Pride and Prejudice: Part IV (Chapters 31 ~ 40)
So this section contains Chapter 34, The Big Moment of First Proposal, and Chapter 35, The Big Revelation of Wickham’s wicked nature.
But first let’s trace back to the three chapters preceding the anticipated (or, from Elizabeth’s point of view, not anticipated) moment.
The arrival of Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy’s cousin, causes a small ruckus at the Parsonage and Rosings. The colonel is described as “about thirty, not handsome, but in person and address most truly the gentleman.” (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 30) It also says that “Mrs. Collins’s pretty friend ha[s] […] caught his fancy very much.” (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 31) Lizzy is flattered by attention, and enjoys his company highly, as opposed to his cousin’s. But Colonel Fitzwilliam is the younger son of an Earl, and as such, he cannot marry whomever he wants (unless the woman of his dreams is a rich heiress).
But regardless of this tiny entanglement, the point is that Lizzy comes to trust Colonel Fitzwilliam, which later serves as a reliable back-up source to Mr. Darcy’s letter.
Okay, so let’s talk about Darcy’s awkward proposal. I say awkward because obviously Lizzy wasn’t expecting such a thing and what happened after was an ugly scene.
So after pacing around the room, Darcy says:
“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 34)
He then follows to list her unfortunate (read: non-existent bordering on embarrassing) family connections and low social standing compared to his. But he loves her despite this! Oh joy! Any other lady would have fainted by now.
But not our Lizzy, for she replies with spirit: “In such cases as this, […] [i]t is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot – I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly.” (Chapter 34) Bam! That was a hard shot at Darcy, who has been fully expecting a “yes”, but Lizzy is not done.
“I might as well inquire […] why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? […] I have every reason in the world to think ill of you.” (Chapter 34)
She then challenges him to deny her accusations against him regarding Wickham and his (Darcy’s) interference concerning Jane and Bingley. Boom – Darcy explodes. Well, not really, because his self-control is much better than mine, but in heated words, he turns to Elizabeth and says:
“And this […] is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! […] My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But perhaps […] these offenses might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. […] But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. […] Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? – to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?” (Chapter 34)
To which Elizabeth coldly replies:
“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.” (Chapter 34)
And, the final strike.
“You could not have made the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.” (Chapter 34)
Apparently Mr. Darcy thinks that his full honesty no one wants to hear will win Lizzy over, because, obviously she is so undesirable to anyone else but he loves her. I can’t really fault Lizzy for bristling over this. Who wants to hear that kind of harsh condescension, how true it may be? For his defence, I think Darcy meant what he said: The downsides of such union is more than canceled out by his love for her. See how better it sounds? And it still is the same truth.
The thing is, Darcy prides himself over the fact that his manners and etiquette are textbook-perfect. He cringes whenever someone commits a social faux-pas. But in this case? Lizzy was right; he was most un-gentelman-like. Also, hypocritical much? Darcy prevented Bingley from doing the same – marrying for love yet at the same time marrying someone with a low social standing. It’s like “What is bad for you is bad for me, but you still cannot do it, because you’re my best friend, but I will do it nonetheless.”
I do not mean to say that Lizzy’s reaction was an acceptable performance. I know she thinks very ill of him, and I understand her anger at being patronized, but the way she emotionally wounded him (he’s crazy in love! Of course she has the upper hand here, and everything she says is another blow to his heart.) was just mean.
Now the Big Question: Why does Mr. Darcy love Elizabeth Bennet? I mean, she‘s presumptuous and rude to him, he‘s proud and anti-social, not to mention socially awkward. Maybe he was taken by her lively spirit and openness to making fun of people, including herself. But still, I’ll be damned if I figure this puzzle out. Love is not logical. It just isn’t. (Or, love just is.)
Oh, but we are only halfway done. The letter, and the aftermath.
In the first part of the letter, Mr. Darcy explains his role in separating Bingley from Jane. To prevent his friend from entering a marital union with a woman of a lower standing (although, as Darcy puts it, “the want of connection could not be so great an evil to [Bingley] than to [Darcy]”*, so if Bingley hadn’t listened to Darcy, he and Jane would be happily married by now.), Darcy managed to convince Charles that Jane’s affections for him were not as strong as Bingley might have thought. Darcy indeed does believe this to be true; although he later acknowledges that since Lizzy knows her sister better than he, he might be in fault in this one matter.
On the second subject Darcy tells his version of the story: Wickham as a careless man with an extravagant living style; his demand to Darcy to give him three thousand pounds instead of other preferments in Darcy’s father’s will after his death; Wickham, after rejecting one profession after another, asking Darcy for what was written in the will (which he, in exchange for 3000£, threw away); and finally, after Darcy’s refusal, the planning and almost successful execution of seducing Georgiana, Darcy’s more-than-10-years-younger sister.
Now Elizabeth is confronted with two men’s stories, and with sinking feeling does she begin to see the holes in Wickham’s story, and how no one in Hertfordshire really knows about his past other than himself. Also, Darcy’s assurance that she very well may ask Colonel Fitzwilliam about this matter as he, a joint guardian of Georgiana and one of the executors of the will, knows about this matter, convinces Lizzy that Mr. Darcy must be telling the truth.
This realization shames her very much ans she says:
“How despicably I have acted! […] I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. 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.” (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 36)
Well, Lizzy is no less honest than Darcy, I daresay. In this monologue she acknowledges the injustice she has done to Mr. Darcy because her vanity (Remember Mary’s distinction between pride and vanity?) was injured the first time she met him. And Lizzy does not give herself the easy way out, because she knew she hadn’t been in love with Wickham, so there is no excuse to fall back on. Her blindness to reason resulted in humiliation, but a just one, as she says. In this moment, Lizzy sees herself really for the first time (“Till this moment I never knew myself.”). I mean, we knew that she was being stubborn and giving Darcy a hard time, but only because we already knew the outcome. But Lizzy realizes for the first time how her rashness in opinion has kind of led her to doom, so to speak. In this regard she is no different than Darcy, who once said “My good opinion once lost is lost for ever.” (Chapter 11) They both don’t budge an inch. Well, until now, that is, hopefully.
Two more short points on this section that are kind of independent from Mr. Darcy’s proposal and his letter.
After the two Fitzwilliams leave, Lizzy can’t help but think about what Lady Catherine would have said or how she would have looked if she had accepted Darcy’s proposal. For me this little musing serves as an evidence of consistency. It would have been out of character if Lizzy had been all demure and full of regret that she could not even entertain the thought of the alternative what-if. That would be more Jane, but not our Lizzy.
Speaking of Jane, it is said in Chapter 40 that “[h]aving never even fancied herself in love before, [Jane’s] regard [for Bingley] had all the warmth of first attachment, and, from her age and disposition, greater steadiness than most first attachments often boast …” I thought this one was interesting.
*And Darcy managed to put this “evil” aside due to the “utmost force of passion” – no one can say the guy isn’t honest.