In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen tackles a common reality in England in the early 19th century – women who lack a fortune need to marry well. By "well," we mean wealthy. So, any guy from a good family with large, steady income is fair game on the Marriage Hunt. Rich but unintelligent, unattractive, boring men? Mrs. Bennet says, "Bring it on!" To be fair, she does have five daughters who lack a fortune. When a certain (wealthy) Mr. Bingley moves into the neighborhood and is interested in her eldest daughter, Jane, Mrs. Bennet becomes deliriously happy and (to the extreme discomfort of her family and innocent spectators) tries to push them together in every way possible.
It's not all roses and champagne just yet, however. While Mr. Bingley is easygoing and pleasant, his sisters are catty snobs whose attitude is encouraged by a certain Mr. Darcy. Good-looking, rich, and close friends with Mr. Bingley, Darcy is also insufferably proud and haughty. The Bennets are beneath him in social stature, so Mr. Darcy is proportionately disagreeable, particularly to Jane's younger sister Elizabeth. When Mr. Bingley suggests that Mr. Darcy ask Elizabeth to dance, Mr. Darcy replies that she isn't pretty enough. The two men accidentally carry on their conversation within earshot of Elizabeth. Ouch.
It's clear to everyone that Mr. Bingley is falling in love with Jane, but Jane's calm temperament hides her true feelings (she loves him too). Elizabeth gossips about the situation with her close friend Charlotte Lucas, who argues that Jane needs to show affection or risk losing Mr. Bingley. Meanwhile, Mr. Darcy has finished maligning Elizabeth, and starts becoming attracted to her (something about her "fine eyes").
In any case, Mr. Bingley's sisters extend a dinner invitation to Jane, who (based on the recommendations of her mother) rides over to the Bingley mansion in the rain, gets soaking wet, falls ill, and has to remain in the Bingley household. Elizabeth arrives to nurse her sister and engage in some witty banter with Mr. Darcy. Astonished at his attraction, he keeps staring at Elizabeth, but she assumes he's being a jerk and trying to judge her.
Back at Longbourn (the Bennet home), Mr. Collins arrives for a visit. As Mr. Bennet's closest male relative, Mr. Collins will inherit the estate after Mr. Bennet's death. Mr. Collins has decided that the nice thing to do is to marry one of the Bennet girls in order to preserve their home. It looks like he has his sights set on Elizabeth, but did we mention that he's a complete fool and worships his boss (a certain Lady Catherine)? It's clear that Elizabeth finds him repulsive.
As for the two youngest Bennet sisters, the militia has arrived in town and they're ready to throw themselves at any officers who wander their way. They meet a charming young man named Mr. Wickham, who rapidly befriends Elizabeth. Wickham tells Elizabeth a sob story about how all of his life opportunities were destroyed by Mr. Darcy, convincing her that Darcy is Evil Personified. Elizabeth readily believes Wickham's story, and also learns that Lady Catherine (Mr. Collins's boss) is Mr. Darcy's aunt.
The next day, all the Bennet girls are invited to a ball at Netherfield (a.k.a. Mr. Bingley's mansion). Elizabeth is excited about possibly dancing with Wickham, and also excited to see Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham confront each other. At the ball, Wickham is absent, but Darcy asks Elizabeth to dance. So does Mr. Collins, whose dancing style is grotesquely embarrassing to Elizabeth. The rest of Elizabeth's family is no better: Mrs. Bennet brags to everyone that Bingley will likely propose to Jane, Mary and shows off her non-existent musical talent, and Lydia and Kitty are embarrassingly flirty with the military officers.
The following morning, Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth, who practically has to beat him over the head before he believes her adamant refusal. We don't feel too bad for Mr. Collins because Elizabeth's friend, Charlotte Lucas, pretends to play wingman (or wingperson, if you like), but is really hunting for a proposal of her own. Mr. Collins does indeed step up, and Charlotte accepts. Elizabeth is shocked when she learns of their engagement. She has difficulty believing that Charlotte's good sense would allow her to marry such a ridiculous man. Charlotte explains, however, that she's a spinster with no prospects, and she'd rather have her own home than live with her parents forever. Basically, beggars can't be choosers.
