'Pride and Prejudice' Characters: Descriptions and Significance

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, most of the characters are members of the landed gentry—that is, non-titled landowners. Austen is famous for writing sharp observations of this small circle of country gentry and their social entanglements, and Pride and Prejudice is no exception.

Many of the characters in Pride and Prejudice are well-rounded individuals, particularly the two leads. However, other characters exist largely to serve the thematic purpose of satirizing society and gender norms.

Elizabeth Bennet

The second-eldest of the five Bennet daughters, Elizabeth (or “Lizzy”) is the novel's protagonist. Quick-witted, playful, and intelligent, Elizabeth has mastered the art of being polite in society while holding tightly to her strong opinions in private. Elizabeth is a sharp observer of others, but she also has a tendency to prize her ability to pass judgments and form opinions quickly. She’s often embarrassed by her mother and younger sisters’ indelicate and rude behavior, and although she’s acutely aware of her family's financial standing, she still hopes to marry for love rather than convenience.

Elizabeth is immediately offended when she overhears criticism of herself expressed by Mr. Darcy. All her suspicious about Darcy are then confirmed when she befriends an officer, Wickham, who tells her how Darcy mistreated him. As time goes on, Elizabeth learns that first impressions can be mistaken, but she remains angry at Darcy for meddling in her sister Jane's budding romance with Bingley. Following Darcy’s failed proposal and subsequent explanation of his past, Elizabeth comes to realize that her prejudices have blinded her observation and that her feelings might be deeper than she first realized.

Fitzwilliam Darcy

Darcy, a wealthy landowner, is the novel’s male lead and, for a time, Elizabeth’s antagonist. Haughty, taciturn, and somewhat antisocial, he does not endear himself to anyone upon first entering society and is generally perceived as a cold, snobbish man. Mistakenly convinced that Jane Bennet is only after his friend Bingley’s money, he attempts to separate the two. This meddling earns him further dislike from Jane's sister Elizabeth, for whom Darcy has been developing feelings. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, but his proposal emphasizes Elizabeth's inferior social and financial status, and an insulted Elizabeth responds by revealing the depth of her dislike for Darcy.

Although Mr. Darcy is proud, stubborn, and very status-conscious, he is actually a deeply decent and compassionate man. His enmity with the charming Wickham turns out to be based on Wickham’s manipulations and attempted seduction of Darcy’s sister, and he demonstrates his kindness by providing the money to turn Wickham’s elopement with Lydia Bennet into a marriage. As his compassion grows, his pride recedes, and when he proposes to Elizabeth a second time, it is with respect and understanding.

Jane Bennet

Jane is the eldest Bennet sister and widely considered to be the sweetest and prettiest. Gentle and optimistic, Jane tends to think the best of everyone, which comes back to hurt her when she overlooks Caroline Bingley's manipulative efforts to separate Jane from Mr. Bingley. Jane’s romantic misadventures teach her to be more realistic about the motivations of others, but she never falls out of love with Bingley and happily accepts his proposal when he returns to her life. Jane is a counterbalance, or foil, to Elizabeth: gentle and trusting in contrast to Lizzy’s sharp tongue and observant nature. Nevertheless, the sisters share a genuine affection and joyful nature.

Charles Bingley

Similar in temperament to Jane, it’s no wonder that Mr. Bingley falls in love with her. While he’s of very average intelligence and is a bit naïve, he’s also open-hearted, unfailingly polite, and naturally charming, which puts him in direct contrast with his reticent, arrogant friend Darcy. Bingley falls in love at first sight with Jane, but leaves Meryton after being convinced of Jane's indifference by Darcy and his sister Caroline. When Bingley reappears later in the novel, having learned that his loved ones were "mistaken," he proposes to Jane. Their marriage is a counterpoint to Elizabeth and Darcy's: while both couples were kept apart despite being well-matched, Jane and Bingley's separation was caused by external forces (manipulative relatives), whereas Lizzy and Darcy's early conflict was caused by their own character traits.

