What we term human personality is a complex organization of manners, behavior, character, personality, individuality and human nature. Character consists of the fixed and recurring pattern of traits associated with each person. Character determines the quality, intensity, attitudes, values and motives of the individual as expressed in relationship to other people and in action. Underlying the individual variations of human character, are common tendencies and characteristics of the entire human race that govern all human behavior. Of these components, character is the primary determinant of human accomplishment.
Values of 19th Century England
Character is an expression of what people value. Social character expresses the values of the current society. The story occurs at a time when traditional ideas about status and class distinctions are beginning to give way to money as the dominant value in society. Status is still valued higher than achievement. That is why all the moneyed people renounce work in favor of leisure activity. After being knighted, Sir Lucas gives up business for a life of socializing. Bingley prides himself on his lack of exertion. Mr. Bennet’s favorite occupation is reading in his library.
Truthfulness is one of the high values of the upper classes in this society. Wickham is the only person who boldly lies with abandon. Darcy feels culpable for concealing Jane’s presence in London from Bingley. Eliza takes for granted that Fitzwilliam would not lie just for the sake of his cousin Darcy. A person’s word is to be honored at all costs. Therefore, Eliza and Jane refuse to press even shameless Lydia to break her promise of secrecy about Darcy’s presence at her wedding. Frankness in speech is respected, as both Darcy and Lady Catherine proclaim; but true sincerity in the sense of speaking and behaving as one really feels is not expected or appreciated. Behavior should conform to social expectations, not the dictates of conscience or personal preference.
Education was valued by this society only as a cultural endowment, not as a qualification for practical accomplishment. Thus, Darcy says an accomplished woman should not only be able to sing, play and sew, but also be well read. Hard work, individual capacity, accomplishment and intelligence were not at all regarded with the esteem accorded them by present day society. There is also no evidence that goodness, generosity or self-giving were revered as social ideals, except to the extent that a wealthy landowner such as Darcy should be generous and benevolent to the lower classes economically dependent on his estate.
Money was an increasingly important value in the English society of the time. But like other social values, its importance depended on the character of the individual. Money was all-important for Wickham. For him, money represented a passport to social status and the better things in life. Money alone determined in that end that he would marry Lydia. Wickham was raised near wealth and aspired for it. He wanted to fill the gap between his present position and his aspiration by marrying for money. He lacked the character, willingness for work and achievement needed to acquire it. Money was also an important value for Charlotte. In her case, money represented security, which was her primary drive. Marrying a man of property and wealth was an ideal she aspired for. Social status rather than money was the primary value for Darcy. Money value made Bingley acceptable to Darcy as a friend, even though Bingley’s father earned his wealth in trade. But lack of money did not deter Darcy from proposing to Eliza. It was primarily the low behavior of her family, partially their business connections (class status) that deterred him. Darcy chose Eliza for her character not her money or status.
Types and intensities of character
We can readily distinguish several major types of character in the story, each type identified by a pronounced group of traits.
We can also compare individuals in terms of the strength of character, the amount of psychological energy they can release and apply to achieve their goals.
Development of character
Manners and behavior are purely external. Character is the formed structure of personality based on internalized values. Society progresses by acquiring values and standards of conduct and imposing those values and standards to its members. Development of social character involves the internalization of those external social standards by the individual, the development of an inner center of reference to replace the authority of the external authority and to subject all one’s behavior to those inner standards. Development of individual character occurs when the internalized social standards are replaced by personal standards and values of a higher order. Acts of idealism, courage, originality and fortitude are founded on that inner center of reference. The heights to which a person can rise in life depend on those personal values and the degree to which they are accepted or respected by the society. Society’s highest standards constitute the social maximum. Actions of a standard beyond that level are not supported or rewarded by the collective. For a spiritual seeker, the social maximum is no limit. Basing one’s action on inner faith or higher truth, one can rise rapidly above the level sanctioned by the social maximum.
1. Social characters
Persons with social character are those whose lives are determined and directed by the prevailing habits, fashions, beliefs, attitudes, opinions and values of the society in which they live. People of this type with well-formed and developed traits of their own have social character, as opposed to individual character. Their conduct is determined by the expectations of society. They act and live within its norms, refusing to fall below the required social minimum, refusing to rise above the maximum expected of a normal member of the group.
Jane and Bingley are pre-eminent examples of social character. They maintain the required external behavior but do not rise even a little above that level. Bingley thinks of courting Jane only after getting the approval of his sisters. Even when he is assured of Jane’s affection and eager to propose, he first seeks Darcy’s permission. Social approval is that important to him.
