On this date in 1813, Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice, her most famous novel, and one of the greatest works of English literature.
At its core, Pride and Prejudice tells the love story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, both of whom have to overcome their biases in order to end up together. Throughout the novel, both characters learn to unlearn their pride and prejudice so that they can come to accept the other's goodness of character.
Austen's novel is set in a world where both expectations and reputation matter. Austen sets her satirical eye on this readiness to judge one's character based on one's social position. In fact, before it was published, the working title of the book was "First Impressions," which communicates even more strongly her intentions to take to task those who judge based solely on the accidents of class.
Elizabeth's and Darcy's character journeys
Elizabeth, the second of five sisters, is an intelligent young woman whose tendency to make snap judgments prevents her from seeing Darcy for who he really is. Overhearing him describe her appearance as "tolerable, but not handsome enough" certainly doesn't help her impression of him. Darcy possess the wealth and social influence that Elizabeth's family does not, which doesn't help her unwillingness to give him the benefit of the doubt. But eventually, as she becomes better acquainted with Darcy's behavior and motivations, she comes to believe that Darcy is overall a good guy.
That progression is what the pink dots trace in the chart above, created by LitVisuals. The pink dots show Elizabeth's level of pride, the blue ones Mr. Darcy's prejudice. At the beginning of the novel, Elizabeth's pride is certainly noticeable, though not as high as Darcy's own level of prejudice. As Elizabeth judges Darcy's actions without fully understanding his motivations, her pride rises.
It reaches its zenith in her rejection of Darcy's marriage proposal, which is when she spills some of the incorrect snap judgments she's made about him. Elizabeth brings two charges against Darcy: he tried to break up her sister, Jane, with her lover (and Darcy's best friend) Bingley, and he treated the charming Officer Wickham very poorly.
It's not until Darcy later sends Elizabeth a letter explaining his motives that she comes to regret her own prejudice. Yes, he tried to break up Jane's romance to Bingley, but he explains that was in part because Darcy feared she didn't really love him. (She does; she's just very shy.) And as for Wickham, the officer has a shady past, and Darcy was trying to protect Elizabeth's family.
After receiving the letter, Elizabeth's level of pride begins a steady decline, and reaches a low point when she finds out that Darcy helped Wickham marry Elizabeth's sister Lydia. From here, it begins a small uptick, and ends its track almost at the same level where it began.
Meanwhile, Darcy's level of prejudice declines steadily through the course of the novel. When he first sees Elizabeth at a ball — which is where he mumbles his "tolerable, but not handsome enough" comment — his level of prejudice is through the roof. Class is important to him, and he has no interest in a romantic relationship with someone who could tarnish his genteel reputation.
But like any good romantic comedy, Darcy's prejudice gradually declines, and his walls are slowly let down after his first meeting with his future lover. By the time of the Netherfield ball, Darcy admits that he is taken by Elizabeth more than he would like to be.
But it's not until his proposal to Elizabeth — certainly the book's climax — that his prejudice received the ultimate blow: she rejects him.
"In vain have I 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," [Darcy said.] He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority — of its being a degradation — of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.
Elizabeth's rejection of Darcy's proposal no doubt wounds his pride, which is probably a good thing, since it continues tracking down throughout the rest of the novel.
The popularity of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet
Some people consider Pride and Prejudice to be the precursor to the modern romantic comedy. Given our obsession with that genre, it's no wonder, then, that Austen's book has been adapted countless times over the years. From stage productions and cartoons, to an original Korean Drama of the same name, a culture in possession of a great tale is never in want of adaptations based on it.
For the book's bicentennial, The Economist tracked the mentions of Darcy and Elizabeth in British books and journals throughout the 20th century. As you can see, Elizabeth's mentions remain fairly consistent, probably because she's such a beloved and enduring character. She is, after all, "the world's sweetheart," as the Jane Austen Society notes.
Darcy's name, on the other hand, has been invoked with much less consistency, and was most notably at its lowest during women's suffrage and second-wave feminism, as The Economist points out. The character did make a cultural comeback in the late '90s, which probably has something to do with a hunky Colin Firth appearing in a wet, see-through shirt in the BBC miniseries.