William Collins

The Bennets’ estate is subject to an entail that means it will be inherited by the nearest male relative: their cousin, Mr. Collins. A self-important, deeply ridiculous parson, Collins is an awkward and mildly irritating man who believes himself to be deeply charming and clever. He intends to make up for the inheritance situation by marrying the eldest Bennet daughter, but upon learning that Jane is likely to become engaged, he turns his attentions instead on Elizabeth. It takes a remarkable amount of convincing to persuade him that she is uninterested in him, and he soon marries her friend Charlotte instead. Mr. Collins takes great pride in the patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and his sycophantic nature and pompous attention to rigid social constructs means he gets along with her quite well.

Lydia Bennet

As the youngest of five Bennet sisters, fifteen-year-old Lydia is considered the spoiled, impetuous one of the bunch. She’s frivolous, self-absorbed, and obsessed with flirting with officers. She behaves impulsively, thinking nothing of eloping with Wickham. She then winds up in a hastily-made marriage to Wickham, arranged in the name of restoring her virtue, despite the fact that the match will surely be unhappy for Lydia.

In the context of the novel, Lydia is treated as silly and thoughtless, but her narrative arc is also the result of the limitations she experiences as a woman in nineteenth century society. Mary Bennet, Lydia's sister, conveys Austen's sharp assessment of gender (in)equality with this statement: "Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin."

George Wickham

A charming militiaman, Wickham befriends Elizabeth right away and confides to her his mistreatment at the hands of Darcy. The two carry on a flirtation, although it never really goes anywhere. It’s revealed that his pleasant nature is only superficial: he’s actually greedy and selfish, spent all the money Darcy’s father left to him, and then tried to seduce Darcy’s sister in order to get access to her money. He later elopes with Lydia Bennet with no intention of marrying her, but is ultimately convinced to do so by Darcy’s persuasion and money.

Charlotte Lucas

Elizabeth’s closest friend Charlotte is the daughter of another middle-class gentry family in Meryton. She’s considered physically plain and, while she’s kind and funny, is twenty-seven and unmarried. Since she’s not as romantic as Lizzy, she accepts Mr. Collins’ marriage proposal, but carves out her own quiet corner of their life together.

Caroline Bingley

A vain social-climber, Caroline is well-off and ambitious to be even more so. She’s calculating and, though capable of being charming, very status-conscious and judgmental. Although she takes Jane under her wing at first, her tone quickly changes upon realizing her brother Charles is serious about Jane, and she manipulates her brother to believe Jane is disinterested. Caroline also views Elizabeth as a rival for Darcy and frequently attempts to one-up her, both to impress Darcy and to matchmake between her brother and Darcy’s sister Georgiana. In the end, she’s unsuccessful on all fronts.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet

Long-married and long-suffering, the Bennets are perhaps not the best example of marriage: she’s high-strung and obsessed with marrying off her daughters, while he’s laid-back and wry. Mrs. Bennet’s concerns are valid, but she pushes too far in her daughters’ interest, which is part of the reason why both Jane and Elizabeth nearly lose out on excellent matches. She takes to bed with “nervous complaints” quite often, especially following Lydia’s elopement, but news of her daughters’ marriages perks her right up.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh

The imperious mistress of the Rosings estate, Lady Catherine is the only character in the novel who is aristocratic (as opposed to landed gentry). Demanding and arrogant, Lady Catherine expects to get her way at all times, which is why Elizabeth’s self-assured nature irritates her from their first meeting. Lady Catherine likes to brag about how she “would have been” accomplished, but she is not actually accomplished or talented. Her greatest scheme is to marry her sickly daughter Anne to her nephew Darcy, and when she hears a rumor that he is to marry Elizabeth instead, she rushes to find Elizabeth and demand that such a marriage never take place. She is dismissed by Elizabeth and, instead of her visit severing any ties between the couple, it actually serves to confirm to both Elizabeth and Darcy that the other is still very much interested. 

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Prahl, Amanda. "'Pride and Prejudice' Characters: Descriptions and Significance." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/pride-and-prejudice-characters-4178369. Prahl, Amanda. (2021, February 17). 'Pride and Prejudice' Characters: Descriptions and Significance. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pride-and-prejudice-characters-4178369 Prahl, Amanda. "'Pride and Prejudice' Characters: Descriptions and Significance." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pride-and-prejudice-characters-4178369 (accessed June 2, 2023).