Overview: Pride and Prejudice concerns itself with the welfare of the Bennet family, members of the English landed gentry at the turn of the 19th century. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five daughters and no sons. Mr. Bennet’s estate provides them with a comfortable income and a moderate degree of status, but the terms of the estate dictate that when Mr. Bennet dies his property will go to the closest male relative, a cousin little known to them, leaving the daughters with no inheritance.
The plot hinges on the predicament of the Bennet daughters. Without any financial assets of their own, their future well-being depends entirely on whom they can find to marry. The protagonist is Elizabeth Bennet, the second of the five daughters and the cleverest of the group. The central plot line concerns her relationship with a prospective suitor, Mr. Darcy. (His first name, Fitzwilliam, is mentioned only twice in the novel, while Elizabeth is identified almost exclusively by her first name. That’s how they’ll be addressed here as well.)
The First Encounter of Elizabeth and Darcy (Volume 1, Chapter 3): As the novel opens, the young, wealthy, and eligible Charles Bingley has taken up residence at the Netherfield Park estate, located a few miles from the Bennets in Hertfordshire. To the delight of Mrs. Bennet and her daughters, Bingley attends a ball put on in the neighboring town of Meryton. He brings with him Darcy, a friend staying with him at Netherfield. Darcy is as handsome as Bingley and twice as rich, making him a figure of interest to the Bennets, but they’re put off by his aloof, arrogant character. He refuses to dance with any of the local women. Within earshot of Elizabeth he tells Bingley she is “not handsome enough to tempt me,” and that he would never dance with someone like her who has failed to draw the attention of the other men at the party.
This scene proves crucial to the development of the plot. It is the most flagrant demonstration of Darcy’s pride, and in turn it establishes Elizabeth’s prejudice against him, which will put them at odds for most of the novel. The ball is also where Bingley and Elizabeth’s older sister, Jane, first capture each other’s attention. Their courtship is one of the novel’s primary subplots.
Wickham Tells Elizabeth about the Injustice Done to Him by Darcy (Volume 1, Chapter 16): A militia has been stationed for the winter at Meryton. Among its number is George Wickham, a handsome and charming young officer who draws the admiration of the Bennet sisters, and who shows a particular affinity for Elizabeth. While playing cards at the home of the Bennets’ aunt and uncle, Wickham explains to Elizabeth that he is the godson of Darcy’s father, who before his death had arranged for Wickham to take a position as a parish clergyman—thus guaranteeing him a steady income for life. When the position becomes open, it falls to Darcy to fill it; he disregards his late father’s wishes and appoints someone else, throwing Wickham’s life into disarray. This act of malice is attributed to Darcy’s jealousy over the close relationship between his father and Wickham.
This part of the story bolsters Elizabeth’s contempt for Darcy, and as the novel progresses it will serve as the primary justification for her prejudice against him. It’s also the closest look readers get at Wickham, who will prove to be the novel’s most dissolute character.
Darcy Proposes to Elizabeth; She Turns Him Down; He Responds with a Letter (Volume 2, Chapters 11 and 12): Elizabeth and Darcy have...
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crossed paths several times over the fall in Hertfordshire. As they’ve matched wits in conversation, there are hints of Darcy’s growing attraction to her, and Elizabeth’s grudging respect for him, though his alleged mistreatment of Wickham still cements her fundamental dislike. In the spring, Elizabeth goes to Kent to visit her friend Charlotte, who has married Mr. Collins, a buffoonish clergyman (and, as the cousin of Mr. Bennet, the heir to his estate). Collins’s benefactor and neighbor, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, also happens to be Darcy’s aunt, and Darcy happens to be visiting her, providing further opportunities for him to interact with Elizabeth.
On the eve of his departure, Darcy surprises Elizabeth by proposing marriage. He’s surprised in return when she rejects him out of hand. She cites his disdain for her family, his role in disrupting the courtship of Jane and Bingley, and his cruelty toward Wickham as grounds for her refusal. The following day Darcy gives Elizabeth a letter in which he responds to her charges. In doing so he explains the true nature of his history with Wickham, revealing Wickham to be a liar and a scoundrel.
These events make up the crucial turning point in the book. From here forward Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice wane as both characters see the error of their ways.
Wickham and Lydia Bennet Elope; Darcy Saves the Day (Volume 3, Chapters 4 through 10): Chance throws Elizabeth and Darcy together again when, on a summer trip to Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle, she finds herself staying near Darcy’s estate. Darcy calls on them frequently and behaves in a more friendly, outgoing manner than before— without ever broaching the subject of his rejected proposal. This behavior, along with the contents of his letter, causes Elizabeth to reassess her feelings for him.
The visit comes to an abrupt end when Elizabeth receives news that Wickham and her youngest sister, Lydia, have eloped. Elizabeth returns home to find the family in distress. Wickham and Lydia are at large in London, and it’s evident he has no intention of marrying her. The circumstances are disastrous for the reputation and future prospects of not only Lydia but the entire Bennet family. News comes from Mrs. Bennet’s brother in London that the couple has been found, and that, in exchange for some modest compensation, Wickham has agreed to marry Lydia. A letter from her aunt informs Elizabeth of what actually has transpired. It was Darcy who discovered the couple’s whereabouts, and who paid a much more substantial sum to compel Wickham into the marriage.
Darcy Proposes Again to Elizabeth; This Time She Accepts (Volume 3, Chapters 17 and 18): Bingley returns to the Netherfield Park estate in Hertfordshire, again accompanied by Darcy, and rekindles his relationship with Jane Bennet. With Darcy’s encouragement, he proposes to Jane, who accepts, marking a major turn for the good in the Bennets’ fortunes. On a walk together, Darcy expresses his continued passion for Elizabeth, she reveals that she now loves him, and amid apologies for past misunderstandings and bad behavior, they agree to marry. The news of the union is a shock to the Bennets, who know nothing of Darcy’s good deeds and continue to hold Elizabeth’s original negative view of his character. By various means they’re won over, and the two couples—Jane and Bingley, Elizabeth and Darcy—are married in a joint ceremony.