Merely Misunderstood: Mr. Darcy

SEPT / OCT 2011: BY ELLA G.

darcy

It is a fact universally acknowledged that first impressions matter more than any of us would like to admit. A person’s physical appearance, their social standing, their behavior and mannerisms are apt to be noticed far more quickly and easily than their innermost thoughts or psychological makeup. Because of these tendencies, our opinion on whether or not we like a person is quickly decided. Sometimes we like what we see; other times we cannot stand it. It is into the later category that Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy falls in Elizabeth Bennett’s mind.

The story is well known. Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s most well known novel. It is the tale of two rich men. One is instantly likeable and sincere; he doesn’t give an appearance of snobbery or seem very conscious of society rules. It is this gentleman, Mr. Charles Bingley, readers instantly want Elizabeth’s sweet and demure sister Jane to be with. However, we do not know what to make of his friend, Darcy. How can we forget his arrival in Hertfordshire? He acts pompous and arrogant, refusing to dance with any of the ladies since none of them are handsome enough to tempt him. Afterwards, all he does is verbally tear down the community of Meryton, the guests at the ball, and everything and everyone in between. We do not want the heroine, Elizabeth, to get involved with such a man.

This opinion strengthens as chapters go by. We are introduced to a man who has “all the appearance of good” in George Wickham, yet Darcy is shown to instantly and vehemently dislike the man. Why? The reader is led to believe that Darcy selfishly withheld an inheritance his late father left to Wickham. Elizabeth is outraged and so are we. How could we like such a man as Fitzwilliam Darcy?

However, Darcy is just like every other human being, whether placed in the fictional or the physical world. He is like an onion, complex layers and all. In order for an onion to be used, you have to pull apart the skin and get to the meat. For a person, you have to look past the clothes, the attitude, the wealth and see them for what they truly are. It is for this reason that I say Darcy is merely misunderstood.

Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, around the  Georgian Era. Society was run with certain rules and guidelines. There was the lauded gentry and a middle class. Rarely did the two intermingle, let alone socialize in an intimate setting such as a formal dance. Reading through the novel, I can see how Darcy might have appeared standoffish to some, both for reasons of social standing and as an introvert. He was ill at ease in an unfamiliar setting with total strangers. Contrast his behavior at the ball with his warmth at Pemberley, where he was at ease. For a small town, social standing didn’t really matter. To have a large enough party for dancing, “peerage” members usually hung out with the common folk. Not so for families who lived part of the time in London. There were definite rules to be followed. It is with this philosophy that Darcy was undoubtedly raised. When raised in a certain way, it can be quite a culture shock to be exposed to a different type of behavior. Meryton is different from London, after all, and combined with his social anxiety, it’s likely Darcy’s moodiness wasn’t complete snobbery, but in fact a combination of culture shock and a highly reserved nature.

Who can forget the intense scene with Darcy and Elizabeth dancing? She has discovered “the truth” about him from his old friend George Wickham, so she tries to bait Darcy with snide comments; it doesn’t work. She tries to get him to comment on the “size of the room or the number of couples”; he still remains relatively quiet. Elizabeth chalks it up to arrogance and conceit. I think it again has to do with social rules. I don’t think many couples spoke to their partner as they danced; proper decorum was that a single man did not carry on a conversation with a woman to whom he was barely introduced, so why would she expect otherwise?

Words are only part of a person. As I read the novel I felt Darcy come alive through his thoughts and his actions. He was a man well loved by his servants, as he was known as an honest and good master. He would do anything to take care of his sister, even pay off Wickham to leave her alone. Darcy went above and beyond his duties in helping Elizabeth and the entire Bennett family when they were in the midst of scandal… none of this to me sounds like a man who upon first glance appears like an Austen anti-hero.

As Pride and Prejudice became more and more popular with readers and thus was made into movies and miniseries, men cast as the complex Mr. Darcy had a challenge on their hands. Because of the many dimensions to his character Darcy needs to be depicted in a certain way, and in my opinion the first one to do him justice was Colin Firth in the BBC miniseries. He portrayed Darcy flawlessly. We see many different emotions in his face; he strikes a perfect balance between following social rules and falling in love with a woman below his station. His Darcy, at least in my eyes, is one I think Jane Austen would have been proud of. After all, when you use the bulk of her dialogue, what is not to love? I also think that he looks like a Georgian Era landlord; he has a presence that causes us to be drawn to him whenever he is on screen. The occasional mid 1990’s style of filming cannot fully distract you. Firth appears to run the full gamut of emotions suitable for Darcy; he walks a line between bucking traditions (falling in love with Lizzie) and still following protocol (behaving as a gentleman towards those he might not like) quite well.

At the risk of offending my readers, I must contrast Firth with the current Mr. Darcy in the big-screen film from a few years ago: Matthew McFayden. While this is merely my opinion, I do not believe McFayden does Darcy justice. While I love the movie for its beautiful musical score and cinematography, I am not as polarized by Darcy in it. His facial patterns did not appear to change; I could not tell that there was more to him than brooding and for the first time ever, I almost believed him to be genuinely arrogant rather than simply very reserved. McFayden also ran around with his cravat off and hair mussed a great deal of the time; these actions would never have been tolerated in polite society in Miss Austen’s day. Would she have been happy about that? Approved of him proposing in the rain or delivering a letter while Elizabeth was still in her bedclothes? Surely not!

Granted, each woman has her Mr. Darcy and will defend him to the end, as well as many reasons why he is her favorite. But one thing cannot be argued: he has become synonymous with great literary men. By the end of the story, we are able to look beyond the early façade and see him for who he truly is. That is the sign of a good book (and a good onion), when you can peel back the layers and get to the core. It takes a little work, it might not look pretty on the outside, but there is so much more than meets the eye.

Darcy is misunderstood no more! ■

septoct2011

 

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