In 1813, Jane Austen did something revolutionary: she elevated the novel, which had been mostly populated with gothic fantasies, and elaborate, sex-driven plots, entirely disconnected from reality, to a work of fiction that incorporated questions of ethics and virtue, painted realistically in the daily lives of England’s upper-middle class—and the result was the novel Pride and Prejudice. There is a reason that Pride and Prejudice has maintained its popularity throughout the past three centuries, for it tells us something very true about the nature of romance and of love. Ms. Austen’s protagonist—Elizabeth Bennet—is a heroine who achieves happiness in love through applying the virtues she cultivates to her daily actions.Share
Happiness in love is possible for Elizabeth Bennet, because she chooses a spouse, who can facilitate her happiness, and she, his. Instead of seeking a “romance of the moment” she seeks a person whose character is such that they can both encourage each other to pursue virtue, to pursue goodness.
To the modern imagination, which has been trained to crave the situational and emotional elements of love, and prize them at the expense of the objective act of love, this state of virtuous harmony sounds, well, boring. In our cultural narrative of romance, we are plagued by the “romantic” sensibilities that affirm emotional egoism over reason. Instead of seeing romance as the ability of two humans to overcome their own ego to pursue a common good together, the common cultural narrative of romance does not transcend that level of simply emotional situation, stirred by mysterious forces outside of ourselves.
When Elizabeth learns, that Darcy is a flawed, but truly virtuous man, she realizes that she has misjudged someone who could potentially be an excellent partner:
“She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was a union that must have been to the advantage of both: by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance." Pride and Prejudice.
Elizabeth Bennet comes to the realization that Darcy is an ideal spouse for her because he is indeed a partner who will help her grow in virtue. Elizabeth does not fall for Darcy because he turns her head, flatters her, or rings her bells. Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy because she finally realizes his true character, and (since she possesses valuable self-awareness and self-knowledge [a first ingredient for any successful romance]) she is able to reassess his potential as a husband. After examining her own conscience, Elizabeth begins to see that Darcy is truly an equal who could respect her, complement her, and live in happiness with her. (Read more.)