirable heroines: spirited, unaffected, and cheerful. But although her faults are not as blatant as those of, say Emma Woodhouse, she is prone, like other Austen heroines, to let her own opinions and feelings cloud her better judgement. In the course of the novel we see her self-growth, a maturing of her character as she comes to greater knowledge and understanding of herself and other people.
The main failing in Elizabeth’s disposition is summed up by Darcy early on in their acquaintance. When she taxes him over his pride, he replies that her own particular ‘defect’ is ‘to wilfully misunderstand’ other people (chapter 11). The key word here is ‘wilful’. Elizabeth is very intelligent and not ill-informed, but she is too quick to let her own opinions and prejudices get in the way of her understanding other people and various situations. This is most obvious of course in her early relations with Darcy and Wickham. To begin with she is ready to think the worst of Darcy just because she feels he has slighted her, and is too quick to believe Wickham because he flatters her. Along with this ,she also lets subjective emotion cloud her view of other people’s relationships, most notably in the case of her friend Charlotte Lucas. When Charlotte decides to marry the insufferable Mr Collins on the practical basis of gaining material security, Elizabeth cannot admit to even the slightest possibility that Charlotte could be satisfied in such a match.
And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself and sunk in her esteem, was added the distressing conviction that it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen. (Chapter 22)
While it is true that Mr Collins is presented as being every bit as stupid and affected as Elizabeth thinks he is, she just does not stop to consider the situation from Charlotte’s point of view and to appreciate the fact that her friend might feel and act differently to herself. Jane gently rebukes her for this. Jane might lack Elizabeth’s brightness as a character, but she has a more tolerant view of other people than Elizabeth, and, in consequence, her judgement is more sound.
Greater tolerance is what Elizabeth too must learn, and to see beyond her own prejudices towards others. Midway through the book, she comes to a sudden full realization of this, of how she has let her preconceptions about Darcy and Wickham entirely mislead her as to their respective true natures. She upbraids herself for her self-imposed blindness:
'How despicably have I acted!’ she cried. ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment!.... Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.(Chapter 36)
But not only this: Elizabeth also has to learn to behave with more tact in public. The novel makes clear that her free and easy manners are to be commended only up to a point. While being open and honest with others, she has also to learn not to overstep the mark. At the end of the book, after she and Darcy have finally come together, she candidly admits to him that her manners towards him at the beginning verged on outright rudeness. When he remarks that he was attracted to her ‘liveliness’, she replies,
You may as well call it impertinence at once. It was very little less. (Chapter 60)
Overall, the lessons that Elizabeth learns about herself and other people, the way that she comes to greater self-awareness and a more mature understanding of the world around her, are important to the development of any individual. Like Elizabeth, one has to learn to look beyond one’s own opinions and ideas, subjective likes and dislikes, in order to cultivate a broader, more objective understanding of other people, and greater tolerance for their ways.