By Janani Harish
Feb 11, 2010
In one sense we are all individuals, each with his or her own defining characteristics and attributes. But in another sense, some people are more formed individuals than others, less dependent for their attributes on how others think, feel and act, relying more on their own personal judgment, values and experience. It is easy to find examples of both types of people in life and literature. But it is more difficult to explain the process by which a member of the collective evolves into a unique individual. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice provides a rare insight into that process of individuality formation.
The story takes place at the turn of the 19th century when the spirit of French Revolution on the other side of the Channel is exerting a quiet pressure for social evolution in England. At the beginning of the story, we encounter Fitzwilliam Darcy, the hero of the novel, as a self-centered, arrogant, wealthy English aristocrat who takes great pride in his status and estate. By the end of the story, he has shed his sense of self-importance and superiority and learnt to value himself and those around for their character and values, rather than their material possessions or social standing. Darcy’s transformation clearly depicts the process of individuation.
Darcy belongs to a distinguished family. He owns a fine estate generating £10,000 annual income and a large, dependent, tenant population. He has a college education. He is handsome, strong and intelligent. As a result, in a deeply class conscious society, he has developed an acute sense of superiority. Given his class, almost all of Darcy’s friends are a few rungs below him in the social ladder. Darcy dominates them socially. He convinces his impressionable friend Charles Bingley not to marry the girl he loves because she doesn’t belong to the right class. Along with a cousin, the second son of an Earl with only on a modest income of his own, he visits his aunt, and takes all the decisions about the trip without once consulting his cousin.
When Bingley moves to Meryton, a provincial town, Darcy turns up his nose at the country folk. Their rural lifestyle is naturally different from his city-bred ways. Their culture, which he sees as lack of culture, offends him. The people appear noisy and ill mannered. So at every dinner or dance, Darcy stands aloof on his pedestal, refusing to mix, spurning every hand extended to him from below. When the friendly Sir Lucas suggests that he dance with one of the girls present, Darcy brusquely refuses. When a clergyman introduces himself to Darcy, he considers it an affront to be spoken to by one from a lower status without formal introduction, and rudely walks away. Like many of his society, Darcy sees a man’s manners, his family, status and wealth, and misses the man himself. So when Bingley offers to introduce him to Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy fails to see her beauty, good nature, quickness, wit, or any other value that is going to make him fall in love with her later. All he sees is a local girl with unfashionable clothes and unaffected manners. Repulsed by her irresponsible parents, silly sisters and low class relatives, he dismisses her.
In the background greater forces are at work. Across the channel, the French are violently tearing down the pedestal that aristocracy had raised for itself all over Europe. As the guillotine tries to abolish the distinctions between the classes in French society, it dawns on the English aristocrats that they will have to give up their superiority if they want to save their heads. Something stirs in Darcy.
He begins to notice the imperfections in people of his own class. He sees much to be ashamed of in his stately aunt, Lady Catherine. Her rank has rendered her boorish and vulgar. Bingley’s sister Caroline is, unlike the Meryton girls, wealthy, fashionable and elegant. But all her style does not make up for her coarse thoughts and meanness. The more she fawns on him, the more Darcy is repelled. His titled, wealthy cousin, Lady Anne is from an even higher social level than himself. But she is sickly, weak, lifeless, a nonentity.
By contrast, Elizabeth radiates life and energy. Darcy gradually comes to see a light in her eyes that renders her a joy to behold. Where he saw undignified manners, he now sees liveliness. Lack of sophistication now seems natural and charming. He discerns goodness, intelligence, strength, quickness and beauty in this girl he had brushed aside as only tolerable. It is perhaps the first time that Darcy sees someone simply for what they are, without being distracted by their surroundings. This signals the onset of Darcy’s transformation from social conformity to true individuality, a journey that shifts his center-of-reference from external society to his own inner values.
But the path of Darcy’s individuation is not smooth, as is the course of his love. Two decades of social conditioning do not let go of a man without a struggle. They lead to an inner conflict in Darcy. The emerging individual in him wants to change, move on, and embrace the new. The conservative social aristocrat in him does not want any change in the status quo. Society gets the better of him just then, and Darcy forces himself away from Meryton and Elizabeth Bennet.
Their paths cross unexpectedly when Darcy visits his aunt at Hunsford and finds Elizabeth staying with a cousin who lives nearby. With each day, he becomes clearer about his feelings for Elizabeth. Her family is still vulgar, her connections inferior, her status is no match for his, but she alone, he believes, is good enough for him. He decides to marry her, and proposes, ignorantly and arrogantly assuming that she will accept so worthy a match as his. He is stunned to hear Elizabeth’s reply.
Elizabeth makes it clear to him, in a language he has never heard before, that he is the last man on earth she would ever marry. She accuses him of pride, arrogance and insensitivity. Darcy valued himself for his social position and assumed she would too. He never imagined that there was anything else for her to consider apart from his wealth, rank and estate. His value system has been turned upside down. He is angry with Elizabeth for abusing him. He is disappointed his proposal has not been accepted. He is at a crossroads. He has a choice to make. He can fall back on his old status, fortify himself in his luxurious estate, keep all commoners at a distance, and dismiss Elizabeth and all that she said as foolish. Or, he can give up his sense of superiority, cultivate humility and learn to appreciate the good values he finds in others, regardless of their status. That will mean letting go of all that is familiar and comforting, and plunging into unknown territory. Darcy does just this. He chooses the way forward. Whether it is the result of the French Revolution raging nearby, or the emotional outburst of the girl he passionately loves, or both, Darcy transforms himself from a member of a social type into a unique, psychological individual.
Displaying great humility, he recognizes and accepts the truth in Elizabeth’s accusations against him. He vows to give up his pride in his family, culture, wealth and rank. He looks at himself as another would, and discovers his own faults. He sets about changing himself. He takes another look at the people he wrote off as inferior, and finds admirable qualities in them. He makes his respect for the Gardiners, Elizabeth’s uncle and aunt, evident when he meets them. These people whom he had written off simply because they resided in Cheapside, a low class locality in London, and were in trade, now win his admiration and gratitude. He sees their goodness, culture and knowledge.
A greater test of his commitment to getting rid of old attitudes comes when his arch enemy Wickham elopes with Elizabeth’s sister Lydia. For the sake of Elizabeth, he goes searching for Wickham in shady neighborhoods, negotiates with a man he despises, arranges his marriage, pays off £6000 of his debts and gets him an officer’s position in the military. Darcy who a year earlier could not stand to be in the same room as the rural folk of Meryton, who convinced his friend to give up his love for the sake of his class, rejects all those snobbish, aristocratic social attitudes for the sake of his love.
As proof that Darcy has completely risen above the society and looks no more to it for approval, respect or appreciation, he conceals from Elizabeth and her family his role in saving Lydia. He acts out of his personal values, and saves the girl whose sister he loves. He does it neither to impress Elizabeth nor the society they live in. Darcy is rewarded for his transformation. Elizabeth learns his secret, is filled with gratitude and eagerly accepts him when he proposes the second time. Darcy attains a romantic fulfillment he had not dreamed possible.
Darcy’s process of individuation is an expression in the microcosm of the transformation taking place in English society at that time. In saving Lydia and her family, compromising with the roguish Wickham, embracing the rural people of Meryton, and marrying Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy contributes his mite to the peaceful evolution in England that integrated the society and prevented a violent revolution.