Before settling on the title “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Austen titled her novel “First Impressions.” As the “almost title” suggests, first impressions play an important role in the plot. Mr. Darcy’s aloofness causes the Bennets to scorn his company and drastically misjudge his character. On the other hand, Mr. Wickham, a scoundrel, soon becomes a family favorite. At the novel’s conclusion, very few are privy to the information of Darcy and Wickham’s true character; everyone else is still blinded to the truth by their initial impressions.
Due to this great error in judgement, the reader is led to question the validity of first impressions. We are constantly “performing” in hopes of gaining people’s favor. Since first impressions are so performance oriented and may not be an accurate depiction of who you really are, it seems that they can be completely disregarded as an accurate tool for interacting with other people. Yet, Austen does not want us to completely rule out the usefulness of making favorable impressions on people. She uses Elizabeth to illustrate a way of acting that is socially acceptable, and therefore pleasing to others, yet still true to herself.
In the book, there is a constant tension between pride and vanity. Mary Bennet explains the difference as, “Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” (p. 14) Darcy knows his own worth, and does not need other people’s affirmation. However, “weaker” characters, those less sure of their capability, are much more dependent on other’s good opinions. For example, we see Ms. Bingley constantly acting in flamboyant ways in hopes of gaining Darcy’s attention. She cares almost exclusively about other people’s, specifically Darcy’s, opinion of her.
Before falling in love with Elizabeth, Darcy is presented as a completely self-sufficient character. He does not need anything from other people. Darcy’s pride is the result of his recognition of his self-sufficiency. Since he does not need anything from other people (with the exception of his friendship with Bingley), he does not bother trying to get people to like him. This works for Darcy. His self-sufficiency allows him to act in a meaningful way (saving the Bennet family from destruction) while being disliked.
However, Elizabeth, along with all the other women in the novel, is much more dependent on other people. As a woman in that society, the only option for advancing in life is marriage. Therefore, they must make good impressions on people so as to gain favor. Elizabeth, for the most part, does this. She plays by the rules of society. Yet when it is time for Elizabeth to make the decisions that really matter (who she marries), she asserts her independence from society’s rules. Her happiness is more important than following the rules. So even though Elizabeth is outwardly submissive to the rules of society, her inner strength allows her to act independently from the expected behavior.
Darcy is attracted to this quality in Elizabeth. Elizabeth does not completely spurn the rules like Darcy does, but she does not order all aspects of her life around them like Ms. Bennet. So Elizabeth is a wise choice for Darcy—she will not embarrass him by acting inappropriately in Darcy’s higher society but she also is not afraid to think for herself.
Most of us could not afford to act like Darcy. After all, we need a job to put bread on the table. Yet we should not sell our souls trying to win other people’s favor. Elizabeth provides us with a happy medium. It is wise (and beneficial) to follow society’s rules—to a point. First impressions are important. They put you in a position to benefit from society and enable you to act in a meaningful way. However, like Elizabeth, we should not compromise who we are simply because society wants us to. This is especially applicable as Christians. We are living for our Lord, and what our Lord demands of us is often different than society’s expectations. Wise people will respect us for our integrity, yet it may mean giving up a seemingly valuable opportunity.
Everything is clearer in hindsight. Did Elizabeth make the right decision not to marry Mr. Collins? Yes, because Mr. Darcy allows her to live to her full potential. As we are making decisions, there is no guarantee that a better opportunity will come along. Good first impressions put us in a position to make that decision.
*Quotations taken from Oxford World Classics edition.