In Pride and Prejudice, what does Jane Austen intend her reader to see as the cause of Elizabeth´s prejudice? Is the cause her parents, education, society at large, Darcy, herself, her sisters, or some combination?
On the one hand, Austen makes it fairly clear that Elizabeth's prejudice is really an intrinsic character flaw. We learn this in the earlier chapters when we learn more about Jane's character and can see Elizabeth being contrasted against Jane. However, Austen also makes it very clear that, while Mr. Bennet is an affectionate father, especially to Elizabeth, he has his own character flaws, and his lack of control is the reason why the household lacks discipline and principle.
It is in Chapter IV that Austen allows us to see the two eldest sisters, Elizabeth and Jane, in comparison. Elizabeth reprimands Jane for being to agreeable and for never finding fault in anyone. When Jane retorts that she would not want to be quick in "censuring," or judging or criticizing anyone, Elizabeth states her belief that anyone with sense should be able to see others' character flaws, as we see when she says to Jane:
With your good sense, to be honestly blind to the follies and nonsense of others! .. to take the good of every body's character and make it still better, and say nothing of the bad--belongs to you alone. (Vol. 1, Ch. 4).
Since we know that Jane is open-minded to a fault, unable to see any flaws, we know that in contrast, Elizabeth can be very prejudicial. She takes pride in her discernment, but in reality, all she is doing is being far too hasty to judge people. In this chapter, Austen does not attribute either Jane's or Elizabeth's character flaws to any external element. Jane's character flaws are completely unlike anyone else's in their family. Therefore, Austen is making it very clear in this chapter that Jane's character flaw of being too open-minded is something intrinsic, something she was born with. Likewise, while Elizabeth's character flaw may somewhat resemble her father's, Austen does not attribute the flaw to Mr. Bennet in this chapter, it is clear that Austen is also pointing out that Elizabeth's character flaw of prejudice is also intrinsic to Elizabeth.
However, Austen also makes it clear in several places that she feels Mr. Bennet also has a blameworthy character. In fact, Austen makes it clear that she feels Mr. Bennet is responsible for any of his family's improper behavior, such as Lydia's flirtation and elopement. In several places, Austen chastises Mr. Bennet's character. For example, in the first chapter he is introduced as having a "sarcastic humor," a "reserve," and a mood that changes easily (Vol. 1, Ch. 1). Also, it's made known that both Austen and Elizabeth feel that Mr. Bennet made a very bad choice in marriage. He married a woman who was socially beneath him only because he thought she was beautiful; however, unfortunately, she also turned out to be a very ridiculous woman. She directs her daughters to be just as silly as she is, and Mr. Bennet fails to take control as head of the household. We see Elizabeth reflect on her father's failings after the regiment leaves Meryton and Lydia begins begging to go to Brighton. Elizabeth reflects that he had enough talents for being a sensible man, and if he had tried to teach his daughters good sense, he might have saved them, even if he could not make his wife more sensible, as we see in her line, "... talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife" (Vol. II, Ch. 19).
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