A letter arrives for Jane. It's from Miss Bingley, informing her that the entire Bingley group has left for London. Miss Bingley also sneakily implies that Mr. Bingley is really in love with Darcy's sister. Jane is heartbroken, but goes to London with her aunt and uncle in the hopes of winning Bingley back.
Elizabeth also leaves home to visit the newly married Charlotte. Charlotte seems content. During her visit, Elizabeth receives a dinner invitation to Lady Catherine's estate, Rosings Park. While there, Lady Catherine subjects Elizabeth to the third degree, but Elizabeth takes it well. She learns that a visit from Darcy is imminent.
When Darcy arrives, he and Elizabeth engage in more witty banter over the dinner table at Rosings. He frequently comes to visit at Charlotte's house, which confuses everyone since he doesn't say anything, doesn't look like he's having fun, and always stays less than ten minutes.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth learns that Bingley was going to propose to Jane but that Darcy intervened. Naturally her dislike for Darcy intensifies…which is exactly the moment Darcy chooses to propose.
During the proposal, mixed in with Darcy's "I love you" are some "I am so superior to you" comments, which, not surprisingly, don't go over so well. Elizabeth rejects him and tells him off, saying that he isn't a gentleman. She cites both Wickham's story and Jane's broken heart as the two primary reasons for anger.
The next day, Darcy hands Elizabeth a letter, asking her to read it. It contains the full story regarding Wickham (he's a liar, a gambler, and he tried to elope with Darcy's underage sister) and the full story regarding Jane (Darcy was convinced Jane didn't love Bingley and so tried to save his friend from a woman simply attracted to his wealth). Elizabeth undergoes a huge emotional transformation and regrets her hasty actions.
Once back at home, Lydia, the youngest of the Bennet girls, is invited to follow the officers to their next station in Brighton. Elizabeth strongly disapproves of the plan, but Mr. Bennet overrules her and allows Lydia to go off.
Elizabeth's aunt and uncle ask her to accompany them on a trip to Derbyshire, which is, incidentally, where Mr. Darcy lives. They decide to visit his estate called Pemberley. Elizabeth agrees to go only after she learns that Mr. Darcy is out of town. Once at the estate, Elizabeth is impressed by its excellent taste and upkeep. Darcy's housekeeper also has nothing but compliments for her master. To Elizabeth's surprise, they run into Darcy, and, to her further surprise, he's immensely polite to her aunt and uncle. Darcy asks Elizabeth to meet his sister, who proves to be quite nice but very shy.
Before we can finally tune up the violins and the wedding toasts, disaster strikes when Elizabeth learns that Lydia has run off with Wickham. This scandal could ruin the family, so Elizabeth's uncle and father try to track the renegade couple down. Elizabeth's uncle saves the day and brings the two young 'uns back as a properly married (and unapologetic) couple. When Lydia lets slip that Darcy was at her wedding, Elizabeth realizes that there's more to the story and writes to her aunt for more information.
When her aunt replies, Elizabeth learns the full truth: Darcy was actually the one responsible for saving the Bennet family's honor. He tracked down the couple and paid off Wickham's massive debts in exchange for Wickham marrying Lydia. When Darcy arrives with Bingley for a visit at Longbourn, Elizabeth tries to talk to him but doesn't get a chance. It seems Darcy has talked to Bingley about Jane, however, so all is well in that quarter. Bingley eventually proposes and Jane accepts.
Shortly thereafter, Lady Catherine visits Longbourn and tries to strong-arm Elizabeth into rejecting any proposal from Darcy. Elizabeth gets mad – why is this woman trying to control her? – and basically tells her to get lost. Later, Elizabeth and Darcy go for a walk and the couple says everything that needs to be said: "Thanks for saving my sister from ruin," "I was doing it for you," "Do you still hate me?" "No, I love you," etc. They decide to get married.
The (happy) end.