Pride and Prejudice Questions and Answers
by Jane Austen

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Compare and contrast the characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet are best friends, showing how opposites can mesh and build happy friendships until a decisive turning point comes along, such as Collins' marriage proposal(s). In a foreshadowing of Austen's other greatest work, Sense and Senibility, Charlotte represents sense (making sound judgements and decisions) while Elizabeth represents sensibility (making emotion-driven judgements and decisions). While Charlotte is willing and able to see things in their unembellished reality, Elizabeth idealizes and either trivializes (e.g., Darcy) or magnifies (e.g., Wickham) things that she sees.

With these characteristics in mind consider how Charlotte unflinchingly meets reality with action by being the chief cook for the Lucas family since the reality is that though Sir Lucas has a title and has been presented at court he hasn't got the income to support a lifestyle in tune with his title. Consider how this same characteristic leads Charlotte to apply soundness to her evaluation of Collins' "rebound" proposal; to her decision to accept his proposal; and to her actions in cleverly establishing a pleasant and happy life for herself:

Mr. Collins invited them to take a stroll in the garden, which was large and well laid out, and to the cultivation of which he attended himself. To work in his garden was one of his most respectable pleasures; and Elizabeth admired the command of countenance with which Charlotte talked of the healthfulness of the excercise, and owned she encouraged it as much as possible.

With Elizabeth's contrasting characteristics in mind, consider how Elizabeth overlooks her father's disrespectful and neglectful parenting (which she acknowledges at the end of the story) while learning to ironically make fun of people's foibles and weaknesses, including her own. This trait causes her to misjudge individuals whom she then either accepts or rejects based not upon a sound evaluation but upon her emotional reaction to them. Consider now how this characteristic might have led her into a marriage with the fortune hunter, Wickham, and how this same characteristic caused her to misjudge Darcy thus causing herself much unhappiness (and him untempered insult).

While Charlotte and Elizabeth are equally intelligent, equally good natured and pleasant, equally of high birth (gentlemen's daughters are eligible marriage partners for all ranks of the upper class, including nobility), Charlotte sees the world through perceptions that seek and cause her to respond to reality, while Elizabeth sees the world through perceptions that laugh at foibles and cause her to respond according to how her emotions are stirred by these foibles.

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In the episode of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen when Darcy refuses to dance with Elizabeth at the ball, the narrator says:

Elizabeth..  told the story, however, with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous.

In contrast with Elizabeth Bennett, Charlotte Lucas is very serious and not particularly clever. She is, however, immensely practical. Rather than turning down Mr. Collins offer of marriage, she accepts it because of economic necessity. While in the novel, we sympathize with Elizabeth, and her refusal to marry Collins, in reality, Elizabeth's refusing a perfectly acceptable marriage offer would be like someone now turning down a steady, if boring, job because they believed they might win the lottery. In this way, clever and interesting as she is, Elizabeth is also impractical and unrealistic, weighing her happiness over family loyalty.

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In Austen’s time, the life of a young woman was strictly regulated, with few respectable options open to her outside of marriage. A woman’s chief goal, therefore, became, out of necessity, the pursuit and capture of a husband. Through the characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas, Jane Austen explores the limitations of this goal and the effect on women who accept or reject it.

The main character of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, refuses to accept the traditional male domination. Through her, Austen explores the limits of the role of woman in society. Elizabeth speaks with great freedom, using teasing and wit, self-deprecating humor, and bluntness that sometimes borders on rudeness. Her response to a general, trifling criticism from her future husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy, is, “Your defect is a propensity to hate everybody.” When she is forced to dance with him at a later party, a friend’s attempt to console Elizabeth results in a reply that reveals a definite opinion of the man: “That would be the greatest misfortune of all! - To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate! - Do not wish me such an evil.”

Austen uses Elizabeth to express her own approval of those who are unafraid to display their true personality. She does this by having Elizabeth’s ready wit and sharp tongue be the very qualities that cause Mr. Darcy to become attracted to and eventually fall in love with her. The two reveal this revelation in a short exchange:

“Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence [began Elizabeth]?”

“For the liveliness of your mind, I did.”

“You may as well call it impertinence at once. It was very little less. The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them.”

Charlotte Lucas conforms much more neatly to the social expectations of a woman. Still unmarried at age 27, Charlotte eagerly accepts the first proposal that comes to her. In marrying for social acceptance and financial security, she trespasses against all that Austen has attempted to reveal about the role of woman in society. Charlotte accepts the self-reduction involved in her loveless union because she sees it as socially preferable to continuing to remain single. Elizabeth cannot comprehend the loss involved in this mutual exploitation, saying,

“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters.”

Elizabeth had, up to that point, enjoyed a lighthearted closeness brought on by the close proximity in which she and Charlotte lived to each other. When Charlotte, in matrimony, so violates the values of self-knowledge and self-awareness that Elizabeth holds most dear, Elizabeth realizes “that no real confidence could ever subsist between them again.”