The journey of self-love, self-discovery, and self-awareness is a complicated and confusing path that one must take in order to gain complete introspection and confidence in oneself. Jane Austen illustrates this journey perfectly in her renowned novel Pride and Prejudice through her character Elizabeth Bennet as said character progressively learns about herself throughout the book in an attempt to understand her path to self-recognition. This theme of “knowing thyself” is explored through the structure of the story, the hidden traces of prejudice seen in Elizabeth, and through her unpliancy to omit to social norms.
Firstly, throughout the course of the novel, Elizabeth goes through multiple changes that drastically transform her character and help her realize things about herself that were previously unknown to her. Austen helps the readers keep track of her character’s development by using the structure of the book as a metaphorical timeline to her road to self-discovery; one going from the beginning to the middle to the end. At the beginning of the novel, for instance, Elizabeth is described as having “had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous,” (Austen 51) and as disposing a “real earnestness” (143), although these are relatively good qualities to have, they are superficial traits, and are not the characteristics Elizabeth struggles to reveal in herself throughout the book. In fact, it is only at around the mid-point of the book when Mr. Darcy proposes to the young woman, that she realizes her faults and that she too has shortcomings of her own that must be overcome. At the end of the book, Elizabeth demonstrates that she is truly happy when Jane asks her about her relationship with Darcy: “There can be no doubt of that. It is settled between us already, that we are to be the happiest couple in the world” (372), which was only made possible through recognition of her own flaws, and by overcoming her own pride.
While the title of the novel indicates that pride and prejudice are reoccurring themes throughout the book, Elizabeth only realizes her own prideful ways near the middle of the story. Assuredly, in the first two volumes, Darcy’s arrogant, prideful, and prejudiced demeanor is a constant source of Elizabeth’s resentment for him. She reproaches time after time to herself, and to others in her surroundings how Darcy is plagued with too much pride, and holds bias for people with lower connections. However, it is when she reads Mr. Darcy’s letter explaining the reasons behind his falling out with Mr. Wickham hat her true nature his revealed. She finds out that she too was filled with prejudice against him: “How despicably I have acted! I, who have prided myself on my discernment! . . . How humiliating is this discovery! . . . Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself” (226-227). At this very moment, Elizabeth sees herself for who she is, and is outraged. She has let her unsubstantiated views of Darcy maker her blind to so many things. Mr. Wickham’s true character, for example, had been brought to her attention on multiple occasions by Miss Bingley, Mr. Darcy, and even Mrs. Gardiner, but Elizabeth blinded with prejudice against the wealthy aristocrat, threw reason to the wind, and foolishly trusted Mr. Wickham. Despite her faults, Elizabeth, upon having this revelation about herself, does not suppress it like so many others would; rather she embraces it so that she may grow. We see this manifest at the end, when she finally sets her beliefs and misconceptions of Mr. Darcy aside, and thus realizes that she loves him.
Since the beginning of the story, Elizabeth repeatedly rejects and challenges every hint of traditional norms in relation to the roles of women, marriage and class: “In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentlemen’s daughter; so far we are equal” (357). This is a clear example of Elizabeth’s desire to defy societal conventions, and go against what has always been taught to her by her mother. In fact, this defiance is illustrated exactly when Lady Catherine De Bourgh comes to visit Miss Bennet, and forbids her to take Darcy’s hand in marriage on the basis that she and her family lack social status to which Elizabeth replies she is “equal” (357) in every way. However, by the end of the novel, due to her love affair with Mr. Darcy and her better understanding of herself, Elizabeth realizes that she is allowed to conform to what is expected of her and be a strong woman while also being in love at the same time. She discovers that love and independence are not exclusive and she accepts that Mr. Darcy’s love has actually helped her develop her character and enhance her personality instead of stripping away her individuality as she previously thought.
In conclusion, Elizabeth Bennet’s journey of “knowing thyself” is achieved through Austen’s metaphorical built-in structure of the book that allows her character to grow. It is also demonstrated through said character’s realization that she too has been holding the same prejudice she criticized in Mr. Darcy. Finally, through the acceptance that she does not need to completely disregard traditional and societal conventions for woman in that era to be happy. In fact, she finds a balance between the two, which she did with help from Mr. Darcy, thus finally understanding her true and proper self.
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