Jane Austen’s Conception of Human Nature as Perceived through the Novel, Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen’s nineteenth century novel, Pride and Prejudice, demonstrates that human nature is innate and, for good or bad, can be cultivated and influenced by the society to which one subscribes. Austen further substantiates that human nature is fortunately alterable and refineable. Austen demonstrates this notion by focusing on two particularly iniquitous aspects of human nature; pride and prejudice.
The inevitably deleterious effects of the titular qualities and the possibility of reformation are exemplified in an extraordinary story that superficially concentrates on the ideals, ceremonies, and customs of marriage. It is Austen’s design to demonstrate conclusively that the essence of human nature is intrinsic to one’s disposition, character, and temperament. She is successful in establishing this by portraying innate qualities in both Elizabeth and Darcy. Elizabeth has a natural sagacity; she is able to examine situations, affairs, and relationships intuitively and with remarkable perspicaciousness.
For example, in Chapter four when Elizabeth expresses her discontent with the manners and the seeming character of the Bingley’s sisters, Jane defends them but,” Elizabeth listened in silence, but was not convinced; their behaviour at the assembly had not been calculated to please in general; and with more quickness of observation and less pliancy of temper than her sister, and with judgment too unassailed by any attention to herself, she was very little disposed to approve them,” (12).
Ultimately Elizabeth’s suspicions are confirmed when the two Bingley sisters betray Jane’s kindness and attempt to unjustly dissuade their brother’s affection. Elizabeth’s discerning judgement is a product of her congenital sapience. Austen also highlights in Darcy the fact that human nature is intrinsically determined. Darcy’s admirable generosity marks the positive aspect of his nature and is exemplified in several instances throughout the novel. Through a series of events, the reader learns that Darcy voluntarily provided sufficiently for Wickham, contrary to Wickham’s slanderous claim.
Darcy’s generosity and genuine concern for others is again confirmed by his unsolicited aid in disentangling the imprudent affairs of Wickham and Lydia. Austen also indirectly asserts that human nature is subject to outside influence and that any constituent of human nature can be cultivated. For example, Elizabeth realizes Darcy’s pride after hearing him respond to Bingley that, “she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me,”(9). Elizabeth’s prejudice is cultivated by her mother who states that,”… is a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing. So high and conceited that there was no enduring him! “(10). Returning to the situation surrounding Wickham, one sees that Elizabeth’s prejudice against Darcy is again fueled by the defamatory remarks Wickham makes towards him. When Elizabeth’s superior natural sagacity is paralyzed and she mistakenly accepts all that Wickham says about Darcy; her prejudice is intensified, cultivated, by the repetitive and increasingly peccant perception of Darcy imposed on her.
Darcy’s nature is equally effected by others and is influenced by the rules and conformities of society. For instance, Darcy’s first marriage proposal to Elizabeth is filled with the, “sense of her inferiority- of its being a degradation- of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination… “(138). This demonstrates the degree to which the expectations of society press upon Darcy and consequently affect his nature.
Furthermore, Lady Catherine tells Elizabeth that Darcy must reserve himself for someone of equal lineage, wealth, and integrity and that he cannot marry Elizabeth, “Because honour, decorum, prudence -nay, interest, forbid it,”(256, emphasis added). Lady Catherine leaves Longbourn and tells Darcy to return to Netherfield under penalty of losing her ‘persuasion’‘. The extent of Lady Catherine’s influence and the effect on Darcy’s nature is evident when he does return in spite of his uncertainty of Elizabeth’s feelings.
The influence of society, embodied in Lady Catherine, cultivates Darcy’s pride and falsely leads him to believe that Elizabeth is, in fact, inferior to him and not worthy of his offer. Although Darcy eventually breaks free from this constraint, it temporarily inhibits his kind and honest nature. Austen demonstrates the fact that human nature is alterable by having Darcy address and accept his flaws, thereby improving himself and his nature. In Darcy’s reconciliation with Elizabeth the reader clearly realizes this in his acknowledgment of his faults.
He admits that, “You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled,”(267). Darcy is a changed man, no longer a slave to conformity and the expectations of society. Elizabeth’s nature also changes for the better. Earlier in the novel, Elizabeth receives a letter of explanation from Darcy concerning his relation and responsibility to Wickham. Elizabeth recognizes Wickham’s deceit by the incongruity between his statements and his actions .
For example, Wickham, upon meeting Elizabeth in Meryton, urges that, “-it is not for me to be driven away by Mr. Darcy. If he wishes to avoid seeing me, he must go,”(58). Yet later, it is Wickham, not Darcy, who finds it necessary to leave town thereby escaping exposure at the Netherfield ball. In the reconciliation with Darcy, he mentions the letter and Elizabeth, “… explained what its effect on her had been, and how gradually all her former prejudices had been removed”(266). At this point it is clear to the reader that human nature is changeable.
Elizabeth further admits that her “opinions are not entirely unalterable,”(266) and thus (since opinions reflect one’s nature) admits that the essence of her nature has changed. Austen’s assessment of human nature in Pride and Prejudice is at times harsh, yet she manages to extract a happy ending. She skillfully demonstrates the perils of pride and prejudice and the customs of the marriage process in aristocratic, eighteenth century society. But most importantly in this analysis, Austen illustrates that human nature is innate, though alterable, improvable, and subject to external influence.