Both Caroline Bingley and Lady Catherine display the self-important behavior permitted by their wealth and social status. They thrive on arrogance, extravagance and haughtiness. They never exhibit any human quality above the basic requirements or roles allotted to them.
Collins is a pure social character. He plays out the social role to such an extreme in thought, feeling and action that his conduct appears foolish and odious to those with any discrimination.
Mrs. Bennet fulfills her rightful role as the mother of five daughters but her vulgar behavior condemns her in the eyes of the upper class, including her own husband and daughters. Her aspirations, beliefs, opinions and behaviors are fully determined by the society of which she is a part. Her sister Mrs. Phillips is of the same type but with less energy. Mary expresses another version of social character, with different values and attitudes but equally determined by stale social custom. Sir Lucas, Fitzwilliam and Georgiana also strive to fulfill their allotted social roles as perfectly as possible.
2. Individuality in the story
Those whose beliefs, attitudes and values are determined internally by the strength of their own convictions may be said to possess individual character. These are individuals with developed minds and formed characters of their own stamp. Individual character is that which elevates a person’s conduct above the minimum level demanded by present social norms and social opportunities. The capacity not to lie, dissipate or follow silly fashions, just because society permits and even honors them, are expressions of individual character. Only three or four characters in the story exhibit traits of true individual character that exceeds the minimum required by society. Individual character expresses mind and values, not just manners and acceptable behaviors.
Eliza has a well-formed, positive individual character. She finds Collins’ offer of marriage in exchange for money and status impossible to entertain. It is unthinkable to her that she should marry for respectability or security rather than love as Charlotte does. Eliza finds Darcy’s proposal equally objectionable as long as she perceives him as a man of mean, arrogant character. She cannot settle for the minimum standard. She wants a man of good character. Eliza exhibits strength when intimidated by Lady Catherine or scrutinized by Darcy. She has a formed mind, which is able to immediately recognize the ‘oddity’ in Collins’ letter. She exhibits the self-restraint of true character in not demanding from Lydia an explanation of why Darcy attended her marriage. It is difficult to imagine greater self-restraint in a person at a point of such vital interest.
Darcy too has well-formed character, though of a lesser mold. When he first proposes to Eliza, he does so on the strength of his wealth and social position and cannot imagine that she might refuse. Darcy seeks to win a woman of individual character on the strength of his social character and fails. Later he shifts his reliance or identification from his outward position to his inner character— accepts the truth of her scorn, transforms his arrogant pride into humility, and acts magnificently to save Lydia and redeem Wickham. He displays signs of true character in his insistence on paying for Wickham’s wedding and in his self-restraint in not allowing disclosure of his role in Lydia’s marriage.
Charlotte has a formed character that is steady, strong, sensible and good. We hesitate to term it individual character because her values are primarily the social values of security and status, with no signs of higher aspiration other than her goodwill for Elizabeth.
There are also people that do not even conform to the minimum standards, who fail to acquire the socially required behaviors, attitudes and values. They are unformed individuals, lacking even a formed social character. Wickham cannot resist gambling, borrowing, conniving to steal Georgiana’s hand by deceit, lying, etc.—all of which are vigorously condemned once they are made known. He has a pleasant appearance, but not even physical energy. Lydia is a pure biological type without social conditioning even at the level of behavior. Kitty is even less formed.
Interactions between the characters
The outcome of the story is the result of interactions between these characters, their actions and reactions to each other. Each exists in a social context peopled by the others. They all evoke responses to their thoughts, feelings and act from those around them. Each exists in complementarity and opposition to the others.
There is a complex relationship and interaction between their various strengths and weaknesses. The interaction between the weaknesses of the different characters is particularly striking. Darcy’s pride attracts Caroline because of her arrogance and evokes prejudice in Eliza. Lady Catherine’s ill breeding is offensive to Eliza and Darcy, but attractive and pleasing to Collins, whose obsequious, servility is a perfect complement to his patroness’ arrogance. Wickham’s capacity for deceit is flattering to Eliza and appears as sincerity to Georgiana, but is despicable to Darcy. Mrs. Bennet’s nervous excitement is painfully annoying to her husband and embarrassing to Eliza and Jane, but a source of inspiration to Lydia, who models herself after her mother. Mr. Bennet’s aloofness gives Mrs. Bennet freedom for action, but removes all meaningful constraints on the wild impulsiveness of Lydia. Jane’s ignorance and naivety make her a victim of Caroline’s false manners, but perfectly attractive to Bingley, whose own pliability makes him a willing subordinate to Darcy’s desire to dominate.