Mr. Wickham is truly a scoundrel. During the turning point of the novel, when Elizabeth realizes Wickham’s true morality, the narrator states, “She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd. ‘How despicably have I acted! ’ she cried; ‘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 blamable mistrust!
How humiliating is this discovery’” (Austen 239). Darcy’s letter is the most dramatic moment in the entire novel, for it is in this moment when the satire becomes clear, that Elizabeth, smart, intelligent, yet quick to judge, was incorrect throughout the duration of the novel. In this moment, it is clear that manners do not make one’s morality because, to the contrary of previous beliefs, Mr. Wickham’s poor moral character is revealed readers through his tendency to ruin and abuse women for his own selfish purposes.
The Bennets become all too familiar with the scoundrel in the event of Lydia’s near ruin, changing completely their understanding of his character, “Of one had no knowledge of his behavior with both Lydia and Georgiana, one might well think him merely a handsome, rather foolish, young soldier who is an easy charmer and a smooth talker. His behavior with these two young women, however, clarifies just how fully a scoundrel he really is” (Teachman, Student Companion 62).
Mr. Wickham is a prime example of when it takes a little more than flirting to understand the true character of a person. Wickham was able to deceive all of society and Elizabeth through one simple aspect: flattery. Mr. Wickham actually displays poor manners to begin with; however, Elizabeth’s prejudice against Mr. Darcy is what sparks the appearance of goodness as, Bloom claims, saying, “For his impropriety actually reveals the lack of respect for the important rules of decorum and the moral principles which stand behind those rules that Elizabeth wrongly thought she perceived in Darcy.
And ‘inconsistency of his professions with his conduct’ reveals Wickham’s fundamental hypocrisy” (Bloom 16-17). Because of Wickham’s good looks and flattery, Elizabeth overlooks what he is actually saying; rather, she succumbs to his flattery and establishes that he is morally righteous with his charm and his manners. Ultimately, Mr. Wickham is able to portray the appearance of manners and goodness in society with his charm and handsomeness, flattering Elizabeth and all of society. Regency society changes its belief in accordance to Wickham’s new outward appearance.
Once his true morality is displayed on the outside, the society in Pride and Prejudice experiences a massive transformation on their collective view of Wickham as the narrator point out, “All Meryton seemed striving to blacken the man who, but three months before, had been almost an angel of light… Everybody declared that he was the wickedest man in the world; and everybody began to find that they had always distrusted the appearance of his goodness” (Austen 332). The root of this prejudice stems from the feudalism and manorialism that occurred during the Middle Ages and the colonial era.
By organizing a society into a hierarchy from lords to slaves, a sense of inequality was rooted in the psychological make-up of society. Jane Austen perfectly reflects Regency society in her satire Pride and Prejudice, with a person’s morality being determined from outward mannerly displays, rather than their true character, through the events of Mr. Wickham’s exceptionable manners and charm contradicted by his truly scandalous morality. While Wickham first treats Elizabeth with good manners, Mr. Darcy treats her with poor ones.
Mr. Darcy, on the contrary to Wickham, makes a poor first impression in the novel, giving him the appearance of a poor moral compass. In the grand turning point of the novel, Elizabeth furiously denies Darcy’s marriage proposal, stating, “From the very beginning – from the first moment, I may almost say – of my acquaintance with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others…I had not known you a month before I felt you were the last man I the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry” (Austen 222).
Simply because Darcy refuses to dance with Elizabeth in one of the first balls, Elizabeth and the entirety of Hertfordshire casts an impression of arrogance and selfishness on Darcy. From this impression, every action Darcy takes henceforth is interpreted as rude and poor, which is why Bloom writes, “Darcy’s relationship with Elizabeth begins in an act which she perceives as an act of rudeness…and until the revelation of his true character in the middle of the novel, she continues to interpret his least offensive behavior as incivility” (Bloom 13-14).
As Darcy’s perceived rude actions continue throughout the novel, more and more stereotypes are cast on him, shaping his image in society as a poor moral character. Although ill-humored, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy actually is a true moral character. In addition to Jane, another also sees his true morality: Mrs. Gardiner. She writes to Elizabeth, “Will you be very angry with me, my dear Lizzy, if I take this opportunity of saying how much I like him [Mr. Darcy]. His behavior to us has, in every respect, been as pleasing as when we were in Derbyshire.
His understanding and opinions all please me, he wants nothing but a little more liveliness, and that, if he marry prudently, his wife may teach him” (Austen 368). Additionally, Mrs. Reynolds, Darcy’s caretaker and housekeeper’s, makes a testimony attributing to Mr. Darcy’s good character, making it clear that Mr. Darcy is truly moral, for he treats the Gardiners with the utmost civility and has won the hearts of the serving class. Some would argue that Darcy is, in fact, a dynamic character, changing his morality to accommodate Elizabeth’s wishes.
Debra Teachman in a separate book called Understanding Pride and Prejudice: A Student Casebook to Issue, Sources, and Historical Documents, supports this claim, stating, “Darcy’s comment on the Bennet’s disadvantageous connections indicated lack of examined judgment. He reacts automatically to the situation, judging human beings on their immediate relative social and financial positions rather than looking at the moral worth of the specific individuals involved…Darcy has always been capable of judging the individual case when it is within the realm of his personal interest and influence” (Teachman, Understanding Pride and Prejudice 17-18).
However, this view forgets to take into account Mrs. Reynolds’s testimony, in which she says, “I have never known a cross word from him in my life, and I have known him ever since he was four years old” (Austen 281). Mr. Darcy, from the age of four, has displayed good morality, ruling out the point of his changing character, demonstrating how his morality was confused in his poor first impression.
Austen’s work displays the truth of social interactions and the morality of Regency society, the truth that the outward appearance of manners was valued more than a person’s true morality. Stemming from feudalism, a hierarchal psychological nature was forged into the minds of Regency society. Austen’s characters Mr. Collins, Jane, and Mr. Darcy, all with negative first impressions on people within society, are unveiled to have a true morality while Mr. Wickham’s charm and good manners cloud his scoundrel-like behavior and poor morality.
Manners in Regency society determine one’s respectability, social status, and power, so having good manners, next to land, was the most pivotal part of maintaining a good life. Austen employs those four satirical characters, Collins, Jane, Wickham, and Darcy, to demonstrate the importance of manners and the misconceptions they have on one’s morality. It seems all Regency society judged was the clothing, not knowing whether if there was a wolf or an angel hiding inside.