Universal Themes and Jane Austen: First Impressions

Have you ever met someone with whom you have corresponded several times (Facebook, Twitter, phone, or the old-fashioned way by a letter) only to be surprised by his/her appearance? He/She looks nothing like what you anticipated. First impressions are hard pressed upon our memory, and they are not easily abandoned.  My vanity (Remember that Austen says there is a difference between pride and vanity. “Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity to what we would have others think of us.”) leads me to hope that those I have not met previously will find me congenial, and that I will not be a disappointment (not of the nature they had first anticipated).

As we all know, “First Impressions” was the original title for Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” First Impressions is also the theme of this classic novel. From the first line to the end, Austen reminds us over and over that First Impressions are often false ones. They are mistaken impressions. I often say that Austen hits her readers over the head with examples of false impressions. Miss Austen was a master of theme.

“It is a truth universally acknowledge, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” This famous first line in a tongue-in-cheek statement of potential theme, but the reader quickly learns that Mr. Darcy is not in want of a wife. In fact, he has likely come to Netherfield to “escape” the London Season. Obviously, with his wealth and family name, Darcy could have his choice of women. He certainly is not desperate enough to pursue a woman of poor connections and little dowry. This line sets the tone of irony for the novel. In reality, it is the mothers and single daughters of the community who are in “want” of a rich husband.

“I am sick of Mr. Bingley,” cried his wife. This line is a bit misleading. It is well matched with Mrs. Bennet’s later profession when her sister, Mrs. Philips, brings news of Bingleys return to Netherfield. The lady says, “Well, so much the better. Not that I care about it, though. He is nothing to us, you know, and I am sure I never want to see him again.” Mrs. Bennet’s obsession is finding her daughters husbands before the entail sends the family into penury. Of course, she is concerned with what happens to the richest man in the community.

Within her letter to Elizabeth regarding Darcy’s involvement in settling the scandal of Lydia’s elopement, Mrs. Gardiner says, “He generously imputed the whole of his mistaken pride, and confessed that he had before thought it beneath him, to lay his private actions open to the world. His character was to speak for itself.” Darcy’s character does speak for itself, but not in the way Elizabeth originally thought of him.

Of Mr. Darcy’s first appearance in Meryton, we learn, “…Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.” Later in the same paragraph, the reader’s first impression of Darcy is quickly altered. “The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust, which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased, and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.” Austen has manipulated her readers. Our Jane has assured that we will not see through Darcy’s façade. We are ready to believe Elizabeth’s false impressions of the man, who will eventually win her heart.

Elizabeth is the first daughter that is mentioned in the story line. She is also the first one to speak. That is Austen’s way to introduce her readers to the main character of the story. Mr. Bennet says of Elizabeth, “They have none of them much to recommend them,” replied he. “They are all silly and ignorant little girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.” Mr. Bennet praises Elizabeth’s intelligence, and the reader believes what the man says. Yet, Elizabeth believes all the falsehoods about Darcy and sets upon them the disaster that could have ruined her family. In fact, it is the mild-mannered Jane Bennet who recognizes Darcy’s true worth long before her sister. However, even as Jane declares Darcy incapable of the deceit that Wickham has shared of his life at Darcy’s hand, neither the reader, nor Elizabeth believes her because “Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”

Mrs. Bennet says of her second daughter, “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humored as Lydia.” Again, this is our first impression of Elizabeth from her mother’s lips. Yet, we know that Elizabeth possesses so much more depth of character than either Jane or Lydia.

Darcy’s says of Elizabeth, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” Oh, poor delusional Darcy!!!

Our first impression of Mr. Wickham says, “This was exactly as it should be; for the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming. His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and a very pleasing address.” Now, if we astute readers, we would have compared this description of Wickham with the earlier one of Darcy. If we were incorrect in our first impression of a man of Darcy’s consequence, how could we be correct about the put-upon Mr. Wickham? Oh, we are so gullible, and Austen used our gullibility to mislead us once again.

At the Netherfield Ball, Elizabeth says of Darcy, “Merely to the illustration of your character,” said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity. “I am trying to make it out.” Although she claims to have taken an interest in Darcy’s character, Elizabeth, in reality, only wishes to confirm her earlier first impressions of the man. The exchange actually speaks more to Elizabeth’s negativity and impetuosity than it does of Darcy’s character.

So, Darcyholic visitors, where are there other examples of “Mistaken First Impressions” in Pride and Prejudice? Add a few below in your comments.  (By the way, I’ll leave you with another enticing “first impression.” My next Austen release will be The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy. Did I earn your attention with that one?)

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4 Responses to Universal Themes and Jane Austen: First Impressions

  1. Sheila says:

    that’s was great fun. i enjoyed the mini re-visit of P&P focused on first impressions

  2. Pingback: A sisterly conversation | Austen Authors « Maria Grace

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