Elizabeth Bennet may not look much like Frodo Baggins of Lord of the Rings, but she too is pulled into a quest in which a ring is central. Marriage is the key to happiness – or at least that's what she hears from nearly everyone around her. As the second daughter of a country gentleman who cannot pass on his estate to a girl, Elizabeth risks poverty if she does not find a husband who can provide for her. Still, Elizabeth has eyes as well as ears, and she can see from the evidence in her own home (Exhibit A: Mrs. Bennet) that marriage can also be a one-way ticket to unhappiness. Despair if you do, despair if you don't. Under the circumstances, what's a girl to do?
You know what makes this book so fun to read? Well, besides the fact that Austen can bring the funny like nobody's business? It's that none of the characters are quite finished turning into adults yet. We get to watch the show as lessons are learned and personalities are adjusted and developed into their more mature states. Case in point: our friend Elizabeth.
When we first meet Elizabeth, she comes across as a really awesome, opinionated, straight-shooting chick who's full of witty repartee and strong emotions. Sure, we like her – she is the heroine of the story, after all – but, as soon as she starts interacting with the world around her, we see that these good qualities can also be flaws.
Turning down Mr. Collins may seem like a no-brainer, but by rejecting him Elizabeth places her own judgment over social pressures to conform, and that was no easier to do in Austen's time than it is today. Still, that's not to say that Elizabeth always does well by following her own intuition. Her siding with Wickham at Mr. Darcy's expense is perhaps the most glaring example of her, dare we say, prejudice. Elizabeth's major flaw is that she thinks she has people figured out – Wickham is cool, Darcy is a jerk – based on her first impressions of them.
Is it good to have a strong point of view? Well, some of the time, yes – it serves Elizabeth well not to be bullied into of marrying Mr. Collins by her mother, for example. As Elizabeth finds out, though, there is a fine line between being your own woman and being way too rigid. Her turning a blind eye to Charlotte's point about Jane being way too low-key about her interest in Mr. Bingley almost derails Jane's marriage.
Is it helpful to feel things deeply? In a lot of ways, sure – after all, part of what makes Elizabeth so appealing is how much she loves her sister Jane and how totally grossed out she is by Mr. Collins. Still, constantly blabbing to everyone about how much she hates Darcy comes back to bite her in the derriere as her mom spills the beans to him directly and the Gardiners keep back some vital intel that could have screwed up the relationship.
But hey, you live some, you learn some. We see Elizabeth do just that in one of the last scenes of the novel, when she realizes that, even though she could make some vicious fun of her dear Darcy, he isn't too cool with being mocked and so instead she bites her tongue.
OK, now let's zoom on out for a bit and take a look at the bigger picture. When you read a novel, it's obviously important to think about characters and their personalities, and to try to see how much they are like real people. There is another way, though, to figure out what the different characters in a novel are for, and that's to stop thinking about them as people and start thinking about them as building blocks. What do they do for the structure of the novel? Why did the author write them the way she did and have them do the things they do?
We'll throw out a few hints about Elizabeth's structural function. Did you notice just how many marriages there are in Pride and Prejudice? Like a bazillion. Most of them are pretty terrible. Elizabeth is caught in a bind. Getting a job and supporting herself isn't really an option for a proper young lady in early 19th-century England. Even if Elizabeth would rather flip burgers than marry Mr. Collins, wedding bells or penny-pinching old maidhood are pretty much the only games going for Elizabeth. (Jane Austen herself, by the way, never married.) On the other hand, Austen is writing at a time when new ideas about companionate marriage and love and finding your soulmate (rather than just financial security) were becoming more and more commonplace. The traditional, practical, loveless marriage was starting to look more and more like a weird form of human trafficking.
Through Elizabeth, the novel explores just what a girl should do about finding a mate. Should she just marry for money? Basically, there are two chances to do that: the first with Mr. Collins, the second with Mr. Darcy's first proposal. Should she find herself some hot guy? That opportunity is called Wickham. Or should she really hold out for love?
As we watch Elizabeth figure this out, we're given some counterexamples of these kinds of marriages. We've got Charlotte and Mr. Collins as the purely practical marriage. We've got Lydia and Wickham, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, as the short-lived, lustful marriage. As for true love? Well, maybe Jane and Bingley fit the bill there. Each kind of relationship has many risks – and true love has by far the highest probability of never existing at all. Through Elizabeth, we navigate these confusing waters – although maybe we cheat a little at the end, since Darcy's got money, good looks, and love to boot. In the end, we're guessing Elizabeth won't want to throw her wedding ring into Mount Doom any time soon.Elizabeth Bennet Timeline