The lead protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, is the second eldest child of the Bennet family. She is known for her wit, intelligence and honesty. Elizabeth earns respect from both fellow characters and readers due to her capacity for articulate conversation and her rational challenges to prejudice. Elizabeth is presented as a strong female character who guards herself from Mr Darcy’s initial haughty manner. In chapter five, she reflects:
“I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine”
Elizabeth is left embarrassed when Mr Darcy declines to dance with her at the previous night’s ball, and it would have been unusual for a lady like Elizabeth to have been declined a dance. Austen is structuring the novel in a way that has instant (growing romantic) tension between these two main characters. By chapter eleven, Elizabeth overtly directs her speech at her counterpart saying:
“You are mistaken, Mr Darcy… had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.”
When she learns of Mr Darcy’s true character towards the end of the novel, she is shown to be a character capable of challenging her own sense of ego (Pride and Prejudice). In chapter thirteen, Elizabeth exclaims:
“How despicably I have acted! I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I who have valued myself on my abilities!”
The repeated use of exclamation sentences emphasises Elizabeth’s sincere alarm – her character truly questions her own prejudicial beliefs about Mr Darcy. Likewise, the repeated personal pronoun “I” (particularly being used as a sentence opener) could perhaps be interpreted as a symbol of her own self-awareness.
Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy initially appears as a proud, aloof character with high social standing. He is from a well-regarded, wealthy family and is the master of the large Pemberley estate. The third-person narrator informs readers in chapter four:
“Darcy was clever. He was at the same time haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well-bred, were not inviting.”
Each time Elizabeth rejects him, he becomes more humbled. As the story progresses, he grows to be a more likeable character, with his continued devotion to Elizabeth becoming evident. Austen further emphasises this when she has Mr Darcy rescue the Bennet family from disgrace. Also, when he pursues the worthy Elizabeth, despite concern from his Aunt Catherine de Bourgh.
The father of five daughters, Mr Bennet is characterised by his wit and sarcasm, perhaps his way of distancing himself from the perceived foolishness of his family. In the opening of Austen’s novel, when suitor Mr Bingley is going to host a party, Mr Bennet jokes to his wife:
You and the girls may go—or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better; for as you are as handsome as any of them, Mr Bingley might like you the best of the party.”
In particular, readers find this father figure humourous, a stark contrast to his wife. Whilst Mrs Bennet is occupied with marrying their daughters off and securing their financial futures, Mr Bennet is somewhat negligent of this pursuit. Mr Bennet’s more ‘relaxed’ manner is perhaps seen as his downfall later. However, Lydia is presented as a flighty character (which her father indulges) and this contributes somewhat to the family’s disgrace when Lydia elopes (runs away) with Mr Wickham.
Mrs Bennet, the matriarch in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, is intent on finding wealthy suitors for her daughters. Austen uses exaggeration in this character’s dialogue, creating light humour around the mother’s obsessive pursuits. When Mr Bingley arrives in the neighbourhood, Mrs Bennet exclaims to her husband:
“Oh, single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
Austen further develops this through the irritation shared between husband and wife in the novel. Through this character, Austen exposes societal anxieties and pressures of the time, and the use of exclamative sentences and exaggeration highlights this. Specifically, Mrs Bennet exposes the extent to which she wants her children to marry to have money.
The character of Charles Bingley provides affability (friendliness), trying to convince Mr Darcy to compliment the party-goers because he had “never met with so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening.”
Charles is quickly attracted to Jane (the eldest Bennet). However, his lack of independence is revealed when he departs, following his sisters’ persuasion, and leaves Jane. Bingley shows character growth when he later returns to Netherfield, determined to follow his own feelings and be with Jane. At this point, he represents a character with true romantic love.
As Elizabeth’s friend, Charlotte Lucas offers practical thoughts and advice. Charlotte voices a prevailing philosophy of the time, which Austen perhaps seeks to portray: unmarried women faced the threat of financial insecurity, while unmarried men, though not subjected to the same societal pressures, might end up lonely.
Charlotte says: “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” and later suggests “in nine cases out of ten a woman had better show more affection than she feels.” This reveals that Charlotte is willing to show excessive affection in order to secure a marriage, even if she doesn’t romantically feel so attached. She marries Mr Collins in this tone.
Known for being the character who ‘elopes’, Lydia Bennet illustrates the consequences of impulsive actions. Austen perhaps intended to warn readers of the dangers posed to women striving to break the norm.
Whilst presented as charming, with Austen frequently repeating the adjective “gentlemanlike”, Mr Wickham is also deceitful. In chapter thirty-five, Mr Darcy reveals (in a letter to Elizabeth) that the stories Mr Wickham had told were untrue: “his life was a life of idleness and dissipation” (meaning wastefulness and indulgence).
As an influential, wealthy aunt to Mr Darcy, Catherine de Bourgh symbolises the power and strong prejudice of those in high society. Mr Collins satirises (criticises using satire), and sums up Catherine’s character when he says: “she likes to have the distinction of rank preserved”, suggesting that Catherine will only dine with people who ‘look’ and ‘appear superior’. Again, this is Austen’s way of highlighting and satirising ‘pride and prejudice’ during the Regency era.