In the first of her published novels, Jane Austen presents “sense” and “sensibility” as two ends of a spectrum. At the “sense” end of the spectrum, the head rules the heart to such an extent that the heart is hardened, losing its sensibility; at the “sensibility” end of the spectrum, the heart rules the head to such a degree that the losing of heads leads to the breaking of hearts. The characters who are truly virtuous are those who keep their sense and sensibility in healthy and harmonious balance, finding and then following the Aristotelian via media between the two extremes.
Although this understanding of sense and sensibility is present in all of Miss Austen’s novels, the focus in the second of her novels, published in 1813, is the relationship between pride and prejudice. Whereas sense and sensibility can be separated, with disastrous consequences, pride and prejudice are always inseparable, the former always resulting in the latter. Such an understanding is a further manifestation of Miss Austen’s Aristotelianism or, more specifically, her Thomism.
Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that the perception of reality is dependent on the virtue of humility. It is humility that bestows the sense of gratitude which opens the eyes in wonder, and it is only when the eyes are wide open in wonder that the soul is moved to the contemplation that is necessary for its dilation (dilatatio) into the fullness of reality. The absence of humility is pride, which lacks gratitude and closes the eyes to any sense of wonder, rendering contemplation and dilation unattainable. In short and in sum, those with pride are always prejudiced because they are blind to the fullness of reality. It is this understanding of pride and its blindness that animates Pride and Prejudice.
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Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are blinded by their pride into forming prejudiced presumptions about each other. It is only as they gain humility that each is able to see the other more perceptively. Elizabeth, for instance, is predisposed to believe Mr. Wickham’s lies about Mr. Darcy because of her prejudiced appraisal of the latter’s character. She is “absolutely ashamed of herself” when she finally realizes that she has been “blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.” The realization is a revelation, enabling her to see herself from a fresh perspective. Her pride having been humiliated, she attains the humility that is necessary to see herself more clearly. Indeed, she sees herself for the first time: “Till this moment, I never knew myself.”
Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, needs to learn condescension in the humble and not the prideful sense of the word. He must cease looking down upon the comparatively low-born Elizabeth and needs to descend from his high horse, not merely in order to meet her eye-to-eye but to descend further, onto his knees, that he might look up to her in reverence and with a love that knows it is not worthy. Such a sense of unworthiness animates his confession to Elizabeth of his earlier ill-treatment of her: “The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it, is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied…You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me;—though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice.”
It is only through learning to show reverence and respect for the other that we are able to love them and, through such love, know them as they are. It is in this way that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy grow in virtue. Their sacrificing of themselves in love enables each to draw the other toward the humble demands of the undeserved gift of love: conversion, confession, and forgiveness. It is, therefore, through the love of another that we are able to gain the maturity that comes through moral formation and growth, a maturity that is necessary for the sustenance of loving relationships and the attainment of happiness.
Apart from the axiomatic theme that gives the novel its title, other important themes are also present. As Christopher Blum notes in his introduction to the Ignatius Critical Edition of the novel, Pride and Prejudice is a reflection on “love, marriage, family, and the search for stability and goodness in community.” Since marriage provides the very framework and fabric of the moral life of society, healthy marriages are necessary, not merely for the individual happiness of the spouses but for the common good of society itself. In this sense, Pride and Prejudice serves as a timely witness to the need for the traditional family at a time when all aspects of family life are under relentless attack.
Perhaps the final words on this most popular of novels should be left to Miss Austen herself. In an evening prayer that she composed, she beseeches the most merciful God to “save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity.” In the case of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, this prayer is answered.
Editor’s Note: This is the twenty-sixth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”