Pride and Prejudice: the book that tends to make ladies giggle with glee and gentlemen roll their eyes in annoyance. But beyond the tea-time social drama and the range of reaction from the sexes, there lies in this novel a vision of humanity and society.
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, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.
Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, exclaims these words in exasperation over two frustrating relationships in her life. How true they can still ring in today’s society, particularly with regards to holy marriages. Marriage is under attack in our culture. Not only is marriage being redefined in the court systems, but couples also marry because it is easy, they are “in love,” or they crave affection from places that are not centered on God. We see many marriages end in divorce or lukewarm toleration of each other, and these marriages have rippling and damaging effects on children and the larger community. What were these couples thinking before they married? How did they prepare for marriage? Did they have any guidance from the community? The easy solution is to take the path of despair or cynicism, like Elizabeth Bennet in the above quote. Yet, Pride and Prejudice also presents the remedy to this current conundrum.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Interestingly, Jane Austen does not begin the novel with either the hero, Mr. Darcy, or heroine, Lizzy Bennet. Instead, Jane Austen presents the first married couple of the novel: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Lizzy’s parents. From their first interaction, Mrs. Bennet tirelessly nags her husband to visit Mr. Bingley, the new gentleman at Netherfield Park who has five thousand a year, an inheritance that makes his neighboring matrons almost swoon. Proper introductions need to be initiated by Mr. Bennet, but he evades his wife’s badgering. Mrs. Bennet finally gives up and says, “It will be no use to us, if twenty such [gentleman of five thousand a year] should come since you will not visit them.” Mr. Bennet responds testily: “Depend upon it, my dear, that when there are twenty, I will visit them all.”
Their interactions do not exemplify a loving or self-giving, let alone holy, marriage. Mrs. Bennet focuses on her own vexations and nerves and berates her husband verbally. She is a typical, harmless but self-centered busybody, “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper… The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.” Mr. Bennet, with his dry wit, detaches himself from his wife and family, having been “captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give.” But Mr. Bennet quickly realizes that he “had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.” He abandons his wife for the comfort and solace of his books. He could have “enlarge[ed] the mind of his wife,” but finds philosophical amusement in his study. He continues to give in to his appetites, but they have changed from his young, pretty wife to his bookish pursuits. He, like his wife, does not fulfill his marital duty of self-giving.
Mrs. Bennet’s vanity and Mr. Bennet’s abandonment affected their five daughters’ upbringing. Jane guards her heart, to a fault. Lizzy is snarky, like her father. Mary proudly remains with her books. Kitty and Lydia know no social boundaries. Austen presents us with bad marital role models, which subsequently leads to bad parenting. We later learn that Mr. Darcy, our hero, also grew up with melodramatic and prideful role models—specifically, his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is a woman who values her appearance in society in her barouche above all else. Lizzy and Mr. Darcy grow up in these selfish environments, which affects their moral characters.
Despite all odds and their flaws, Lizzy captivates Darcy and he makes his first (and dreadful) proposal. Darcy professes his love for Lizzy, but he also dwells on her “inferiority.” Their marriage, consequently, would be a “degradation.” His pride wounds Elizabeth, but she fires back at him with bitter retribution: “…and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.” Clearly, they are not yet ready to marry. If they had married, they could have become incarnations of their parents’ vices. Both Lizzy and Darcy need to realize their own flaws in order to grow out of their pride and prejudice.
The couple who finally exemplifies a holy marriage and shows Lizzy and Mr. Darcy how to act with charity and kindness is Lizzy’s aunt and uncle: Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. In a series of letters between Lizzy and Aunt Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner banters with her and shows her how to use her vivacious wit to be playful. She also prudently cautions Lizzy in her regard for George Wickham and not to let her “fancy run away with [her].” This advice turns out to be right and prudent. Mr. Gardiner, likewise, in his attempts to help his brother-in-law, Mr. Bennet, salvage Lydia’s reputation shows Mr. Darcy the humility and charity necessary to be a gentleman. The Gardiners’ marriage has radiating effects on the community, particularly on Lizzy and Darcy.
Austen ends the novel with the Gardiners—the couple who first brings Lizzy and Darcy together: “With the Gardiners they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.”
Austen frames the novel with a bad and good marriage, which reflects Lizzy and Darcy’s moral transformations and growth. Lizzy and Darcy’s initial relationship is similar to the Bennets’ marriage. Both have their own moral flaws, which they both unleash selfishly in the dreadful proposal, and they both subsequently wound each other. Yet, with the help of the Gardiners, they recognize their own flaws and grow together. By the end of the novel, Lizzy and Darcy, like the Gardiners, clearly love each other, they help each other grow morally, and their marriage has positive effects on the community.
Far from writing a tea-time socialite novel, Jane Austen delves into the moral dramas of her characters’ hearts, and whom they choose to marry affects their interior ascent or decline. The Gardiners become vessels of grace to Lizzy, Darcy, and the community because of their strong marriage. In turn, Lizzy and Darcy too become vessels of grace for the next generation. Pride and Prejudice is a reminder to look for the Gardiners in daily life, to learn from them, and learn from other holy Gardiners, like Saints Philip and Zelie or Saint Gianna Molla. Look to them as models, and then take an honest look at yourself. Assess your weaknesses and your strengths, like Lizzy and Darcy, before falling in love. Humility must necessarily precede charity. Know yourself before you give yourself. Be a Gardiner yourself. Our Lord needs more Gardiners in His vineyard for the harvest is plentiful, and the laborers few.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “A Hopeless Case” painted by George Goodwin Kilburne.